Fresh from his triumphs in bringing peace to Northern Ireland or at least the pretense of peace for a few weeks or months former Maine Sen. George Mitchell, as head of the new U.S.-led commission formed after the abortive Sharm al Sheik meeting a couple of months ago, is trotting around the Middle East pretending to revive the putative peace process. Its something of an Alice-in-Wonderland exercise to begin with, what with the violence that has marred Israeli-Palestinian relations since President Clinton, in search of a legacy, unwisely pushed the envelope at Camp David and pushed peoples noses in the difficulties inherent in a final agreement.
Now Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has thrown a monkey wrench or two into the works, announcing his own resignation and a new election for prime minister. This prompted Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to declare the peace process even deader than before (although he agreed to meet with Mitchell). Yet the "international community" continues the play-acting, making believe the peace process is alive and vital, that those in the region need just a little nudging from wise outside statesmen to put down their rocks, helicopters and automatic weapons and settle down around a negotiating table.
Its not that most decent people dont wish Sen. Mitchell and his panel well and hope against hope that he succeeds in spite of the circumstances. But a peace based on wishful thinking and postponement of the difficult issues is not likely to last very long.
DOMESTIC POLITICKING INTRUDES
The Israeli political developments made it seem that much more otherworldly that the good Senator and his minions would be holding meetings and issuing statements on the same day the Israeli political class was paying no attention as it scrambled to read the tea leaves Barak had swirled around in the tempestuous cup.
Maybe its Florida envy. Just when matters seemed about as unsettled as possible and marred by death and violence to boot in the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak shook the situation up a little more. In the wake of the violence that has led to more than 300 deaths in the last 60 days or so, Mr. Barak had spoken of dissolving the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and calling new elections. Then on Sunday he announced he was resigning as prime minister and that a new election for that office would be held in the next 60 days.
Was this a slick maneuver to keep former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been trouncing Mr. Barak in the polls, from running? As of Monday afternoon the supposed experts I could reach, in the Los Angeles Israeli consulate and elsewhere, were still trying to figure it out. There are almost as many possibilities as in the aftermath of the U.S. election.
A little background might be in order. Israel, which has had a fairly standard parliamentary system in which the party that gets a majority or can stitch together a majority parliamentary coalition gets to choose the prime minister, recently changed its laws so the prime minister can be (but doesnt necessarily have to be) elected separately from the parliament.
Baraks resignation would set up an election for prime minister, but as of now Netanyahu, who has been more or less retired from politics since Barak beat him in a May 1999 election, is not eligible to run for prime minister since he is not a member of or a candidate for the Knesset.
The Knesset has taken a preliminary step toward dissolving itself and setting up new parliamentary elections, which would allow Netanyahu to run for a seat in the Knesset and for prime minister. It is also considering a law to allow any citizen, not just a member of or candidate for parliament, to run for prime minister when that post is contested separately. It is uncertain, however, whether the Knesset will accommodate Netanyahu. He may poll well against Barak right now, but when he was in power he rubbed lots of people the wrong way and hes hardly the most popular figure among Knesset members.
CONFUSION AND CYNICISM
In addition, it is far from certain that Netanyahu will be able to wrest leadership of the Likud Party from former defense minister Ariel Sharon, who heads the party now and is running about neck-and-neck with Barak in opinion polls. And as Leon Hadar, former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post, mentioned, many Knesset members, especially members of smaller parties and Labor and Likud backbenchers, would not relish a new parliamentary election in an unsettled time. They are piquantly aware that they could easily lose their seats, and they had rather expected to have their little pittance of power for longer than 20 months or so.
Meanwhile Yasser Arafat says an Israeli election marks an end at least to this phase of the eternal peace process (full employment for deluded diplomats) and looks like a cynical delaying tactic to him. And the violence between Israelis and Palestinians, if anything, escalated somewhat over the last week, with extreme factions on both sides speaking darkly of war as a live option, perhaps preferable to the relatively low-level sniping and shooting that have marked the last couple of months.
Just to make matters more interesting, an increasing number of Israelis are less than enthusiastic about the choices the political system offers them. "Many Israelis now feel the same way some Americans did during the recent election," Leon Hadar suggested to me. "With all the talent and ability in Israel, couldnt the system offer somebody better than the three leading candidates?"
The one option that seems unlikely is that any candidate will offer a dramatic but realistic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. But even that is a possibility.
A POSSIBLE WAY OUT?
All in all and we have barely begun to explore the complexities prospects for peace in the Middle East appear less than bright. All parties to the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio seem to be hardening their rhetoric and their positions. When Israeli diplomats visited our newspaper a few months ago some talked, with regret but with some resignation, of the possibility of barbed-wire fences throughout the area to separate Israelis from Palestinians. All the e-mails I get from the Council on American-Islamic Relations speak of Israeli outrages and war crimes.
And yet and yet. When I spoke to Israeli second-and third-level consular officials this week they insisted that at some very deep level most Israelis want peace and are resigned to the idea that sooner or later there will be a Palestinian state as a neighbor, though there is substantial and continuing disagreement over its extent, over whether Israeli settlements will be allowed to remain in certain areas, and over what kind of security arrangements will be necessary. And while Palestinian militants and certain titular Palestinian leaders are encouraging or acquiescing in violence, some reports from the area suggest that substantial numbers of Palestinians long for peace and have no desire to push Israel into the sea.
Leon Hadar, who for more than a year has encouraging people to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a local ethnic or tribal dispute that with the decline of the superpower conflict neither requires nor would benefit by intervention from the "international community" has a few suggestions. "Think about Southeast Asia," he suggested to me. "Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and other countries are side by side, some of them Muslim, some poor, some wealthy, some authoritarian, some fairly capitalist, one outright communist. Yet they have found ways to avoid trespassing on one another, with little if any help from outside."
In time, the best approach or the least-worst if you prefer might be to return the West Bank to Jordan and the Gaza Strip to Egypt. Given agreements about borders, mutually agreeable security arrangements and reasonably firm promises that a future authority or state will respect security arrangements hardly easy goals but not necessarily impossible — that would cede the ongoing Palestinian arrangements to those Arab countries. Israel would be smaller than some Israelis might prefer, but probably safer than it is now.
FAILURES OF LEADERSHIP
Almost everybody I talked to spoke of the collapse of leadership and authority on both the Palestinian and the Israeli sides. Whether Arafat is egging on those in love with violence or has lost control of them, he has no more moral authority and not much political authority. In Israel, Leon Hadar suggested, its a bit like France during the Algerian crisis, just before De Gaulle came back to power in the late 1950s. The public is deeply divided, the current political leadership is confused and incompetent, and everybody is waiting for some new figure with ideas that can capture the imagination while seeming to be practical to emerge and take charge.
Such figures may never emerge either in the Palestinian territory or in Israel. The situation could deteriorate into more-or-less constant low-level violence. Or various people might come to the belief I have held for some time that the fundamental mistake was to try to establish European-style nation-states in regions where the culture wasnt friendly to such institutions and move toward alternative forms of governance or coexistence.
At any rate, the most useful thing the United States and other members of the vaunted "international community" of free-floating diplomats can do is not to flail about in search of an ephemeral solution but to stay out of it for a long time to come.