Our president has announced his intention to broker a peace deal to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict, or at least he has said that such a feat is on his to-do list. I wish him well. I hope he succeeds. And if he does, I mean succeed in bringing peace, I will break with recent precedent and say a great many nice things about Donald Trump, and endorse him for a Nobel peace prize.
Despite his depthless self-confidence, and despite the fact that he now heads a government that employs many very knowledgeable experts on the issue, I don’t believe President Trump knows very much about the geography, the history, or the obstacles to settling the conflict. I doubt he could pass a high-school level test on those subjects. But maybe that’s not what matters.
Trump is supposedly gifted at “The Art of the Deal.” “I like to make deals,” he has said. “I make great deals.” Yesterday, standing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he upped the stakes, calling a peace agreement “one of the toughest deals of all.” (Although he recently said that bringing peace to the Mideast “is something that I think is frankly, maybe, not as difficult as people have thought over the years.”
Maybe what’s needed is not someone who understands history or geography or ethnography, but someone who is just great at making great deals. I don’t believe that, but I hope I’m wrong. (I also believe that Trump’s history as a “deal-maker” has given scope to his predatory streak, which is why he has ended up in court with so many of his deal partners.)
The U.N. map
Harry Truman was president in 1947-48, when the United Nations partitioned the territory, formerly known as Palestine, into seven pieces, three of which (barely touching one another) were to be the Jewish state, three of which were to be a homeland for the Palestinian Arabs. If you click through to the original map, you won’t know whether to laugh or cry.
It was a ridiculous plan, which lasted for about 10 seconds, was rejected by pretty much the entire Arab world, which led to the first Arab-Israeli war, which ended with Israel coming into existence with boundaries significantly larger than what the 1947 partition had envisioned. Pretty much every president since Truman has tried his hand at the Arab-Israeli conflict.
There was another war in 1967, in which Israel gained still more territory. That was the period in which the strong alliance between the United States and Israel came into being, and has lasted ever since.
Since then, there have been more changes to the maps and more deals. Almost every U.S. president has taken a shot at Mideast deal-making. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter brokered the “Camp David Accords,” which much of the world believed for a while might settle the conflict, but that turned out not to be true.
Not only did the promise of peace not last after Camp David, but the Arab leader who signed the deal, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, was assassinated and the Arab League expelled Egypt from its membership status.
President Bill Clinton pulled off the “Oslo Accords” with a big White House signing ceremony featuring Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Peace did not ensue, but Rabin, too, was assassinated, by a right-wing Israeli. Still, peace slipped off the hook. Maybe someone else can seal the real deal. Maybe Trump. Likely not.
I took my own deep dive into the history of the conflict for a 1991 series in the Star Tribune, which later became a small book, called “Parallel Realities.” I’m certainly no major scholar on the topic, but I do believe I was having a good day when I came up with that title, “Parallel Realities.”
It suggests that in a deep ethnic/religious/nationalist conflict such as Arab/Israeli conflict, each side tends to construct an entire reality of what would constitute justice and a fair outcome, and those realities run parallel, side by side endlessly, with very few facts or moral or religious arguments appearing in both realities. I called it a “Dialogue of Two Monologues.” Both sides are talking. But each is mostly listening to its own voice.
(In connection with one of their films about the conflict, PBS/Frontline put my “Dialogue of Two Monologues” up on the web a few years ago, if you would like to see how it constructs the two-worldviews-that-never-touch.)
If I’m right, it will take something other than deal-making ability to end this century-old conflict. It will take both sides being so exhausted with endless conflict that they will each embrace some portion of the other side’s “reality.”
If you can stand it, I’ll offer one tiny other thing from my ancient series, that I had forgotten about until I got out a copy today to crib for this piece. It was part of the introduction to the dialogue of monologues, it borrowed from one of my old journalistic heroes, and it went like this:
I.F. Stone, the legendary iconoclastic journalist of the 1950s and 60s, once wrote that “Stripped of propaganda and sentiment, the Palestine problem is simply the struggle of two different peoples for the same strip of land.”
Well, yes, that’s so. The dispute is, at some level, simply about ownership of a strip of land and could therefore be solved by an agreement to divide the land between the two peoples. Sounds simple enough. And yet, in the same 1967 essay, Stone wrote: “If God, as some now say, is dead, He no doubt died trying to find an equitable solution to the Arab-Jewish problem.”
Good luck to you, Mr. President.