Unless former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, President Obama's special Middle Eastern envoy, is prepared to commute by government executive jet for the next five to 10 years, this isn't a bad time to turn in his badge.
Moshe Ya'alon, Israel's vice prime minister and minister for strategic affairs in Israel's 32nd government, talked his way through Washington's corridors of power this week, spelling out the Jewish state's refurbished negotiating posture for a Palestinian state. Bottom line: The Nobel Peace Prize will not help Obama's quest for an independent homeland for the Palestinians by the end of his first term. Even if he is re-elected, the geopolitical prize most probably would elude him again.
Israel wants to slow down the whole process of negotiations with the Palestinians. Obama wants both parties to accelerate. But Congress seldom allows any daylight between Israeli and U.S. positions.
Israel has scuttled its from-the-top-down negotiating strategy, which had Mitchell meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders who then mouthed platitudes until their next meeting. The new posture is what Israeli topsiders call from-the-bottom-up.
In other words, you start with itemized minutia, for which Mitchell's good offices would be a waste of his manifold talents. Key topics such final borders, the return of refugees, the dismantling of Israel settlements, the status of East Jerusalem, a security fence along the Jordan River against terrorist infiltrators from Jordan; all would be postponed sine die.
The ostensible reason for the change is the refusal of Palestinian interlocutors to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a national home for Jews from anywhere (there are about 15 million in the world, including 5.5 million in Israel, 6 million in North America, and 2.5 million in Europe and Russia).
Instead, the Israelis want to talk about the details of a truly demilitarized Palestinian entity. Haggling over the number of guns and ammo depots allowed for a non-army military with non-army uniforms would keep negotiators busy for months. Israel would disallow air rights. But Palestinians want small commuter aircraft that would fly to Amman, Jordan, and Damascus, Syria.
Israeli settlements now sit astride the West Bank's water aquifer. Palestinians want their share. This would entail dismantling part of the $2.5 billion wall-fence-razor wire that snakes 420 miles in and out of the West Bank. That, too, could stretch months into years.
The more Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likud hard-liners think about the strategic dimension of an independent state, the more they conclude it would be a victory for Muslim radicals. Hamas, the radical Palestinian organization that now rules Gaza, is entirely dependent on Iran's Revolutionary Guard-cum-Mullah regime. It also has a strong underground in the West Bank.
As Ya'alon adjusts his geopolitical specs, he sees nothing but 360 degrees of trouble for Israel. A revanchist Palestinian state on its borders, staring wistfully at Israel's Mediterranean border, which was once Palestine's, could morph quickly into a hostile entity. Israel's strategic thinkers also see the Sunni-Shiite conflict rearing its ugly face in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Yemen. On the mental map, the laser pointer traces an axis of trouble from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Sudan, and Somalia.
The ruling Likud Party sees the entire region divided between "jihadis and moderates," with radical Islam aligned against the West, a struggle that started with Islamist revolutionaries seizing power in Iran in 1979. Western civilization, Israel's leaders say, is the jihadis' "main enemy." So further territorial concessions in the West Bank, they now conclude, would merely empower jihadis. This alone should convince Mitchell that he is embarked on mission impossible.
As proof of their latest arguments, Likud leaders say moderate Arab leaders recognize the main threat to their region is Iran, not Israel. So the core of the Middle East problem is Iran and its nuclear ambitions, not the Arab-Israeli dispute. They hope for tougher sanctions between now and the end of the year. They see the Iranian regime a shambles with the Revolutionary Guards struggling to keep control against the "Twitter" revolutionaries.
And if Tehran hangs tough into 2010, Netanyahu plans to reassess the military option — with or without the United States.
For the first time, Israeli leaders concede privately that Iran does indeed possess formidable asymmetrical retaliatory capabilities that go from mining the Strait of Hormuz, interrupting 25 percent of the world's oil flow, to mayhem up and down the Gulf, all of which could shoot oil up to $300 a barrel or more and plunge Western economies into outright depression.
But they also believe the U.S. Navy would de-mine Hormuz quickly and silence Iranian missile batteries firing at U.S. warships. This, of course, would bring the United States into open conflict with Iran.
And while Obama might hesitate to be cast as Israel's only ally in a regional war, Congress would lend its support quickly.
Israel's leaders were stunned by the U.N.-commissioned Goldstone report on the Jewish state's 2008 assault on Gaza in which almost 1,400 Palestinians, including 900 civilians, and only 13 Israeli soldiers were killed. Richard Goldstone, the South African Jewish jurist who led the investigation and authored the U.N. report, accused Israel of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Predictably, he was quickly tagged as a "self-hating Jew." But he is one of his country's most respected personalities, at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid and a key legal architect of the new South Africa.
All of which has led some to speculate the two-state solution for the Palestinians and Israel has gone the way of the dodo.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali told this reporter in Cairo last week, "This is now headed for a one-state solution. But it's probably 10 years away." Does all this mean Israel has a historically short "shelf life"?
Said one ranking Likud official, "We've had 100 years of Zionism, 62 years as a Jewish state, and we're now 6 million. With what we've achieved in science, agriculture, the military, we're not about to disappear."
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