Insanity — according to a definition variously attributed to Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, Confucius, and most credibly to a 30-year-old book called “Narcotics Anonymous” — is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Five times John Kerry has been to our part of the Middle East since taking office in February. Five times, like some hapless gofer, he has shuttled back and forth between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, ferrying demands and proposals, and rejections. The estimate is that he spent 14 hours in the company of Netanyahu on this latest mission alone, and another seven with Abbas.
You’d think he’d have gotten the message by now. But no. In defiance of all his first-hand accumulated evidence of Israeli and Palestinian stubborn immobility, Kerry flew out of Ben Gurion Airport on Sunday afternoon proclaiming that a breakthrough was potentially “within reach.” Just “a little more work” and all that diplomatic failure could yet be translated into success.
Yet this willful “cautious optimism,” insistently invoked by the secretary, is not the reason why the definition of insanity comes to mind. Who knows? If only to spare him further humiliation, Abbas and Netanyahu really might eventually capitulate and agree to shake hands, look meaningfully into each other’s eyes, call each other a partner, and sit down across a negotiating table. It’s not as though they haven’t done so in the past.
Maybe if Kerry honors his Terminator-style “I’ll be back” pledge a few more times, Abbas will consent to a phased process for the release of pre-Oslo Accords Palestinian murderers, Netanyahu will declare a wider settlement freeze, or some other complex formula of declarations and promises, drafted with lawyerly vagueness and finesse, will enable both leaders to claim sufficient face-saving achievement as to resume direct negotiations.
The point is: So what? The point is that Kerry is investing immense personal energy and time, and the United States’ diplomatic prestige, in desperately chivying Netanyahu and Abbas merely to the starting point of a path that has already been walked many times before — a path that, the bitter experience running right through the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies shows, leads only to a dead end.
That’s why the definition of insanity unfortunately resonates when considering the secretary’s indefatigable efforts. He is straining to persuade Netanyahu and Abbas to begin talking when we know that such negotiations can only lead to the same failure they have yielded in the past.
The Palestinians would argue — and will try to persuade the world of the validity of this account when the talks, if they do start, inevitably collapse — that a hard-hearted, settlement-loving Israeli government refuses to grant their weak, helpless, occupied people the independent statehood that they deserve. But the root of the unavoidable failure of any resumed talks lies primarily, though not solely, with the Palestinians.
Exemplified by Ariel Sharon’s political turnaround, a consensus has gradually emerged in Israel over the past generation that an accommodation with the Palestinians — a separation that frees Israel of responsibility for the millions in the West Bank and Gaza — is a vital Israeli interest. Most of us want a Jewish and a democratic Israel, and we don’t want to be ruling over another people.
Abbas didn’t have the guts to take the Olmert deal, because he hadn’t had the guts to lay the groundwork for a deal by telling his people some unpalatable truths about historic Jewish sovereign legitimacy
The Palestinians have reached no parallel, self-interested conclusion. The despicable Yasser Arafat bequeathed his people the toxic narrative that there was no Jewish temple in Jerusalem, and by extension that there is no Jewish sovereign legitimacy in this part of the world, and that Palestinian steadfastness, attachment to the land, and birthrate would ultimately see the unrooted Jewish colonialists sent back to their European homelands. The weak-willed Abbas has allowed that false narrative to fester, including in his schools and his media, rather than energetically disseminating a more accurate picture of competing, legitimate claims to a small, coveted area of land, requiring conciliation and compromise.
Last month, the Israeli prime minister who almost five years ago offered Abbas everything the Palestinians ostensibly seek, Ehud Olmert, concluded publicly for the first time, presumably with some reluctance, that Abbas is simply “not a big hero” — he didn’t have the guts to take the deal, because he hadn’t had the guts to lay the groundwork for a deal by telling his people some unpalatable truths about historic Jewish sovereign legitimacy.
The path to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation does not run along the route much traveled by the well-intentioned Secretary Kerry between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Pulling Abbas and Netanyahu back to the table will only presage another failure — and the Second Intifada demonstrated how catastrophic the consequences can be.
Where the United States should be placing its energies, and its leverage, and its money, is in encouraging those frameworks that will create a climate in which the Palestinians actually recognize an interest in making true peace on terms that Israel can reasonably live with (terms that do not leave Israel vulnerable to military threat, and do not seek to alter the country’s demographic balance), because the Jews aren’t going anywhere, and Palestinian independence can only be attained in partnership with the Jewish state. The US should be supporting educational programs, and grass-roots interactions, and media channels that offer an honest perspective on the history of our conflict, and that promote a mutually beneficial future of co-existence. It should neither fund, nor encourage others to fund, institutions and organizations that perpetuate false narratives and consequent false grievances.
Change the climate. Gradually create an atmosphere of mutual respect, and a shared, fervent desire for an accommodation. Then you won’t have to be cajoling reluctant leaders back to the peace table.
Israel, too, has its share of extremists — willfully blind to Palestinian legitimacy, and to the counterproductive nature of the status quo — some of whom sit in government today, encouraging the growth of settlements in areas where Israel will never attain sovereignty, exacerbating hostility, discrediting Israel. Like most Israelis, the US observes this self-defeating process with legitimate bafflement and concern. The hawks in Israeli politics are becoming increasingly intransigent, wishing away the Palestinians by citing less troubling demographic prognoses, or reconciling themselves to the subversion of Israeli democracy. On the ground, “price tag” extremists exemplify a lawlessness and amorality that shames us all.
But as the elections in 1992 and 1999 underline, the Israeli middle ground has elected would-be peacemakers when it sensed that hard-line prime ministers were missing genuine opportunities. There is no such sense today, no consensual feeling that Netanyahu — kicked out of office in 1999, remember — is blowing it; that a deal is there to be done if only we had a different prime minister. That’s how successful Arafat, Hamas, Fatah’s military wing, Abbas’s disingenuity, and the chilling Arab Spring have been in shattering Israeli confidence.
In a region where instability is now the norm pretty much everywhere bar Israel, and where Iran has thus far outmaneuvered the West as it speeds toward a nuclear weapons capability, this is a pretty discouraging time for a tiny country to be contemplating high-risk territorial compromise — especially when Hamas’s quickfire violent takeover from Fatah of Gaza in 2007 constituted a profoundly worrying precedent for what might occur were Israel to withdraw from the West Bank.
Kerry’s unfathomable enthusiasm notwithstanding, there are no short cuts. The only source of potentially justifiable optimism lies in a process of changed atmosphere and changed attitudes — a gradual process — in a Middle East, moreover, where Iran has been successfully faced down and relative moderates consequently emboldened.
There is immense merit in working to create a climate in which reconciliation and co-existence are regarded by both sides as serving their national interest. There are no diplomatic quick fixes. Believing otherwise? That’s insanity.