Washington Jewish Week / May 19, 2010
By Larry Luxner
Despite the gloomy headlines coming out of the Middle East lately, prospects for long-lasting peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors are looking brighter than they have in 17 years.
So says journalist, author and noted Middle East expert David Makovsky, speaking last week before a full house at Washington’s Congregation Adas Israel.
“Ironically, I would argue that we’re at the best point we’ve been since that handshake on the White House lawn in 1993 [between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat],” argued Makovsky in an informal conversation and Q&A with Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary and himself a world authority on relations between Israel and the American Jewish community.
“You may think I’m on drugs, but I believe this because you have a converging interest between the Palestinian Authority and Israel against Hamas. It was a wakeup call in 2007 when Hamas literally threw them out of Gaza. In my view, we’ve got at least a chance.”
Makovsky is Ziegler distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He’s also co-author, with Dennis Ross, of the book “Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding New Directions in the Middle East.”
He says the PA, led by Mahmoud Abbas, “is not doing this because of love of Zionism, but because they see Hamas more than the Israelis as their enemy.”
One statistic to back up Makovsky’s optimistic view: in 2002, some 410 Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks originating in the West Bank. By 2009, that number had dropped to two. Was it thanks to the controversial security fence or the Israel Defense Forces or Shin-Bet, Israel’s internet spy network?
“No,” he says, answering his own question. “It’s because we’re working with the Palestinians these days, and the security cooperation is excellent. The two sides are working together.”
As a result, he said, Israel has been able to reduce the number of security checkpoints in the West Bank from 42 to 14. According to a recent poll, today 70% of Palestinians in the West Bank feel safe in their homes, up from only 10% during the last intifada.
“There’s something new going on here, there are glimmers of hope, and also in terms of education and religion,” Makovsky told his audience. “The PA now has security screening for every teacher, because they don’t want Hamas teaching their children. Nobody advertises this in the Washington Post, but they have talking points with imams, and the authorities get a complete report on what they preach in their Friday sermons. It isn’t because Jewish organizations told them they have to do it, but because it’s good for them.”
He added: “The big change is conceptual. Arafat said ‘we’re occupied people responsible for nothing and entitled to everything.’ Now the PA says we have to create a culture of accountability. I’m not here to say it’s going to be rosy and everyone will sing Hava Nagila together, but on the other side something’s definitely going on.”
Such optimism, unfortunately, does not extend to the current tensions between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“We can’t deny or pretend to paper over the tension between them,” he said. “This president is not like George W. Bush, who said he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul. Obama’s a detached, cerebral sort of person, and a lot of American Jews and Israelis are skeptical.”
Makovsky leveled some mild criticism against the White House for insisting on a settlement freeze in the West Bank.
“I personally agree with Obama that the settlement issue was legitimate, but by putting the bar as high as a freeze when even Abbas didn’t call for that, it only exacerbated the differences [between the United States and Israel] instead of limiting them.”
Another low point was the controversial UN Goldstone report, which was highly critical of Israel’s December 2008 invasion of Gaza.
“Abbas is more afraid of the Arabs than he is of the Israelis. Before the [Gaza invasion], he had been telling the Israelis to go kill Hamas. He was part of it, and the Israelis know it. So it looked odd that he was calling for a UN report to investigate something he wanted.”
Things changed, he said, after the Qatar-based Al Jazeera network aired an inflammatory TV program warning Abbas that he’d be viewed as a traitor throughout the Arab world if he shoved the Goldstone report under the table.
“I don’t usually praise Yasser Arafat,” said Makovsky, “but Arafat wouldn’t have done it this way. He would have said this is a Palestinian issue. But Abbas doesn’t have that same stature. He wants insurance that the Arab states will sign in advance.”
He added: “In my view, it’s never been about land, it’s about Israel’s acceptance in the Middle East,” he said, noting that 80% of Jewish settlers in the West Bank live on less than 5% of the land. “You can do land swaps, in which Israel keeps the settlements and yields other land.”
Makovsky insisted that Americans shouldn’t be deluded into thinking that if only the Arab-Israeli conflict went away, so would al-Qaeda or terrorism in general.
“There are 20 layers of anti-Americanism in the Middle East. We have a Hollywood culture viewed as deeply disruptive to the Middle East lifestyle. Some Arabs resent us because we have good ties with authoritarian governments like Saudi Arabia, some because we support Israel. But even if we solved this conflict, maybe instead of 20 layers of anti-Americanism, there would be 19. This issue is evocative, but I just don’t see it as decisive.
“Even if we struck a deal based on peace,” he added, “those same groups would say it’s a sellout and blow people up.”
Much more serious is the issue of a nuclear-armed Iran.
“Within a year and a half, one of three things will happen,” he predicted. “Iran will be deemed a nuclear-weapons state, which will be a setback for American influence in the region. A second scenario is that somehow an invigorated sanctions program will lead Iran to back off, and the third is there’ll be a military strike. If I had to bet, I’d bet it would be a strike by Israel.”
Makovsky said he doesn’t necessarily advocate a military strike, but that it’s an option that cannot be ruled out given Iran’s insistence on aquiring nuclear-weapons capability.
“We’re heading into a momentous time here,” he said. “The Senate and House are focusing on their own set of sanctions. What the Europeans will now admit to is that clearly, the stronger the sanctions, the less chance of a military option. If you have weak sanctions against Iran, you make a military option more likely. We hope this is resolved peacefully, but let’s be clear: the stakes are very high.”
If sanctions don’t work, he warned, “everyone would be living in the shadow of an Iranian nuclear bomb. This must be stopped.”