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When Even-handed Became Ham-fisted

Serge Schmemann

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 with Israel.

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 Israelis.

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 whole.

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 elusive.

Source: International Herald Tribune, May 5, 2004

From the Common Ground News Service
hagalil.com 09-05-2004



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