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A Back Channel to Nowhere

Aug 17, 2007
In May, 1978, one of the Major American Television Networks put on a broadcast in celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the Founding of the State of Israel. The show was hosted by Barbra Streisand who, at the time, I guess, was deemed to be a well-known enough entertainer and "Jewish" enough to carry off the show credibly.

The finale of the show consisted of a live (via satellite) interview between Streisand and Prime Minister Golda Meir, everyone's favorite chicken-soup with matzo balls Jewish grandmotherly type. (She was, in reality, to those who know her, ANYTHING but that person). After the interview, Streisand sang Hatikvah, and brushed a tear from her eye.


There was, of course, only one flaw in the idea behind the show, and its ultimate execution: Golda Meir was not the Prime Minister of Israel; in fact, some months before, she and the Labor Party had been unceremoniously booted out of office, for the first time in Israel's history, having finally paid the price for Israel's complete military unpreparedness for the Yom Kippur War back in October, 1973. A disillusioned Israeli public had put the ultimate Opposition-party outsider, Menachem Begin, into power.

Unfortunately for Network executives, who had probably been planning the show for many months, nobody outside Israel, except, perhaps for students of Zionist and Israeli history, knew who Begin was (though the world would certainly come to know him quite well). The radio broadcasters had not yet learned how to pronounce his name, and their mangled attempts verged on hilarity. Begin...as in Begin the Beguine. I don't know whether Streisand knew anything about Begin, but if she did, it's probably a safe bet she wouldn't have liked his politics.

Why is any of this relevant now? Because, in an act of misguided utter desperation, the Bush Administration is pushing the newly elected Israeli Government to begin peace negotiations with an individual who is NOT the democratically-elected Prime Minister of the Palestinians. You see, in a Democracy, you have to take the leaders you are given, and play the cards you are dealt. The Israelis (and President Bush, for that matter), were dealt Hamas. We don't negotiate with Hamas, since it is a terrorist organization, which calls for suicide bombings and the destruction of the State of Israel. But because it seems somehow unacceptable either to allow Israel to make unilateral decisions affecting Palestinians, or not to move the (Middle East Peace Process) ball forward at all, the clueless foreign policy mavens have decided on a middle course: let's negotiate with Mahmoud Abbas. After all, goes the rationale, he's "moderate." While Abbas may (certainly by contrast to Hamas) be considered a "moderate," he does suffer from one considerable deficiency: a complete and utter lack of authority to speak for the Palestinians. That prerogative, alas, is given to the sponsors of suicide bombs and Jihad.

The policy is doomed to failure, for a very simple reason. Any agreement reached with Abbas is subject to total deniability and undermining by the real powers in the Palestinian territories: Hamas. Today's New York Times reported a statement by the State Department Spokesman, Sean McCormack, as follows:

"While not suggesting Israel could work out a peace agreement at this point with Abbas, McCormack, in promoting "back channel" negotiations with Abbas said, 'He is a political leader within the Palestinian political context.'" [NY Times, May 23, 2006]

What, on earth does that mean? Even by the standards of State Department Foggy Bottom doublespeak, that's a real doozie!

It all seems like utter nonsense, doesn't it? But just a minute. There may, in fact, be method in the apparent madness.

According to the same report, Ehud Olmert's primary purpose in visiting President Bush is to test the waters on the President's willingness to allow Israel to continue to pursue Ariel Sharon's previous policy of unilateral disengagement. In other words, will Olmert have Bush's tacit agreement to allow Israel to create borders and retreat behind them, without the consent of a political entity that will not negotiate? Sharon's experience was, as we now know, that the Bush Administration was (pretty overtly) on board with that policy. But that was Gaza. Now, we are talking about the West Bank--Judea, Samaria and yes, Jerusalem--an infinitely more complicated and emotional issue for both sides to this endless dispute.

In the meantime, as Olmert is just beginning his tenure, Bush, by virtue of his increasing unpopularity occasioned by the War in Iraq, his indecisiveness on immigration policy and $3-plus per gallon gasoline prices, not to mention the mere passage of time leading to inevitable lame duck impotence, is rendered less and less relevant to the process. Not completely, of course. After all, Bill Clinton participated in negotiations at Sharm-el-Sheikh until virtually hours before George W. Bush's inauguration. But before we know it, the American Presidential sweepstakes will be beginning in earnest (right after this fall's midterm elections, we can assume), while Israel will have to make life and death decisions. Does having Bush largely on the sidelines help or hurt Israel's cause in this respect? It's hard to say, because American "prestige" or status as an "honest broker" in peacemaking can hardly be of any real value when the U.S. is also boycotting Hamas (as well it should). Can Israel, therefore, conduct some sort of unilateral disengagement "under the radar screen?" Doubtful. Nothing Israel does is EVER allowed to remain under the radar screen.

But European dithering and Arab impotent rage notwithstanding, the only opinion valued by the Israelis comes from inside the Beltway. And the real reason Olmert needs Bush's support is to give him cover in the treacherous waters of Israeli politics, where the U.S. President's imprimatur still matters. Let's see whether he gets it. And if the price for it is that Olmert has to negotiate with a powerless Palestinian figurehead, so that bilateral discussion can fail and Israel and the U.S. can fall back on the tried and true "Well, we tried, but there was nobody to talk to," I, for one, am satisfied to have Olmert meet with Abbas, sing a chorus of Hatikvah and brush away a tear.

Warren R Graham
Copyright 2006
About the Author
Warren R. Graham is an attorney. http://warrenrgraham.blogspot.com
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