Pat Lang on Israel/Palestine

National Journal’s Sydney Freedberg asks a group of distinguished foreign policy types, “Is the two-state solution dead?” Pat Lang offers some sensible remarks:

It is expected ritual to say that the Palestinians and Israelis want peace. What is never specified as part of that incantation is the description of just what sort of peace each group wants. Here it is… What they still want (on both sides) is to win in the contest for that sad, beautiful, stony little strip of land and for their own group to live in peace and possession of the country.

There is no external power preventing the sides from making peace. If the Israelis and Palestinians wanted peace more than they want to win, they would make peace. They do not make peace because there is not enough good will toward the “other” among them to allow peace to exist. No. I no longer really believe that the inhabitants of Israel/Palestine want peace for other than their own side in the bloody mess that has persisted there throughout their lives.

Someone has said on this blog that the United States lacks the ability to “make peace” between these two peoples. That is profoundly true. It is part of our national illusion that we Americans think of the rest of the world as though we are the guardians of distant, unruly and childish folk who act in strange, inexplicable and unreasonable ways. We tend to believe that their quarrels are errors in information or simply bad behavior of the kind seen in school yards.  This mistake on our part is persistent….

Then, however, I’d humbly submit that Lang goes astray in arguing that while neither side appears ready to make the sacrifices required for a workable peace deal, the problem will ultimately “require an external formulation of a peace settlement when they ARE ready.”

Why am I skeptical? Because, as Lang admits, what would be required for this to work is “a consensus of the interested parties across the Middle Eastern, Islamic and Western regions, a consensus that does not shrink from domestic political pressure, that does not fear to apply the inherent leverage provided by huge annual budgetary contributions to both sides and that values human life and happiness more than it does momentary advantage.” If both sides were ready for peace, why would pulling budgetary levers be required? Alternatively, it seems terribly unlikely that pulling budgetary levers could make either side amenable enough to genuine concessions to make peace work. And aside from the extreme unlikelihood of the blessed convergence described above happening in our lifetimes, I’m reminded of George Kennan’s concern in the 1970s about the responsibilities that come with imposing a settlement:

[W]e should not try to tell [the Israelis], or the Arabs, what the terms of a settlement should be. It is they, after all, not we, who would have to live with any settlement that might be achieved. Many of us can think, I am sure, of concessions which, in our personal opinion, it would be wise for the Israelis to make; but for the United States government to take the responsibility of urging them to make such concessions is quite another matter. There are many who would think, for example, that it would be wise for them to give up the Golan Heights. They may of course be right. But how can we be sure? What would our responsibility be if we urged this upon them and it turned out to be disastrous?

It seems like the problem for the United States is less that the Israelis and Palestinians seem unwilling to make the sacrifices required for peace, and more that we find ourselves in a position such that, as Kennan wrote, with respect to both sides of the dispute, “each has the impression that it is primarily through us that its desiderata can be achieved, with the result that we are always first to be blamed, no matter whose ox is gored; and all this in a situation where we actually have very little influence with either party. Seldom, surely, can a great power have gotten itself into a more unsound and unnecessary position.”