A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion runs deep, Saul Bellow once said.
The illusion, yet again, is a Middle Eastern peace conference in November or December that would produce the final outlines and contents of an independent state of Palestine.
Seldom has such a vision appeared more chimera than reality, and yet seldom pursued more vigorously, this time by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has logged eight trips to the region in 10 months, in the elusive pursuit of a legacy other than Iraq.
For advice on the pursuit of what she sees as her Middle Eastern legacy for the history books, Rice has consulted two former presidents (Carter and Clinton), three former secretaries of state (Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Madeleine Albright), and top Middle East negotiators who have made a career out of the "peace process."
She now believes she can reel in a "viable and contiguous Palestinian state" in the next 12 months. But "contiguous" is already unattainable by Israel's 456-mile physical barrier and Jewish settlements that are all inter-connected by roads banned to Palestinians.
Major concessions by ailing (prostate cancer) Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, now the subject of seven police and judicial investigations for alleged improprieties, are out of the question. They would only accelerate his decline and the return to power of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who would then promptly restore the status quo ante.
Could the United States then make aid to Israel conditional on a Palestinian settlement? The next president might try what would be a foreign policy first — but a collective congressional holler would force a quick retreat.
The obstacles in the Palestinian camp are equally insurmountable. Palestinians and Israelis have diametrically opposed narratives of their history since the birth of Israel in 1948. And if they can't agree on contemporary history, let alone who was there first 3,000 years ago, how can they possibly agree on what needs correcting and on who owes what to whom?
As Rice met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, the most Westernized of all West Bank cities, where women now wear the veil, both seemed oblivious to the rising threat of Hamas from its Gaza base to the entire West Bank. Islamic fundamentalism is now on the march throughout the occupied Palestinian territories. It's no longer safe for Abbas to enter Jenin or Nablus, the two largest cities in the West Bank. Even his own security forces would not or could not protect him in what were until recently safe areas for Palestinian moderates.
Rice, Abbas, and their Israeli interlocutor, Olmert, are in a state of denial about the insuperable roadblock of Hamas, now a majority Palestinian movement that denies the very existence of Israel and dominates both Gaza and the West Bank. For Olmert, omerta is protection against oblivion. A majority of Israeli lawmakers said any attempt to slice and dice East Jerusalem to accommodate the Palestinian demand for a capital city would be Olmert's last curtain call.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the immensely popular right-wing firebrand, would then be assured of Israel's leadership in early elections — back to square one. Or square two with Ehud Barak, a reborn hawk, now defense minister, who trails Netanyahu in the polls.
Similarly, the billions of dollars the Palestinians will demand as compensation for the 4 million Palestinians denied the right of return (descendants of the 700,000 who left in 1948 "of their own volition," according to the Israelis, or were "terrorized" into leaving, say the Palestinians) will be compensated, not by Israelis as they see it, but by U.S. taxpayers once the haggling stops. So this is yet another non-event.
Three major deal-breakers — a "contiguous and viable" Palestinian state, Jerusalem, and the right of return — defy solution in the 15 months Rice has left to achieve a Palestinian state for posterity. Even a Palestinian miracle would not detract from the specter of "World War III" conjured up by President Bush over Iran's nuclear ambitions — and echoed by oil at $93 a barrel, gold at $800, the dollar at an all-time low, and Egypt announcing its decision to build nuclear reactors (shorthand for something more lethal).
International Atomic Energy Agency chairman Mohammed ElBaradei, who got the Nobel Peace Prize for getting it right in Iraq, now says there is still no evidence of prohibited nuclear-related activities in Iran. And he urged the United States to halt its fiery rhetoric, as there is still time for diplomacy.
"The earlier we go into negotiation, the earlier we follow the North Korean model, the better for everybody," ElBaradei told CNN's Wolf Blitzer. But the Bush administration insists on talking to Tehran through the EU3 — France, Britain, Germany — while strengthening economic and financial sanctions.
The Korean model requires lots of carrots because Iran can get almost anything it needs from abroad via the free port city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates where falsified third-country labeling is not quantum physics.
One senior American diplomat made a difference with North Korea. But in Washington, speculation about the probability of war with Iran is strangely bereft of desired outcomes and probable retaliatory consequences.
The IAEA says Iran is years away from a deliverable nuclear weapon.
Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill went to Pyongyang to nail down the deal whereby North Korea agreed to deweaponize its embryonic nuclear warheads. Shouldn't Hill, or an equally capable diplomat, be dispatched to Tehran to at least explore the possibility of a geopolitical quid pro quo? A U.S. withdrawal from Iraq when conditions ripen; the lifting of all sanctions, diplomatic recognition and a non-aggression treaty should all be in America's diplomatic quiver.
In return, Iran formally agrees to forgo nuclear weapons and grants total access to IAEA inspectors to check whatever they want with little advance notice.
Vice President Dick Cheney and his neocon friends would call this Munich-like appeasement.
Unless bombing of Iran's suspected nuke sites is ordered by Bush before he leaves office, they think the next occupant of the White House, probably a Democrat, will "wimp out." Therefore, they conclude, the time to bomb Iran is now, and hang the consequences. This geostrategic assessment ignores Vladimir Putin's latest gambit — two high-level Russo-Iranian meetings in October.
Regional Middle Eastern war anyone?
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