My Uncle Moishe is a retired kosher butcher in Montreal. His passions are the Montreal Canadiens, and Middle East politics, and not necessarily in that order. He can and does talk about them both at great length, but more than a decade ago, during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first premiership, he succinctly explained to me how the man operates.
“Bibi has three political principles,” Moishe told me. “First, divide and conquer. Second, divide and conquer. And third, divide and conquer.”
So this week’s developments are hardly a surprise to me. In fact, I pretty much predicted it a year ago. But they point to the central problem in modern US-Israel relations: they rest upon a premise that is demonstrably false, viz., that the way to Middle East peace lies in direct negotiations between the parties.
This premise originated because Israel was concerned that in an international conference, it would be outnumbered and face pressure from the United States. Moreover, an international conference would not force the Arab states to take the political risk of negotiating it. This political risk was necessary because Israel was going to trade tangible land for intangible promises, so it had to know that Arab leaders had skin in the game. Anwar Sadat demonstrated this both literally and figuratively.
But the operative factors behind this assumption are no longer true. Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel. In any event, the issue now is no longer Arab-Israeli relations, but Palestinian-Israeli relations. And that relationship now matches a weak and dysfunctional Palestinian leadership with a weak and dysfunctional Israeli leadership. There is simply no way that these parties can make the concessions necessary for peace –giving up settlements and achieving genuine compromise on Jerusalem for the Israelis, giving up the right of return for Israel.
So instead of hemming and hawing about what Hillary Clinton should say to AIPAC next week, or how George Mitchell will start “proximity talks”, the time has come simply for the United States to go around the various leaderships, and adopt Sari Nusseibeh’s brilliant proposal to demand a referendum in each population on an American Plan, which should resemble the People’s Voice accord. My own preferred addition is push the People’s Voice through as a Security Council resolution, although whether it could attract a non-vetoed majority is anyone’s guess. Maintaining the current posture of endless attempts to bring the parties together is degenerating into farce.
The direct talks approach has worked in several iterations for more than three decades. It’s time to give it a decent burial.