There seems to have been a mistake made when President Barack Obama named former Sen. George J. Mitchell his special representative concerned with settlement of the Palestinian-Israel impasse.

The president and Mitchell seem to have believed that the problem is one of negotiation between adamantly opposed but ultimately reconcilable parties.

It is reasonable to make that assumption, and George Mitchell’s most imposing achievement was his success in Northern Ireland, as the Clinton administration intermediary between the Provisional IRA and the Northern Irish loyalist community.

The issue between the communities was historically religious, as in the Middle East today, but had hardened into adamant nationalism, primitively territorial, with outrageous public clashes concerning a battle four centuries ago. It was both absurd and murderous, and therefore soluble, as even the most extreme on the two sides eventually could understand.

In Jerusalem, Mitchell’s techniques of confidence-building, isolation of specific issues, rational compromise on the nonessentials while approaching the essential have been a waste of everyone’s time. This conflict concerns God’s specific instruction to the Jewish people to reoccupy Jerusalem and the Palestinian West Bank.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not elected to negotiate a solution going against God’s express will, but to prevent a solution by blocking every avenue of negotiation.

The Irish affair was a nationalist conflict, not a religious one, hence ultimately soluble. Mitchell was an enabler. What was revealed last week by the meeting of Barack Obama with Netanyahu was that defiance of God’s will for Israel is not subject to negotiation. Netanyahu has made no secret of his position, but the American side has not taken him seriously, believing that he could be replaced if necessary.

He could be, but that could cause a Democratic Party defeat in 2010, and possibly 2012, as the price paid for a possible peace settlement in the Middle East, but with a possibility of failure in the Middle East as well.

The West Bank Jewish settlements are there because God supposedly meant them to be there, and sent this generation of settlers to occupy the Holy Land and supplant its Palestinian occupants. Whether Prime Minister Netanyahu believes this or not is unimportant. It is what the people who elected him believe.

Barack Obama therefore has a fundamental choice to make. Does he want to preside over a settlement, but at so heavy a risk? If so, he must convey to Netanyahu that Israel must carry out the promise it has repeatedly made since conquering the Palestinian lands and East Jerusalem in 1967, and remove the settlers illegally occupying the West Bank and Jerusalem.

There are more or less politic ways for doing this. He could begin by conveying to the prime minister that the United States will allow the United Nations’ Gaza war crimes report to follow its scheduled course, even if this leads to the International Criminal Court. He can withhold various measures of financial and political support to Israel. But he must get results, and get them fast.

If he allows Israel to continue to stall and to demonstrate that it will make no end to the West Bank occupation, he will disappoint the highest hopes that have existed among both Jews and Arabs since 1967 that a positive outcome is possible between Israel and the Palestinians.

In that case, there may be still another, and more violent, intifada, and more regional violence and terrorism. Or perhaps nothing will happen. An apartheid Israel will survive, and the Palestine population will grow, whether within or without the legal frontiers of Israel.

The Palestinian leaders, their people, the Hezbollah and Hamas leadership, and the Palestinians’ external Arab supporters, as well as the Israelis themselves, will decide that, and will have to accept the consequences.

But there will be other consequences. The present condition of low-level but generalized war, or state of terrorism, or institutionalized hostility by Muslims against the United States and against Americans, will continue and undoubtedly widen.

Americans convinced that America must dominate the Middle East will grow in influence; there will, in some sense, be a restoration of the national leadership and outlook that existed under George W. Bush.

The governments and public opinion of the European Union will disengage from U.S. pro-Israeli policies. There will be sanctions on Israel of various kinds, and no doubt measures of intellectual, cultural, sportive and other boycotts of Israel, of the kind already envisaged in some Western circles.

Emigration from Israel of the young, the talented, the morally alienated — also a reality today — will increase. But further speculation is undoubtedly unprofitable.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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