George Mitchell (below) has arrived in Jerusalem and the ‘proximity talks’ have started, but it is not at all clear what will come of them.The Middle East peace process is the longest running piece of diplomatic theater on the world stage. Dating from World War One, the effort to reconcile the aspirations of the Jews and the Arabs for statehood in the lands seized from the Ottoman Empire by the Allies in World War One and assigned to the British has inspired wave after wave of commission reports, diplomatic ventures, formal and informal negotiations direct and indirect between the parties, debates and resolutions in the League of Nations and the UN, passionate political debates within the region and beyond, one war after another, and waves of ethnic violence and terrorism by both Arabs and Jews.
The debate has always been between two general visions of the future of the land: a one-state solution in which the region’s Arab majority would establish a state with varying levels of possible protection and autonomy for the Jews (ranging from expulsion to some kind of confederal status) or a multi-state solution in which a Jewish state and one or more Arab states would divide the territory with varying levels of protection and guarantees for minorities caught on the ‘wrong’ side of the borders.Classically, the Arabs have rejected partition plans, taking the view that the natural and historical majority of the people should be able to exercise the right of self determination and form a single state in Palestine. During the Oslo era, many (though never all) Palestinian leaders accepted the idea that the best realistic option would be a further partition of British Palestine into two states west of the Jordan River. (Jordan was carved out of Palestine earlier in the century; technically, what people now call the ‘two state solution’ should be called the ‘three state solution': there would be one Jewish and two Arab states in the territory Britain took from the Ottomans in World War One.) Now there are signs that the two-state era in Arab politics is coming to an end, and that the next stage will see Arabs returning to the idea that there should be just one state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. On present demographic trends, this state would have a Palestinian majority sometime in the next generation or so; at that time the Jewish state of Israel would convert into the non-confessional state of Palestine and the future of the Jews would be the concern of the state.This, I think it is safe to say, will never happen. The Jews resisted the Palestinian demand for a one state solution when the Jewish community in Palestine was weak, small, isolated and poor. They will resist it again when their state is rich, strong, technologically advanced and enjoying strong trade and political relations with several great powers.Some things don’t seem to change. One is that outsiders want peace more than the participants in the conflict. This isn’t because either the Israelis or the Palestinians are bloodthirsty and depraved. It is because of the difference between the interests of outside powers and the parties to the conflict. The outside powers — the British in the 193os, the Americans and Europeans today — want the conflict to end but aren’t wedded to any particular ending. There is no line between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea that the EU and the US couldn’t accept as the border provided only that the Israelis and Palestinians both agree. Most outsiders truly don’t care how the two combatants divide responsibility for the Noble Sanctuary and the Western Wall so long as they just stop fighting over it. We can live with 0 Israeli settlements or 5 or 5,000 on the West Bank as long as both the West Bankers and the Israelis buy in.That isn’t and can’t be the way the two parties think. Israelis and Palestinians both care, passionately, about where the boundaries are, who gets what water, and what happens to the holy places. One of the most fascinating and in its way hopeful presentations I saw here was from a Palestinian entrepreneur who is working with the Qataris and some other investors to develop what he hopes will someday be the first Palestinian planned city of Rawabi. It’s a fantastic idea though the obstacles are formidable. But as I listened to his pitch I found that one of the attractions of these centrally located apartment buildings is the view: from the balconies you can see the Mediterranean coast.The equally visionary and enthusiastic mayor of an Israeli settlement in the Etzion Bloc of settlements deep in the West Bank made the same point: apartments in the settlement, he said, commanded high prices because of the panoramic views of the coast that they offered — from Gaza to Tel Aviv and beyond.The point is that Israel and the West Bank are tiny. Israel’s total area, including the Golan Heights, is about 8,000 square miles, smaller than New Jersey. The West Bank is a little bit bigger than Delaware. With 146 square miles, the Gaza strip is about twice the size of the District of Columbia. Most of this land is uninhabitable desert. Almost all of it lacks water. At Israel’s narrowest point, the country is about nine miles wide; an intrepid 16-year-old could get from the hills on the western frontier to the coast in a couple of hours by skateboard. The arid Gaza Strip holds roughly 1.5 million people in an arid and barren landscape without natural resources and with no sources of water other than overburdened aquifers.Saeb Erekat, the eloquent and persuasive chief negotiator for the Palestinian Authority and one of the most engaging human beings I have ever seen, speaks of creating a kind of greater Jericho of up to 700,000 inhabitants, many resettled from Gaza. It’s a terrific idea (though I’m not sure that all of Jericho’s 60,000 current residents share my enthusiasm), but there is an enormous obstacle: water. Jericho dates back 10,000 years and is one of the oldest human settlements anywhere in the world, but it owes its existence to a group of springs that could never support twelve times the current population. There are no good alternatives nearby. The Jordan River is almost exhausted by the time it reaches Jericho — near the receding shore of the Dead Sea. Desalination of Dead Sea water is not a viable proposition; neither is desalinating Mediterranean water and pumping it over the mountains. Israel, Palestine and Jordan will struggle for every drop of water in the Jordan basin; as their populations grow the struggle will intensify.
Every ridge, every aquifer, every inch of arable land and every acre of desert is the object of an intense, zero sum game for players who have gamed every scenario and matched wits for decades. And behind the moderates in every camp are two groups of critics. There are the hard men don’t believe peace is possible and don’t want their side to make any concessions in pursuit of utopian dreams. And there are the crazies: the psychotic extremists found in both communities, addicted to a poisonous stew of rage, chauvinism and fear. Both Palestinians and Israelis (like Yitzak Rabin) have been assassinated by their own crazies; the crazies on both sides also specialize in spectacular acts of aggression and murder calculated to stop the peace process dead in its tracks.Oh: and some of the land is holy. Abraham and his descendants wandered through this land for many centuries, hallowing groves and caves and hilltops. Prophets preached, kings built, priests prayed and miracles occurred. It all comes to a head in Jerusalem, where something like 2000 acres of the world’s holiest ground contain some of the most sacred shrines on the face of the earth. Even the optimists shake their heads over this one.Dividing Jerusalem so that each side can have a capital here is a colossal headache; the Israelis aren’t going to do this without checkpoints and barriers — and the Palestinians don’t want to go there. In any case, physically dividing a city where people of different nationalities live on the same streets, the same alleys, in the same apartment buildings: this won’t be easy or fair or fun.Now add in the politics and the geography of sacred space.None of this means that peace isn’t desirable or possible. But it means that when it gets down to the nitty gritty, both sides find much to dislike in any concrete peace proposal. They have come tantalizingly close but they have never quite inked the deal; I suspect that is where things will remain.There are powerful interests and powerful outside players pushing both parties towards an agreement; the Middle East peace industry isn’t going away. The Americans want peace so this whole distracting and annoying headache will just stop. The major Arab countries want to deprive Iran of the opportunity to play the Palestinian card as Iran struggles to gain street credibility in the Sunni world. The EU hates all the noise and the brawling in the neighborhood, and with a growing Muslim population at home the Europeans want to reduce friction between the west and the Islamic world. China, India and Japan would like to see less chaos and trouble in the part of the world that sends them so much oil.Neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis can afford to blow off the many interested outsiders who keep pushing them together. But the gaps between the sides are so deep (even when they are not very wide), and the gaps within each side (between Israeli settlers and the pro-peace parties, between Fatah and Hamas) are so threatening, that peace is likely to remain a rare and temporary visitor to this troubled land.