Stephen M. Walt

Starting the new year off wrong

Starting the new year off wrong

It’s a New Year, and there’s more news from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No surprise: It’s not good. Over the weekend a 36-year-old Palestinian woman, Jawahar Abu Rahmah, died after inhaling tear gas fired at a demonstration at Bilin in the occupied territories. For eyewitness accounts and useful commentary, check out the Israeli website +972mag here.

Please note that Abu Rahmah wasn’t a suicide bomber, wasn’t firing rockets, and wasn’t demanding an end to the Jewish state. She posed no direct threat to Israel’s security at all. Instead, along with other courageous Israeli and Palestinian activists, she was merely protesting the illegal construction of Israel’s "security fence" (aka "apartheid wall") near the village of Bilin. According to the New York Times, Israel’s High Court declared in 2007 that "the barrier at Bilin should be rerouted to take in less of the village’s agricultural land. That work has still not been completed." It is also worth noting that she was the second member of her family to die in this way; her brother Bassem was hit in the chest and killed by an Israeli tear-gas canister in 2009. (The tear gas, by the way, is manufactured right here in the United States).

Meanwhile, back in America, a number of prominent commentators are beginning to figure out that the Zionist dream is becoming a nightmare. First came Peter Beinart’s important piece in the New York Review of Books a few months ago. Then, in the past couple of weeks, New Yorker editor David Remnick has given several interviews condemning the occupation in unusually blunt terms. Even die-hard defenders like Marty Peretz and Jeffrey Goldberg have expressed concerns about Israel’s trajectory, wondering if it will remain a democracy.

These are hopeful signs because progress is only possible if we take an unsentimental look at the situation there. And the central point is that Israel’s problems are not due to a handful of extremist rabbis, authoritarian tendencies among the recent Russian immigrants, or even the growing percentage of haredim. The core problem remains the occupation itself, which is a project that every Israeli government since 1967 has endorsed and supported. It is by now deeply embedded in the Israeli political establishment, which is why it will be so hard — and maybe impossible — to end. Among other things, that is why I have so much admiration for those courageous Israelis who understand where this course is leading and who are doing what they can to save their country from itself. (And yes, this unhappy situation affects America too, as even the Weekly Standard seemed to acknowledge indirectly last week).

Finally, in a bizarre bit of CYA diplomacy, the Israeli press is reporting that unnamed U.S. officials are now blaming the failure of the latest peace negotiations on Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. According to the reports, Barak "charmed" U.S. officials into thinking that he could persuade Netanyahu to agree to a settlement freeze and other compromises, but then Barak failed to deliver as promised. "See: It’s not really our fault; we just got hoodwinked by that wily fellow Barak."

In fact, if this report is even remotely accurate, it is yet another display of diplomatic incompetence on the part of Obama’s Middle East team. Ehud Barak is hardly an unknown figure, and nobody who dealt with him during his earlier tenure as prime minister should have accepted his blandishments at face value now. When it comes to the peace process, in fact, Barak is a serial blunderer who repeatedly drove Bill Clinton and his Middle East team crazy with his high-handed and mercurial tactics. Even Dennis Ross, who is rarely critical of Israeli officials, expressed considerable exasperation with Barak in his memoir of those years. So what does it say when these same people get taken in by him yet again?

All of which leads me to the following suggestion for U.S. Middle East diplomacy. Given the sorry track record of the past two decades, we ought to establish a simple litmus test for future members of any presidential Middle East team. We just ask if they have any prior government service on this issue, and if the answer is yes, then they are automatically disqualified from serving again. I don’t care if you’re Protestant, Muslim, Coptic, Catholic, Quaker, Jewish, or Zoroastrian, or if you’re a Republican, a Democrat, a realist, a neoconservative, or for that matter a La Follette Progressive. I don’t care if you worked for AIPAC, for WINEP, for ATFP, or even for JVP. The rule is simple and clear: If you were directly associated with any of our past (failed) efforts, we thank you for your prior service, but we aren’t going to use you again. None of us would go back to the same orthopedist after he or she bungled a knee operation, and we shouldn’t keep reusing the same diplomats who have conspicuously failed to deliver in the past.