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The Mother of All Quagmires

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I've just returned from a week-long trip through Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Israel's border with Gaza, and I'm reminded all over again of what has been beaten into me during my many visits to the Middle East: there is no solution to the problems that vex that region right now. Most Americans are inherently optimistic and think just about any problem in the world can be solved. We put a man on the moon before I was born, but that was easy compared with securing peace between Israelis and Arabs.

The American Jewish Committee brought me and seven of my colleagues to Israel and set up interviews with Israeli military officers, politicians, academics, and journalists on the far-left, the far-right and at every point in between. One of my colleagues asked the eternal question during one of our meetings. "What is the solution to this problem?" He meant the Arab-Israeli conflict, of course, and the answer from our Israeli host was revealing in more ways than one. "You Americans are always asking us that," he said and laughed darkly.

Americans aren't the only ones who have a hard time grasping the idea of an intractable problem. "Unfortunately we Westerners are impatient," said an Israeli politician who preferred not to be named. "We want fast food and peace now. But it won't happen. We need a long strategy." "Most of Israel's serious problems don't have a solution," said Dr. Dan Schueftan, Director of National Security Studies at the University of Haifa. "Israelis have only recently understood this, and most foreign analysts still don't understand it."

A clear majority of Israelis would instantly hand over the West Bank and its settlements along with Gaza for a real shot at peace with the Arabs, but that's not an option. Most Arab governments at least implicitly say they will recognize Israel's right to exist inside its pre-1967 borders, but far too many Palestinians still won't recognize Israel's right to exist even in its 1948 borders. Hamas doesn't recognize Israel's right to exist inside any borders at all.

"We will never recognize Israel," senior Hamas leader Nizar Rayyan said before he was killed by an air strike in Gaza during the recent fighting. "There is nothing called Israel, neither in reality nor in the imagination."

Hamas does not speak for all Palestinians. I've met Palestinians who sincerely despise Hamas and everything it stands for. But let's not kid ourselves here. Hamas speaks for a genuinely enormous number of Palestinians, and peace is impossible as long as that's true. An-Najah University conducted a poll of Palestinian public opinion a few months ago and found that 53.4 percent persist in their rejection of a two-state solution.

Far too many Westerners make the mistake of projecting their own views onto Palestinians without really understanding the Palestinian narrative. The "occupation" doesn't refer to the West Bank and Gaza, and it never has. The "occupation" refers to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. A kibbutz in the center of Israel is "occupied Palestine" according to most. "It makes no sense to a Palestinian to think about a Palestinian state alongside Israel," Martin Kramer from the Shalem Center in Jerusalem said to me a few days ago. "From the Palestinian perspective, Israel will always exist inside Palestine."

"Making peace with the Palestinians is harder than making peace with other Arabs," said Asher Susser, Senior Research Fellow at Tel Aviv University. "With the Palestinians we have a 1948 file as well as a 1967 file. With other Arabs we only have a 1967 file. The 1967 file relates to our size, but the 1948 file relates to our very being. It is nearly impossible to resolve because we cannot compromise on our being."

Read the rest in Commentary Magazine.

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