The most difficult obstacle to making Middle East peace is the one that's ticking away from us.
We all know what peace between Israel and the Palestinians should look like. It should be, well, peaceful. It should be peace with honor and security for all — and states for all too, one for the Jewish people, one for the Palestinian people. It should be reached by adhering to the "Clinton parameters" / "Geneva Accord" / "Arab peace plan" — take your pick.
We also know that the "peace process" between Israel and Palestine (which has yet to become Palestine, and is still a Palestinian Authority) is a very frustrating process. Some would assume that it is frustrating because of the bloodshed involved. But there are many other, bloodier conflicts that do not seem as frustrating. Others would assume it is frustrating because of the stubbornness of the parties involved. But being stubborn isn’t always bad. Sometimes, when it is necessary and justified, stubbornness is the quality differentiating the Churchillian leader from the average ones.
Thus, the reason the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been so frustrating is neither the blood nor the inflexibility of leaders. It is the fact that too many people have been led to believe that there’s an easy solution to this complicated problem — that too many people were led to believe that if only one real effort is made, if only Bush-Baker / Clinton-Albright / Bush-Rice / Obama-Clinton puts their foot down, if only settlers are evacuated, if only Hamas is tamed, if only incitement is stopped, if only courageous leadership is demonstrated — then peace will be no problem at all. And it will come not just easy, but also fast. It is within reach. And all that is needed is to put the final touches on the long-ago-agreed-upon principles for solution.
Over the years, many people have been led to believe that the disagreements preventing the sides from reaching a solution could all be dealt with. There were inventive ideas for dealing with borders (land swaps), challenging ideas for dealing with security (monitors and observers), bold ideas for dealing with settlements (pull out), cooperative ideas for dealing with Jerusalem (international sovereignty), and creative ideas for dealing with refugees (compensation, resettling). Yet all those people were also habitually ignoring the one problem that no idea, bold or imaginative, can overcome: the problem of time.
It really is a time bomb, waiting to explode again and again. It is the gap reflecting the tendency of Palestinians to lose their famous patience and to want agreement and implementation "now" — and the tendency of Israelis to lose their infamous impatience and to want agreement and implementation to be delayed until "some day" when "conditions are ripe." And it is not because of what some might assume: that Palestinians just can’t tolerate one more minute of Israeli occupation, or that what Israelis are really after is an indefinite postponement of any resolution to the conflict. Palestinians have suffered under occupation for a very long time and can probably handle some more suffering. Most Israelis are tired of the conflict and have long ago gotten used to the fact that some of the land will not remain Israeli — will have to be divided, shared.
The time gap in expectations then exists for a very different reason. It reflects both sides’ deep (and to large extent justified) mistrust in one another: Israelis’ reasonable mistrust that agreement will actually lead to peace — Palestinians’ understandable mistrust that Israelis will ever implement the agreed solution. The problem is that such mistrust leads to mirror-image desires. For the Palestinians, it means "now" — because they can’t have faith in any promise for a better future. For Israelis it means "later" — only after they are incrementally and fully convinced that this time the Palestinians (and the rest of the Arab world) mean business and can handle business.
This time gap should be kept in mind as the two sides enter yet another round of negotiations with the world watching breathlessly, waiting for quick fixes and a happy conclusion of the conflict. It is a round that was reasonably greeted with great skepticism (as I’ve demonstrated and analyzed here), but later — as always happens when ceremonies and celebratory summits blur realistic vision — with much more hopeful tones. It should have been kept in mind when the American "mediator" narrows the window of opportunity from two years until agreement is reached to just one year. It should be kept in mind when the Israeli foreign minister — for reasons unknown, and calculations incomprehensible to all outsiders and most Israelis — outrageously decides that now is the time to redeclare his disbelief in the peace process. It should be kept in mind when Palestinian leaders unwisely turn an end-of-September deadline for a settlement freeze into an ultimatum.
It is all about time. Let’s do a deal now — because patience is running out. Not now — because we need to verify before continuation. Now — because Iran is gaining and we need to show some positive achievements. Not now — because we need to solve the Iranian problem first and deal with lesser problems later. Now — because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not someone whose hidden intentions can be trusted. Not now — because Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cannot really provide us with the security we want. Now — because Barack Obama only has one more year before he gets into full presidential election mode. Not now — because the political considerations of the American in chief should not be a factor when dealing with a century-old dispute.
True, both sides pretend to agree that it’s time for talks. And the Americans keep pretending that even though the problems aren’t easy to solve, they can come up with ideas, or prod the parties to come up with ideas (possibly "out of the box" ones) that will bridge their differences. But listen carefully to what the leaders really have in mind. What’s the time frame they’re talking about? "I think there can be a solution. It may be implemented over time because time is an important factor of getting the solution, both in terms of security arrangements and other things that would be difficult if they’re not allowed to take place over time," Netanyahu said two months ago. "The Palestinians will have completed the bulk of the changes deemed necessary for the establishment of an independent state within a year," Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad announced two weeks ago in a document summarized by Ynetnews.
One might say the time gap isn’t the real problem. All we need is for the Americans to cut everything, scheduling differences included, someplace in the middle. That’s relatively easy to imagine when one talks about borders (play with the line), or Jerusalem (ditto), or settlers (keep some, evacuate others), or refugees (let them return, but only to the Palestinian side). It is relatively easy to imagine when one talks about reaching an agreement on
the principles of peace. One can even envision the many compromises necessary for reaching an agreement on the "core issues" of the conflict, to visualize the paper on which the leaders will sign.
But squaring the huge difference in expectations related to implementation and scheduling is much harder. How can one reconcile the vision of one year and that of "in 50 years’ time or 100"? How can one reconcile between one year and "not in our time"? Even assuming that Obama somehow pulls out the miraculous rabbit and gets to a "yes" from both sides — not a likely scenario — it is hard to imagine how he can reconcile "yes, now" with "yes, later."