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The World Must Do More For Middle East Peace

Author: Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
June 14, 2010
American Interest

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Both the Israelis and the Palestinians have a lot to answer for in their 100-year-plus conflict over some of the most miserable and hardscrabble but somehow beloved land on the face of the earth.  But the sad and sorry truth is that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are really responsible for the mess that they are both in — and neither party can solve the problem on its own.

We outsiders love to blame those two squabbling peoples for their long and vicious war.  These days most outsiders blame the Israelis — stronger, richer, mostly descended from immigrants who've only been (back) in the land for a century or less.  Obviously as the stronger and richer party, say these folks, the Israelis should make the lion's share of concessions.  It is up to Israel to make the Palestinians happy, says a large fraction of world opinion, and its obstinate failure to do so is a crime not only against the suffering Palestinians, but against all the rest of us whose comfortable slumbers are so often and rudely disturbed by this incessant and distressing conflict. Meanwhile the incessant Israeli settlements and land seizures inflame both Palestinian and world public opinion and the brutality and cost of occupation hurts the Palestinians, frustrates their prospects for economic growth, and infuriates people all over the world.

Other outsiders say that the big problem is the Palestinians: they ‘never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.'  If they'd known what was good for them, they would have accepted either the British proposal or the UN proposal for partition back before Israel's War of Independence.  If they'd been smart enough to do that, there would be no Palestinian refugee problem today and they would have a lot more land.  Failing that, they should have made peace in 1967 — they would have gotten every acre of the territories back without a single Israeli settlement.  (Although there would have been some tough arguments over Jerusalem.)  The chief cause of the endless prolongation of the conflict and of Palestinian suffering in this view is the repeated failure of the Palestinian leadership to accept compromise.  The compromise they contemptuously reject today inexorably becomes the utopia they will dream of ten years down the road.

Again, there is some truth in both stories, but not enough.  The largest and most expansive concessions that the Israelis can make (return to the pre-1967 borders, a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem with Islamic holy places under Palestinian control, compensation and financial aid to refugees) will not meet the true minimum Palestinian conditions for an acceptable peace.  By the same token, no Palestinian leadership, however compromise-minded and moderate, can deliver what Israelis most crave in exchange: credible guarantees of security and the end of conflict and claims. That is the ugly reality at the heart of the conflict.

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