Sunday, November 10, 2002

Thomas Friedman's at it again. His latest column says a lot of really silly things--such as (I'm not making this up) that the "Bush hard-liners" who hope to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein don't "really want to invest in making the world a different place, or....have any imagination or inspiration to do so". (Wiser souls, he explains, appreciate the far greater world-changing power of--I'm not kidding--"diplomacy".) But his introductory paragraph repeats a canard whose absurdity will be apparent, sadly, to all too few readers. He cites, with approval, a "senior European diplomat" who complained that the Bush administration is failing to tell Israel that it "needs to find a secure way to get out of the settlements."

Now, it may well be that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will one day be signed, one clause of which involves the evacuation of most or all of the Jews living in the West Bank and Gaza. (I'm skeptical--it seems unlikely that Palestinians would be willing to live at peace with a Jewish state a few miles away, but not with a Jewish neighborhood on the next hill--but I suppose it's still possible.) However, it doesn't make a lot of sense to start talking to the Israelis about dismantling settlements in the occupied territories when they're currently militarily occupying almost all the West Bank's major cities. As for the Palestinians, they conspicuously do not refer to the violence that first erupted in September 2001 as the "Settlements Intifada", were not responding at the time--even as a pretext--to a visit by Ariel Sharon to a settlement, never refer to removal of the settlements as their primary goal, and do not discriminate between civilians living in Israel proper and those in the territories when executing their terrorist attacks. Nor is there any indication that the failure of the Camp David and Taba negotiations hinged in any significant way on the settlements--an issue on which the Israelis were in fact quite flexible, to no avail.

The real importance of the settlements, though, lies in the role they play in Friedman's worldview and that of his European diplomatic friends. For them, it is crucial that they find something that Israel must be cajoled into conceding--otherwise, their negotiations-based strategy is self-evidently doomed to fecklessness, given the Palestinians' refusal to bow even to harsh Israeli military pressure, let alone to mere diplomatic pestering. But what Israeli concession can they possibly portray as a key goal for the diplomats? Military restraint is a non-starter, from Israel's point of view, since it's been repeatedly and amply proven to be of no use whatsoever in winning Palestinian reciprocity. Likewise, most of the generous long-term offers spurned at Camp David, such as full statehood and compromise on Jerusalem, have lost all their plausibility as bargaining chips in the eyes of Israelis.

Settlement-dismantling, on the other hand, is not a completely quixotic goal; it still retains a modest constituency within the Israeli body politic, mostly for various internal political reasons. Hence, if Friedman et al. can (mis-) represent settlement evacuation as the potential breakthrough step in a process of mutual compromise, then--voila!-- they can claim a vital role for diplomacy in resolving the conflict. It's a slender reed, to be sure; but it's the only one available, and without it, they would literally have no justification, however feeble, for trying to insinuate a diplomatic component into Israel's muscular (and comparatively far more effective) response to terrorism.

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