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After Barak: Benign Neglect

By George F. Will Newsweek Feb 19, 2001

Charles De’Giaialle, lamenting the fractiousness of
the French, famously wondered, “How can you
govem a country which has 246 varieties of
cheese?” De Gaulle should have tried dealing with the
Israelis. Israel, with more than a dozen feuding parties, is
a country in which some people seem to care most about
making sure there is no bus service on the Sabbath, and
some care most about seeing that there is such service.
There is truth in the jest that two Israelis can generate
three factions.

However, given sufficient provocation, Israelis can
prroduce an emphatic electoral outcome. Provoked by
Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s astonishing concessions to
the Palestinians (95 percent of the West Bank, division of
Jerusalem) and by the Palestinians’ contemptuous and
violent response to the concessions, Israelis cashiered
Barak, replacing him with Ariel Sharon, who says that the
Oslo “peace process,” begun nearly eight years ago, is
dead. Since the “process” began, 550 Israelis have died in
the violence that is the vocabulary of Yasir Arafat’s
Palestinian Authority. Those deaths at(,, as a percentage
of Israel’s population, equivalent to 25.300 American
deaths, or approximately half the U.S. fatalities in the
Vietnam War.

Barak’s manic diplomacy failed spectacularlv. but
creatively. Spectacularly, in that the region has been
destabilized. Creatively, in that his diplomacy calledYasir
Arafat’s bluff, and proved that Arafat was bluffing about
wanting a settlement that stops short of Israel’s
destruction. Enter Sharon, stage right.

On Oct. 15, before the election was called, but with the
violence mounting amid talk of Sharon’s joining Barak in
a national-unity government, Sharon, appearing on
ABC’s “This Week.” was asked if he would refuse to join
such a government unless it “agreed no longer to talk
about negotiating a division of Jerusalem.” “Yes ” He
sai& “I don’t see any possibility to divide Jerusalem.”
Would he join a government that would give up Israel’s
protective buffer, the Jordan Valley’) “No.” It would be “a
major mistake.” He rejected a “fight of return” of
Palestinian refugees, even one limited to 100,000.

Sharon is not opposed to negotiations, but he understands that Israel cannot negotiate until it decides what it
considers nonnegotiable – a concept foreign to Barak’s
messianic and improvisational style. One thing that

Sharon considers nonnegotiable is his understanding of
secure borders – that is, the essential territorial requirements for Israel’s defense. This involves complex
calculations about what land is and is not essential, given
the ever-evolving threat.

It is difficult to reduce that calculation to a bright red
line that can quickly alleviate the Israelis’ demoralizing
sense that their government no longer knows how to draw
such lines. So immediately after the election, Sharon
reiterated the least recondite of his nonnegotiable items:
Jerusalem, the nation’s capital, will not be divided.

By so saving, Sharon says that Israel’s diplomacy is not
restricted by a ratchet that makes any proffered
concession irreversible, Unfortunately, the United States
continues tiptoeing around its duty to take a step that
should have been taken decades ago, a step that would
have helped keep Jerusalem off the negotiating table.
Israel is the only nation in which the United States
refuses to locate its embassy in the nation’s capital. The
perverse purpose of this refusal is to contribute to
keeping the final status of Jerusalem – the capital of the
only democracy in a region remarkably immune to the
spread of democracy – a subject for negotiation.

In 1980 candidate Ronald Reagan promised that if
elected he would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from
Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Twelve years later candidate Bill
Clinton made the same promise. Last May candidate
George W. Bush said. “As soon as I take office I will
begin the process of moving the U.S. ambassador to the
cit-v Israel has chosen as its capital.” However, Secretary
of State Colin Powell says. “Well, you know, ‘process is
a word that has different meanings to it,” And, ‘We are
studying [the move].”And “at this time of tension, at this
time of a considerable level of violence in the region, at
this time %~ hen a new election is about to unfold, we will
continue to examine when that process will begin “

Oh. So, the embassy should be moved when there is no
tension, Which is to say, the move should be made when
the move will make no difference.

Powell has already mastered the pitter-patter of Middle
East diplomatic bollerplate. He says the United States
will continue as an “honest broker” But surely that
bromide assumes what the events of the last few months
refute. They refine the notion that ,in “honest” party can
“broker” an agreement between a nation that craves peace
and a political- militafy-terrorist movement that will
settle for nothing short of that nation’s destruction.

Today the pertinent question is whether the United
States will dare to be dilatory. For a while, a policy of
benign neglect would benefit a region that has suffered
enough from America’s diplomatic fidgets. That means
the State Department should not have a senior official
whose job description is Middle East Fidgeter.

The Bush administration should refium from naming a
replacement for Dennis Ross, He has resigned after eight
years as die diplomat whose assignment was to massage
the continuing crisis. Such a special envoy, whose sole

project is to keep the “peace process” proceeding, can
feel validated ualy by generating agreements -
agreements with a man, Arafat, who has never kept any
agreement.

Americans are a problem-solving people, They assume
that in politics, as in mathematics, a problem is something
to be solved. The Middle East challenges Americans to
distinguish between problems, which have solutions, and
messes, which can only be managed, And the next stage
in realism is to recognize that America cannot manage
messes from afar.

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