The Middle East peace process is beginning to look like the Theater of the Absurd. Absurdism posits that while meaning may well exist in the universe, human beings are incapable of finding it due to some form of mental limitation. In the Mideast, neither Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu nor the Palestinians' Mahmoud Abbas seems capable of crossing the Rubicon, or embarking on a course of action on which there is no going back.
Egypt and Israel were similarly deadlocked after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and it wasn't until 1977 when President Anwar Sadat stunned the world by flying to Israel to address the Knesset and convinced Israel he was serious about peace. Sadat had taken matters out of U.S. diplomatic hands to reach a peace agreement with the erstwhile enemy — and signed his own death warrant. He knew Islamist fanatics would sooner or later kill him, which they did on Oct. 6, 1981.
Now there is only one person who could impose a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians — President Obama himself, not Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. It would require direct involvement by the president of the United States, commuting, as President Carter did in 1978, between two log cabins (occupied by Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin) at Camp David for 12 days. The result was a peace treaty and the establishment of full diplomatic and commercial relations.
Could the diplomatic hat trick be repeated by Mr. Obama? A recent 10-month Israeli moratorium on new construction in the occupied territories excluded East Jerusalem, and in the West Bank new buildings went up in several settlements — below radar detection. Now Mr. Netanyahu has agreed to a further 90-day moratorium — but exacted a stiff price from Mr. Obama.
First, there would be no further extension of the moratorium. Second, East Jerusalem will not be part of negotiations for a Palestinian capital. Third, the United States will veto any attempt by the Palestinians to win United Nations recognition of their still-mythical state. Fourth, in a buy-one-get-one-free deal, Mr. Obama will ask Congress to approve a $3 billion gift of 20 fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighters (in addition to the 20 F-35s Israel is buying with the almost $3 billion it gets every year from Washington).
For angry Palestinians, it is simply a matter of a costly bribe to get Israel to fulfill basic international obligations. All the United States gets for a 90-day extension of the moratorium on new construction in the West Bank (not in East Jerusalem, which the rest of the world does not recognize as Israel's capital; foreign embassies are located in Tel Aviv) is Mr. Netanyahu's agreement to talk on and off for three more months.
None of this bodes well for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. But Israel scored big in Washington. And the Palestinians conclude yet again that Israel, backed up by still more AIPAC (the Israeli lobby) supporters since the midterm elections, is under little pressure to make possible a viable Palestinian state.
There is also a nascent Palestinian leadership vacuum. Mahmoud Abbas, who is head of the Fatah party, head of the Palestine Liberation Organization and head of the Palestinian Authority, announced he won't be running again. Both his term and the legislature's are up before year's end. They will all stay in office until elections can be organized. But there is no obvious successor to Mr. Abbas.
Hardly a propitious time to resume negotiations with the Israelis. Besides, the result is already preordained. All the Israelis have to do is talk with the Palestinians for another 90 days — safe in the knowledge that another $3 billion in U.S. military aid is in the pipeline.
For Mr. Netanyahu and his hard-line ministers, there is little doubt that if they agreed to end the occupation of the West Bank, moderate Palestinians would be crushed by Hamas, the Islamist extremist party that now rules the Gaza Strip. And a West Bank ruled by Hamas is bound to look at the Mediterranean Sea as the next frontier.
A Hamas-dominated Palestinian government would also have powerful allies — Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran. And if such a Palestinian state emerged, many Israelis, backed by many Americans, would be itching for a military showdown with Iran.
For the United States, the emergence of a truly independent Palestinian state is a geopolitical imperative. Al-Qaida's propaganda, from the Internet's sympathetic online magazines to many Arab publications who blame the United States for what they see as Israel's brutal suppression of Palestinians, Washington is in a hurry for a course correction.
The seemingly deadlocked Palestinian peace talks — and the U.S. inability to get Israelis off of the West Bank — are constantly blamed by Arab media on a secret U.S.-Israeli compact. Most educated Arabs, including many who have earned stateside degrees, believe that U.S. and Israeli intelligence services conspired to carry out the plots of Sept. 11, 2001. Many Arab newspapers use this monstrous canard to pigeonhole America and the Jewish state.
The founding charter of Hamas, written by the extremists who rule Gaza, says Jews seek to conquer all the land between the Euphrates in Iraq and the Nile in Egypt. Similar thoughts are articles of faith, often conveyed online where scores of pro-al-Qaida websites compete for attention.
After what was described as a grueling seven-hour session with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in New York, Mr. Netanyahu flew home. It taxes credulity to accept what was widely described as a "$3 billion American bribe" as a major step in the peace process. Britain's Independent wrote, "The fact that the West and its political and journalistic elites . . . take this tomfoolery at face value . . . is a measure of the degree to which we have taken leave of our senses in the Middle East."
Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor-at-large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.
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