Rarely has political tripe about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict been so elegantly written as Mark Helprin’s Forced to Get Along in yesterday’s New York Times. Helprin posits the dubious proposition that George Bush’s new peace plan actually has a much greater chance of success than it is currently being given credit for, because Anwar Sadat’s 1977 peace initiative was similarly derided at the time:
After Anwar Sadat’s spectacular trip to Jerusalem in November 1977, the press, mistaking cynicism for wisdom, was skeptical. After all, in the first 25 years of its existence, Israel had had to fight Egypt four times. But the past was no guide to the future, for in the last 30 years the peace of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat has been unbroken.
…At the time, few people were able to see the way ahead even as it was clearly illuminated by the facts.
First, Helprin overlooks one important point. Sadat, the courageous fellow who went to Jerusalem, was gunned down in broad daylight for his trouble. And you can be damn sure that the current leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, who George Bush has called upon to bolster this peace plan, are thinking of Sadat’s fate as they ponder whether to help.
Second, like Helprin, I lived through that period. Unlike Helprin, I seem to remember it quite differently. I watched Sadat deliver his address to the Knesset on TV. I remember my feelings of wonderment and excitement. I remember my realization that something truly historic and remarkable was happening in the history of both Israeli-Arab relations and the Mideast in general. I remember my feelings of hope that some real change and even peace could happen as a result of this wild, improbable event. Everyone I knew understood what this event COULD mean and hoped it would fulfill its promise for peace. So no, I have no idea what Helprin is talking about when he notes people’s skepticism in 1977.
As for the Bush plan, the skepticism is well-founded for, unlike Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, which required tremendous courage and which broke a logjam of preconceived notions each side had for the other–Bush’s proposal comes out of desperation and offers little that is new or appealing for either side. As usual, what Bush proposes is warmed over ideas which have been tried and failed before
Let’s continue with more of Helprin’s fantasy of Egyptian-Israeli rapprochement:
Nearly bankrupt, its population swelling, recently divorced from the Soviet Union, irrelevant to the third world and having reclaimed its honor by partial success in the 1973 war, Egypt was predictable.
Helprin makes it appear that Sadat pursued his policy out of desperation. On the contrary, Sadat pursued his policy with canny analysis of his position. If anything, it was Israel that was the more desperate. It had lost an unheard of 3,000 men in the war. Syria had come within a tank crew or two or entirely overrunning the Golan and north. The country was shell-shocked. It needed a break. Begin too knew that Golda had made a fatal blunder in spurning Sadat’s peace overture before the ’73 war. If anything, it was Israel in 1977 that didn’t want to miss that peace train.
In the following passage Helprin weaves yet another pipe-dream suggesting that 1977 and 2008 have things in common which no one except a neocon fantasist could imagine possible. As I said earlier, the construction of the fantasy is truly elegant and appealing, but fatally flawed and ultimately vacant:
Israel and Egypt, knowing their interests and set upon their course, formed, as it were, the innermost of three concentric circles. Surrounding them was a second circle, the Arab rejectionists, which were divided, militarily weak, geographically separated and economically impotent. Except for the Soviet bloc, which did not have the agility to make up for its lack of position, the major powers that formed the outer circle were overwhelmingly in favor of rapprochement. And in the end, they used their combined strengths to break the middle circle of rejectionists against the solid center formed by the principals. A similar metaphysics has now emerged in the Middle East.
…the effect of the [Iraq] war has been to shatter the politics of the region and create opportunities, one of which is the potential for a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
So we are to understand that Israel and the Palestinians (at least those represented by Fatah) represent Israel and Egypt in this analogy. While Hamas, Syria, and Iran are in the “second circle” of rejectionists. And the third circle is to represent the U.S., E.U., and Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, the “major powers overwhelmingly in favor of rapprochement.” We are to presume that those in the first circle today will similarly combine with the third circle to break the will of those rejectionists in the second circle. As I said, quite nice, quite elegant, but an entirely bogus historical analogy.
Egypt of 1977 is nothing like Palestine of 2008. The former was a united country led by a visionary leader. The latter is a people beset by civil war and utter internal chaos. Even the Israel of 1977 has little to do with the Israel of 2008. Ehud Olmert is no Menachem Begin. Whatever Begin’s weaknesses, Olmert is a political weakling in comparison. He has none of the intestinal fortitude or vision of Begin. None of the character tested by adversity.
As for the rejectionist “second circle,” there is one key member in the 2008 version to contend with–Hamas. As with the 1977 rejectionists, Hamas is “militarily weak and economically impotent,” but it is not divided, not politically weak, and a key player who cannot be ignored. In fact, though Hamas may be rejectionist, it doesn’t deserve second circle billing. In fact, it is the missing player from the first circle–the unseen hand, if you will. Helprin’s attempt to consign Hamas to oblivion in his pseudo-deft historical analogy will work no better than Bush’s West Bank First, Gaza Never policy.
As for the third circle, the 2008 “major powers” are definitely not overwhelmingly in favor of rapprochement [or in 2008 parlance, the Bush plan].” The interests and positions of the U.S., Quartet, E.U. and front line Arab states are disparate and almost never in complete sync. In fact, they are shifting sands which move according to whatever political wind happens to be blowing.
Here, Helprin the fantasist turns his attention to the Lebanon war and its aftermath:
Contrary to the received wisdom, last summer Hezbollah overplayed its hand. Israel emerged shaken but with few casualties and an economy that actually grew during the hostilities. It took 4,000 of the vaunted Katyusha rockets to kill 39 Israelis, they did little material damage, and not one has been launched in the year since the war. Israel showed that upon provocation it could and would destroy anything in its path, thus creating a Lebanese awakening that has split the country and kept Hezbollah fully occupied. Though Hezbollah is rearming, it remains shy of Israel.
Hamas, too, has overplayed its hand, which has provided the opening from which a Palestinian-Israeli peace may emerge. For the first time since 1948, a fundamental division among the Palestinians presents a condition in which the less absolutist view may find shelter and take hold.
The truth of the matter is that Israel emerged from the war shaken to its core both politically and militarily. No one in Israel can believe that in its next war it will enjoy anywhere near the superiority it enjoyed in every previous war save this last one. Everyone knows that future wars will be grim, merciless and grinding. Victory is no longer a given. In fact, victory is very much in doubt. This is a situation Israel has never faced before.
The political echelon in Israel has been brought to its knees. No Israeli believes its current leadership has what it takes to lead the nation to security or peace. These are qualities the nation had found in its previous prime minister, Sharon. For Helprin to slough off the impact of the war on Israel so breezily and dismissively shows he’s writing from a distance and does not have his finger on the pulse of the country.
Contrary to what Helprin says, the fact that no Katyusha has fallen on Israel since the war has almost nothing to do with Israel or its military might. Rather, it has to do with Hezbollah’s interest in maintaining the status quo during this period. Contrary to Helprin, Israel showed that “upon provocation” it could not militarily deliver on any of its major goals. It could not destroy Hezbollah. It couldn’t even seriously weaken it.
To describe what Israel did to Lebanon as causing an “awakening” is ludicrous beyond words. The democratic “awakening” occurred before the war and has been almost entirely vitiated by the effects of the war, thanks to Israel. Hezbollah may have its hands full currently dealing with the internal political situation, but if Helprin thinks Hezbollah will remain quiescent for long he makes a mistake so many Mideast analysts have made before him in underestimating the destructive power of attempting to maintain a rotten status quo.
As for Hamas, the claim that it has “overplayed its hand” can in no way be supported. Hamas has done many foolish, counterproductive things during its existence and some of its behavior during the Gaza takeover falls into that category. But Hamas’ general political situation is in no way threatened. Hamas will be ignored at the peril of the Abbases, Bushes, Blairs and Helprins or this world. If Helprin thinks that the current Gaza-West Bank split “presents a condition in which the less absolutist view may find shelter and take hold” he is not just sorely mistaken–he is as deluded as George Bush was when he told the world the Iraq war would be a cakewalk.
Let’s continue with Helprin’s fantasies:
Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader and Palestinian president, is weak in many ways, but he has decisively isolated the radicals.
Has he now? Yes, Abbas and Fatah are ascendant in the West Bank. Hamas has clearly gone to ground. But if Helprin thinks this means that Hamas has been defanged even in the West Bank, let alone Gaza he is sorely mistaken. Going to ground is not the same as being defeated or destroyed. And nothing like that has happened. Abbas has not “decisively isolated” or destroyed anyone and he knows it. He just hasn’t told Helprin the news.
The West Bank…face[s] a different demographic than…Gaza, and a different economy that can be richly watered if Israel is wise enough to do so
First, it is highly doubtful that the West Bank economy can be “richly watered” by anyone, let alone the Israelis. Yes, the West Bank economy is healthier and more viable than Gaza’s. But who in their right mind trusts that Israel will be interested in “richly watering” the West Bank? It has never before been interested in doing so. Why would it start now?
In economically besieged Gaza, Hamas is corralled by Israel, Egypt and the sea, its apparent strength exaggerated by Mr. Abbas’s decision not to fight on this battlefield but rather to profit by its loss, much as did King Hussein in regard to the West Bank in 1967.
Here is more wishful thinking. Hamas IS physically corralled. But you cannot corral a political idea or movement. No matter what Israel or Egypt do regarding Hamas, they cannot tame the tide that Hamas represents. Perhaps if Fatah could somehow reform itself and become a viable political alternative things might be different. But almost everyone but Helprin knows this isn’t in the cards. At least not right now and not in the foreseeable future.
Abbas and Fatah’s ass was whupped in Gaza. He didn’t choose to “profit by his loss.” He didn’t “decide not to fight.” His minions fled in dishonor in the face of Hamas’ superior organization and military will. Fatah’s loss in Gaza is merely a reflection of the latter’s disintegration as a viable political force.
The starving and oppressed Gazans who watch Hamas fire rockets…may soon see a prosperous West Bank at the brink of statehood and at peace with its neighbors and the world.
The operative word in the above passage is “may.” And the Pope may convert to Judaism too. How likely are either possibility?
Hamas leaders…may be held to account for keeping more than a million of their own people hostage to a gratuitous preference for struggle over success.
Again, the operative word is “may.” But the real truth is that Hamas has paid no political price whatsoever for Gaza’s current siege. Why should it? Gazans don’t blame Hamas. They correctly blame Israel and secondarily the world community for their misery. Why in heaven’s name would Mark Helprin think that because it’s clear as day to him that Hamas is the cause of Gaza’s misery that 1.5 million Gazans would agree with him? It’s really the height of neocon presumption.
The sudden and intense commonality of interest between the Palestinian Authority and Israel is the equivalent of the Israeli-Egyptian core of 1977. But today, the Arabs, in the second circle, have largely reversed position. Fearful of Iran’s sponsorship of war, chaos and revolution, they will apply their weight against the rejectionists.
Egypt, the Persian Gulf states and Jordan…cannot afford an active front in their midst, and are therefore forming ranks against Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, bringing most of the rest of the Arab states with them.
Does anyone with any sense in their head believe that Israel and Fatah share a “sudden and intense commonality?” The very idea is preposterous. They MAY share some short term goals and interests, but even these interests are as unstable as the shifting desert sands given the political winds that could disrupt them.
Don’t you just love the word “will” in the closing sentence of the above passage? The Arabs WILL unite against Iran. They will see it Bush’s way and push for Hamas’ continued isolation. The only problem is that while the frontline states are opposed to Iran, they are by no means united in their belief that Bush’s policy represents the way to go. And they are absolutely opposed to Bush’s West Bank First concept. In fact, they continue to support the idea of a Palestinian unity government first proposed by Saudi Arabia. So there you have it. Helprin’s 2008 Arab “coalition of the willing”–won’t. ‘Nuff said.
All I can say to this is Wow:
This is extraordinary and it is where we are now: on the verge of a rare alignment of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the leading Arab nations and the major powers.
Doesn’t this remind you of the high-blown rhetoric that preceded the Iraq war? The neocon power of self-deception knows no bounds.
…Though the United States has of late been a graceless lummox drunkenly knocking everything awry, its powers remain pre-eminent and its will constructive.
Gee, I think the Iraqi insurgents and Iranians might take issue with the claim that our “power remains pre-eminent.” If that were so, why haven’t we cleaned up in Iraq? Why haven’t we forced Iran to do our will over the nuclear issue? As for the claim that our “will is constructive,” I guess that depends who you’re asking. If you’re asking 99% of the world’s Muslims then the answer would be a resounding No. If you’re asking Europeans the answer would be No. If you’re asking the circle who populate the neocon think tanks like Helprin’s Claremont Institute, then hell yeah, our will is constructive.
Here Helprin again makes the empty claim that Hamas is politically ineffectual:
Anything for the worse can happen in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and usually does; but now the chief pillars of rejectionist policy lie flat…
Hamas is no more “flat” than the earth is. To believe otherwise is to simply deny reality much as the Copernicans did in their dispute with Galileo.
Helprin’s final sentence is truly breathtaking in its self-delusion and deserves to be relished by anyone with a more pragmatic, realistic bent:
…Historical processes have unfrozen. If Israel and the Palestinian Authority can pursue a strategy of limited aims, concentrating on bilateral agreements rather than a single work of fallible grandeur, they may accomplish something on the scale of Sadat’s extraordinary démarche of 30 years ago. The odds are perhaps the best they have been since, and responsible governments should recognize them as the spur for appropriate action and risk.
The truth of the matter is that Sadat’s “demarche” was not built on a “strategy of limited aims.” It was a bold, radical break with the past. And Sadat expected bold, radical results which is what he realized in the Camp David agreements. “Bilateral agreements” will not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian mess. Only final status negotiations resolving all of the major issues separating the parties will do so.
Anyone who listens to Bush’s pipe dream of West Bank First or Helprin’s fatal vision of Israel finding peace with its rump Palestinian adversary is in for a rude awakening. Remember Iraq?
Mark Helprin is no doubt an elegant, powerful and persuasive fiction writer. He should stick to fiction. Leave Mideast politics to the realists.