When Even-handed Became Ham-fisted
To its combatants, the Middle East conflict is often perceived as a zero-sum
game. Each side thinks, ‘we are the victims; they are the terrorists.’ When
they strike, it is aggression; when we strike, it is just retaliation. To
suggest that the other side also has just grievances and just demands
becomes a denial of one's own suffering and claims.
Those with longer memories will recall the furious attacks on William
Scranton when, as President Richard Nixon's envoy to the Middle East, he
called for a more "even-handed" American approach. It was as if Mr. Scranton
had proposed that the United States abandon Israel. Henry Kissinger has
described how Golda Meir, the Israeli Prime Minister, told him she expected
the United States to be even-handed, as long as that meant total agreement
Every diplomat who has served in the Middle East, and every reporter who has
covered the conflict, myself included, knows well the depth of these
feelings. When I wrote about a close call with a suicide bombing,
Palestinian colleagues assailed me for playing to the Israeli side; when I
wrote about the agony of life under occupation, I was criticized by
This zero-sum approach has always been central in efforts to negotiate a
settlement because any compromise requires each side to surrender a portion
of its national narrative. That is why both sides insist that their
legitimacy be recognized as part of any agreement. The Israelis demand that
the Arabs not only affirm their presence in Palestine, but also their right
to a state.
For the Palestinians, it is equally critical that any negotiation start with
an affirmation of their right to recover territories occupied by Israel in
1967, and of the right of refugees to return to all territories now held by
Israelis. Each side knows that it will have to cede a portion of its claim
in a final settlement, but it can do so only after the legitimacy of that
claim is properly acknowledged.
Those few times when the Israelis and the Palestinians have reached official
or unofficial agreements, as with the Oslo accords of 1993 or the unofficial
Geneva agreement last year, progress was possible because each side was
allowed to declare that its national claims had been vindicated. That's why
the "Roadmap" that President George Bush presented in 2003 required the
Palestinians to affirm publicly "Israel's right to exist in peace," and why
that same plan spoke of ending "the occupation that began in 1967."
Satisfying the conflicting claims to the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif in
Jerusalem/Al Quds, sacred to both sides, has always required the most
creative solutions, like giving Israelis sovereignty over the Temple Mount
while leaving Muslims in control of the sanctuaries. The symmetry of these
proposals was highly delicate -- knocking out any element collapsed the
ns have known this ever since they became the principal
mediators in the conflict. Though the United States has been an unwavering
supporter of Israel since the 1967 war, American presidents and secretaries
of state have recognized that a credible mediating role also requires
assuring Palestinians that the United States hears their grievances and will
not give Israel a free hand to decide their fate unilaterally.
Tough love has often been needed. In the first Bush administration,
Secretary of State James Baker III held up loan guarantees to Israel over
the issue of settlements; President Bill Clinton compelled Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu to withdraw from Hebron. No administration accepted Mrs.
Meir's definition of even-handedness.
Until last month, that is, when President Bush signed off on Israeli West
Bank settlements and the abrogation of the Palestinians' right of return. He
said he was merely recognizing the facts on the ground, and there is an
element of truth to that, even if he missed the larger point. Anybody who's
been to Ariel or Ma’ale Adumim knows these "settlements" are real cities,
just as everyone knows that a skyscraper in Tel Aviv will not revert into a
Palestinian's olive grove.
But knowing how things should end has never been the problem in the Middle
East. It's always been about how to get there, as the vote in Ariel Sharon's
Likud Party, rejecting his initiative for Israel to withdraw unilaterally
from Gaza, has made so abundantly clear.
It's hard to believe that Mr. Bush failed to realize that by denying
critical elements of the Palestinians' national narrative, he was stripping
them of negotiating leverage and undermining whatever faith they still had
in American mediation. His father could have explained it to him; so could a
close reading of his own Roadmap, which held that refugees and borders were
issues to be resolved at the negotiating table. Mr. Sharon may find a way
around his recalcitrant party, and America will no doubt continue its
diplomatic efforts. But that critical illusion of symmetry has become more