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A World Apart? : The White House and the Middle East | The Nation

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A World Apart? : The White House and the Middle East

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Under the radar of the American media, however, Israeli political parties were having a fight of their own over who would overreach more in supporting West Bank settlement activities. From 1972 to 1983, mostly under Labor governments, the number of Jewish settlers in Jerusalem climbed from about 8,500 to more than 75,000. In 1977 Begin's Likud won power, and Gush Emunim went to work for real: 2,000 West Bank settlers became 6,000 by the time the Camp David accords were signed. President Carter--relatively sophisticated, with no particular softness for Israelis but politically weak and desperate for Jewish support in his primary campaign against Ted Kennedy--insisted that he had secured a freeze on settlements from Begin for as long as Camp David negotiations continued. He won an Israeli concession that Palestinian autonomy would lead to their acquiring "legitimate rights." But Begin double-crossed Carter and virtually dared him to fight with Israel's Congressional supporters as the 1979 Democratic primaries approached. By the time Ronald Reagan took office, there were something like 10,000 settlers.

About the Author

Bernard Avishai
Bernard Avishai lives in Jerusalem and New Hampshire. He is a visiting professor of government at Dartmouth and an...

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President Reagan, for his part, called the settlements an obstacle to peace, urged on, by turns, by Alexander Haig and George Schultz. But nobody believed they meant it. Reagan left Sadat out on a limb, which may well have guaranteed Sadat's assassination. Reagan's team, meanwhile, was prepared to unleash Saddam's Iraq against Iran. There was talk of reviving a Jordan option, with King Hussein managing a federation with Palestine; but there was no heart to oppose Israeli retaliations against PLO guerrillas in southern Lebanon or, ultimately, Israel's catastrophic invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Reagan was a dream come true for the settlers: wildly popular, simple-minded, vaguely messianic and surrounded by Jewish neocons and Hollywood friends. By the time he left office, there were around 100,000 settlers outside Jerusalem and about 200,000 inside.

Curiously, Tyler gives rather short shrift to perhaps the biggest fight over settlements. After the Gulf War in 1991, Reagan's successor, George H.W. Bush, and his secretary of state, James Baker ("Fuck the Jews; they don't vote for us anyway"), threatened to withhold loan guarantees if Israel did not promise not to use the funds to settle Russian Jews in the West Bank. This occasioned AIPAC's most chilling show of force: a thousand volunteers stormed the Capitol in advance of the 1992 election. As it happens, the town of Ariel, which would become one of the biggest bones of contention between Olmert and Abbas, was largely populated by immigrant Russian Jews during this time. Ariel Sharon, then housing minister, picked up about 4,000 from the airport and plunked them down in the Samarian hills.

Clearly, I cannot do justice here to all the sordid details Tyler patiently recounts--much less to the ones he glosses over. I will say that the closer we get to the present, his book reads less like history and more like old news. Bill Clinton advanced the Oslo agreements, even cajoling Netanyahu into an interim deal on Hebron. His "bridging parameters" from December 2000 still form the spine of any American plan. But Clinton lacked "discipline" and needed Congress too much during the Lewinsky scandal. George W. Bush was, in our matrix, a replay of Reagan. You won't learn more about Clinton's fumbles than you learned from Robert Malley and Hussein Agha's essays in The New York Review of Books, or more on Bush than from, say, the pages of this magazine.

Where does A World of Trouble leave us? Tyler could not have anticipated Obama when he started writing, but something about his review of Middle East "trouble" seems vaguely "back to the future." Not since Eisenhower has there been a president with the necessary combination of attributes to reintroduce the idea of a regional settlement along lines determined by the great powers. America may be diminished in its own eyes, given the Iraq disaster, the financial crisis and the spreading insurgency in Afghanistan. But to Israelis--whose city-state earns less, and is somewhat smaller in habitable area and population, than greater Los Angeles--America and Europe are the world: markets, universities, culture, friendship, arms. Israel is a local military power, well entrenched in what Eisenhower called America's military-industrial complex. But Israel's actions in the territories have never been popular at the Pentagon, and the recent Gaza operation might be said to have violated every principle in Gen. David Petraeus's counterinsurgency handbook. Friends don't let friends drive drunk.

Obama has worldly sophistication and a supportive European Union, an unprecedented mandate and even something Ike did not have, the affections of a majority of American Jews. Indeed, a recent J Street poll reveals that more than 70 percent of American Jews support Obama and a two-state deal pretty much like the one negotiated at Taba eight years ago. (J Street, a peace lobby backed largely by the progressive American Jews AIPAC has alienated, grew in parallel with the Obama campaign.) Against this trifecta, it will be hard to flog Israel's role in a clash of civilizations--a view of the world Obama all but denounced in Cairo.

None of this guarantees Obama will make the most of his opportunity. He is doing his best, clearly, to honor and attract the Islamic world. He has solidly endorsed a Palestinian state and an end to settlements. But if he's digested Tyler's implicit instruction, he'll quickly get beyond framing the peace process as a facilitated negotiation between Israel and Palestine, much as he got beyond the appeal for "bipartisanship" with Congressional Republicans. America in the Middle East is not some Dr. Phil, lively, well intentioned and--how did former Secretary Powell foolishly put it?--not wanting peace "more than the parties themselves." America has skin in the game. So do Europe and the neighboring Arab states. They must all want peace more than the Israelis and Palestinians, who are chronically distrustful of each other, trapped by their fanatics, and whose leaders cannot resist the demagogy of the vendetta.

The time has come, in other words, for Obama to stipulate and conduct a public worldwide campaign for an American plan, not just an American vision. The broad terms of the plan will surprise nobody: we are not talking about the price of a rug in the bazaar; Israel is not just Palestine's cross, and Palestine is not Israel's internal affair. And there can be no peace without outside commitments: NATO committing to include Israel; Egypt and Jordan committing Palestine peacekeepers, investment capital and a sympathetic press. The United States can have no leverage with Iran, therefore no orderly exit from Iraq, without a working partnership with the Arab League.

"America will not turn our backs," Obama said in Cairo, "on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own." The whole Middle East, with the span of a continent, is roiled by this conflict. In the background of Tyler's foreground, Obama knows, are the world's largest proven reserves of oil and dollars, teens and violence. There is a burgeoning Arab middle class opening to the West, in Fez, Tripoli and Amman. But they are surrounded by restless undereducated people governed only by mosques and fathers where state security services leave off. Obama's is the face of a more progressive globalization, but world economic stresses could make the mosques, the fathers and their acolytes only more volatile. The status quo, in any case, means the triumph of the settlers and Hamas. And it is all too easy to imagine the sad follow-on chapters to Tyler's sad chronicle.

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