J.J. Goldberg

Malley & Agha in the N.Y. Review of Books, Channeling Avigdor Liebeman

By J.J. Goldberg

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Now I’ve Seen Everything Dept.: Among the items featured as recommended reading in the January 20 edition of the Daily Alert, the electronic news digest of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, is the latest essay by Rob Malley and Hussein Agha in The New York Review of Books.

Why is this out of the ordinary? Well, the Daily Alert is a digest of key news items that demonstrate the implacability of Israel’s enemies, the blamelessness of Israel’s own actions and the weaknesses of the peace process. It’s prepared every morning by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the deeply conservative think tank headed by former diplomat Dore Gold, and is sent out by e-mail to several hundred thousand readers on behalf of the Conference of Presidents. Malley and Agha, for their part, are Middle East policy experts — Malley an American official with the International Crisis Group and Agha, a Palestinian-British academic — who write periodically about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in The New York Review of Books. They’re frequently critical of the Israeli policy-making echelon, and the sentiment is extremely mutual.

You might say that Malley and Agha are from Venus and Dore Gold is from Mars. Or, put differently, Malley and Agha are from Geneva and Gold is from Jerusalem the United, Eternal and Undivided Capital of the Jewish People. Either way, a Malley-Agha essay is about the last thing you’d expect to find in the Daily Alert.

So why is this Malley-Agha essay, “Who’s Afraid of the Palestinians?,” different from all other Malley-Agha essays? In a word, because they argue here that, given the current state of play in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Washington and the Arab capitals, no peace agreement is likely in the foreseeable future. Which is, you should pardon me, pretty much the same thing Avigdor Lieberman has been saying lately. On top of that, they write at length of the current strategies of the Palestinian leadership, including hoping for U.S. pressure and looking for international recognition, each of which they dismiss as misdirected.

The passages quoted in the Daily Alert capture some of the authors’ pessimism and their dim view of Palestinian strategy. Nor surprisingly, they leave out the parts that put Israel in a bad light.

The main point of the essay is that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians have a real incentive to take risks right now — Israel because of the security provided by the barrier, Palestinians because of Salam Fayyad’s efforts to build a state and show a the capacity of self-governance. Palestinians overestimated America’s ability to pressure Israel. Israel’s demographic problem — the impending need to choose between a democratic state and a Jewish one — has been deferred for the foreseeable future by the disengagement from Gaza.

The one threat that could still impel Israel to seek a solution is the growing problem of international isolation, or what Israelis call delegitimization. But, they argue, Israelis are more likely to respond to European hostility with resentment and retrenchment rather than by trying to resolve the Palestinian conflict that spurs the hostility.

Here are the passages from the Malley-Agha essay that appear in the Daily Alert as bullet points:

  • Palestinians have looked to unilaterally declaring statehood, obtaining UN recognition, dissolving the PA, or walking away from the idea of negotiated partition altogether and calling for a single binational state.

  • Of these suggestions, arguably the most promising is to seek international acceptance of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. In the past few months, several countries have recognized such a state and others may follow. The trend is causing Palestinians to rejoice and Israelis to protest, which only makes Palestinians rejoice all the more. What it will not do for now is materially affect the situation on the ground.

  • Invoking a one-state solution in which Jews someday no longer will form a majority has its own limitations. Yet Israel possesses a variety of potential responses. Already, by unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon transformed the numbers game, effectively removing 1.5 million Palestinians from the Israeli equation. Israel could unilaterally conduct further territorial withdrawals from the West Bank, allowing, as in the case of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s West Bank government, or compelling, as happened in Gaza, large numbers of Palestinians to rule themselves and mitigating the demographic peril.

  • Salam Fayyad wants to demonstrate that Palestinians can put their finances in order and build the foundations of a state alongside which their neighbors could live in security. Yet questions have been raised about what a government that rules by decree, with little democratic legitimacy — parliament has not met in years and elections are long overdue — has done to build democratic institutions. Many grumble that Fayyad has conquered the West through his demeanor rather than substantive deeds.

  • Palestinians who seem to have scant confidence in themselves have put their hopes in the U.S. instead — an investment that reflects excessive faith in Washington. There is no precedent for a successful start-to-finish American effort to bring about peace in the Middle East. All such endeavors that came to something initially were rooted in local dynamics that the U.S. could influence but did not produce.

Here’s the most important piece that’s missing:

The conflict Israelis have come to care about is not with the Palestinians; it is with the rest of the world. The deal that interests Israel is one that would result in a dramatic change in its condition that only non-Palestinian actors can produce. From the US, it seeks wide-ranging security guarantees and assistance; from the Arab world, the granting of collective normalization; from Jordan, a more active role in the West Bank and acknowledgment that it will become Israel’s de facto first line of defense; from Syria, a strategic shift away from Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah; from the international community, recognition of Israel’s permanent borders and its right to self-defense. Whether it ever can fully obtain these is open to question; whether it can attain them in the absence of a final agreement with the Palestinians is not, which in part is why Israel is drawn to the negotiating table even as it questions it. Israel might have dealt with its Palestinian problem but has yet to deal with the problems the Palestinian problem has spawned.

It won’t be easy to transform this innate Israeli unease into an impetus to compromise when the cost of that compromise, in many Israeli eyes, is viewed as high. The last, untidy two years have only made matters worse. Coming into office, Netanyahu contemplated some reasons to move forward: he feared US and international pressure, didn’t know how long Palestinian quiet would last without political progress, and believed he might sway Abbas with new ideas. Perhaps, too, history beckoned: the prime minister could be the first to bring normalcy and security to a nation that has lacked both.

That picture has changed. Netanyahu disregarded demands from the US and others without paying a serious price. The West Bank is as stable, the Palestinians as divided, and the Arabs as feckless as ever. From his few meetings, Netanyahu also came to understand that Abbas’s long-held views on a final status deal were not mere negotiating stances but definitive positions from which he will not budge. The lure of history is being countered by the pull of politics: the more time elapses, the greater Netanyahu’s fear of alienating his right-wing coalition partners and the more distant the idea of achieving a groundbreaking peace. Nothing concentrates the mind of a canny politician like electoral arithmetic.


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