- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2009



Exactly 40 years ago this year, I went to the Middle East for the first time, and I was easily, and not surprisingly, as enchanted with the sloe-eyed beauty of the region as I was with its hopelessness.

I wrote then, in a long-forgotten book on the struggle, trying to bring some hope to bear on the central Arab/Israeli conflict, at least in my own mind — “It is not that there have not been dreamers on both sides - men of good will who would take the first step toward peace - but that the dreamers were always, and are today, overruled by the hard men of reality, who do such a good job of arranging everything everywhere.”

Today what would I write? As former Senate Democratic majority leader and new presidential emissary to the Middle East George Mitchell leaves for the troubled region, well, very much the same thing. We veteran correspondents of the Middle East saga often talk about how we could dig out our past columns on how the Israelis and the Palestinians could get together and publish them today, only if… . And all of us then shake our heads - too many “only ifs” over so many years.

Let me say first that George Mitchell, who chaired the talks that led to the 1998 Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland among other major accomplishments, is about as good as an appointment gets. President Obama has got off to a major league start by doing the unthinkable, giving an interview to the big Arab network, Al Arabiya.

I have made a little tour of the think tanks here this last week and listened to many of the best thinkers on the region. There is a maddening and saddening agreement on only one thing - that the famed “two-state solution” that has grown in the Middle East since 1969 and that Mr. Mitchell will himself be pushing, is either already dead or in its death throes.

How tragic it would be if this “solution” - the one that rational people, the “dreamers” on both sides of the conflict have believed in for decades - is out of our reach, just as we have an administration and an envoy who could and would carry it through! Yet, that may well be the case.

As my colleague Shibley Telhami, the respected Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution and Anwar Sadat Professor at the University of Maryland, tells me after the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas over Gaza: “The first casualty is that many in the region believe that peace is not possible, and it trumps the Obama outreach for some. Al Arabiya itself asked, ‘What did he say about Gaza?’ I’m going to do a poll soon to see how large a majority supports Hamas now than before. No question that politically, they’re stronger. They’re alive - and they’re still in charge of Gaza. And now they are much more of a reality on the international front.

”This administration,” Mr. Telhami says tellingly, “will be the last administration to deal with the two-state solution.”

But what then? What will the envoy George Mitchell find in his first stops in Israel and the West Bank? Forget ideology - is there still any physical room for hope? The radical Palestinian Hamas members in Gaza continue their attacks against Israel. The West Bank continues to shrink in size in the face of constantly expanding Israeli settlements. And Israel itself prepares for elections in February that will most probably bring back to power the radical right under Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, which means stretching out the time until April (with a new government coming to power, Passover, Easter, etc.) when talks might even begin.

At some of my representative think tanks, where most speakers speak off the record, the prediction is simply for an unending conflict. But there is also the lingering, initially unbelievable idea that there should be a “one-state solution.”

As’ad Ghanem, senior lecturer at the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa and an Arab scholar who spans two worlds, said at the Middle East Institute this week: “The Israelis do not want a two-state solution, and the Palestinians are fragmented. So now is the time to think of one state. It is not a dream. Two states is a dream. There would be one state controlled by Israel.”

The Palestinian part of this idea is that somehow, someday, in some dream or nightmare, they would be incorporated into some kind of Israel and that their birthrate would simply demographically overcome the Israeli one. It seems bizarre and even nightmarish, but it is one of those dangerous ideas that stream forth when people become so tormented that any rational solution seems impossible.

I should pause here and say that, until now, despite everything, there has been no reason to believe there could not be a peace settlement, if both sides would only give up what seemed to just about all negotiators to be the solution (two independent states, Palestinians halting their terrorism, Israelis pulling back their settlements, recognition of Israel by Arab states and the many other facets of an agreement).

Yet, it is not make-believe, but history now, to hope; the 1973 war opened the way to diplomacy and the 1991 Madrid Conference and the Gulf war gave rise to the infinitely promising Oslo Accords. There have been real possibilities for peace all along, but in the end the “hard men of reality” destroyed the “dreamers.”

So now we’ll see. But everyone here agrees on one factor: It’s about five minutes to midnight. (And that is why my old 1972 book was called “The New 100 Years War,” taken from a frightening, but perhaps too-accurate quote by then-U.N. Secretary-General U Thant.)

Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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