In the Arena

Latest Column–and More on the Middle East

  • Share
  • Read Later

On Gaza.

I’ve spent the past three days wandering about the West Bank, visiting new commercial developments and social programs, and speaking with Palestinian leaders, including President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. I’ve also spent some time in Israel, talking with prominent members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the Knesset, as well as foreign policy experts on negotiating with the Palestinians. Almost everyone I’ve spoken with, on both sides, believes that despite last year’s failure, it is time for Barack Obama to intervene more forcefully in the Middle East peace process.

The most frequent request, especially from the Palestinian side, is for the President to lay out a proposed two-state plan. One Israeli expert said that this doesn’t have to be the ultimate deal–state to state issues (like the right of return, or reparations, for some Palestinian refugees) can be worked out between the Israelis and Palestinians–but Obama’s proposal should resemble Bill Clinton’s parameters laid out in December 2000, including suggestions on borders, security and sovereignty.

While Israel would seem to have the whip hand in any negotiation strategy–it controls the Palestinian lands, Netanyahu has practically no domestic opposition, the Palestinians remain divided between Fatah and Hamas–the Israelis I spoke with think that some sort of accomodation with the Palestinians has to come soon. “Next year, 50% of all first-graders in Israel will be either Arabs or Othodox Jews,” a member of the centrist Kadima Party told me. “We have a serious demographic problem.”

Meanwhile, the story from West Bank Palestine is relatively good news: the Israeli occupation is still a heavy–and sometimes an outrageously intrusive–burden, but the economy is growing at  8% per year. The security situation has improved dramatically–it’s safe for women to walk the streets in Nablus for the first time in years–with a well-trained national guard and police force. The Palestinian Authority seems to be governing honestly and well. There has been no significant violence targeting Israel in many months, from either Gaza or the West Bank, although the growing number of hilltop settler outposts–you can see them on almost every hill on the road from Ramallah to Nablus–seems a form of Israeli violence targeting the Palestinians. I’ll have much more about life on the West Bank in the magazine next week.

Update: The neocon extremists over at Commentary have wasted no time responding to my column with their usual bile and bullying. The piece is loaded with inaccuracies and Israel-first stupidity. I can’t do much about the stupidity, but as for the inaccuracies: I did not travel to Doha with Clinton, but attended the US-Islamic forum as an invited participant and was asked to be part of a small working group of Americans and Islamist Party members from throughout the Islamic world (from Morocco to Indonesia, in fact). Second, I did not criticize Clinton’s remarks–in fact, I thought her tough talk on Iran was just fine, the next step in Obama’s campaign to unite the world against the Revolutionary Guard regime. Third, I did report that the Doha delegates were disappointed with her remarks on Gaza; in fact, most American participants agreed with this assessment–all of us were struck by the vehemence of the Islamic feelings about Gaza. Fourth, as I wrote, the Obama Administration is aware of this situation and frustrated by it. Fifth, I didn’t blame it on Israel–but on Hamas, for not releasing the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, which might open the door to a more reasonable Israeli policy on the blockade. I suggested that the U.S. might see, privately, if it could serve as a mediator for a deal. I also suggested that Hamas should respond to such an offer and act quickly. (Sixth, I supported the first stage–the first week–of the Israel’s response to Hamas’s rocket attacks against Israeli citizens.)

My suggestions–or their distorted burlesque of my suggestions–are, apparently, what passes for anti-Israel extremism over at Commentary. But anything that doesn’t conform to their half-crazed macho crusaderism is seen as either anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. Their constant fury, their slightly-veiled calumnies against the President–and against the very notion of diplomacy–would be laughable if they weren’t so dangerous and disgraceful.

By the way, the barely concealed anti-Arab bigotry so frequently found on the Commentary blog, reveals itself in this sentence:

That answer pleased neither the Arabs nor Klein.

In fact, it was a U.S.-Islamic Forum: Arabs comprised maybe half the Islamic delegates, who came from as far away as Indonesia and the Philippines, including a sizeable contingent, as usual, from South Asia (Afghans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis). And, to reiterate: the level of anger over the Gaza situation among all of these people was striking. (Several of us listened to a particularly impassioned statement from a demure woman from Indonesia, to our amazement.)