If leaks of diplomatic documents to the media aren’t this year’s theme, I don’t know what is. Last time it was Wikileaks and American documents; this week it’s been various documents from the Palestinan side of the endless and at times absurd “peace talks” between them and the Government of Israel. The said documents, as reported, appear to reveal that the talks went roughly as follows:
1. The Palestinian leadership offered reasonable-sounding compromises on various issues that they’d spent decades telling their gullible followers they’d never compromise on.
2. They also put a lot of effort into sucking up to the Israelis, despite the fact that the two sides clearly hate and mistrust each other.
3. This was all in vain, as the Israelis, backed to the hilt by the Americans, still wouldn’t accept the compromises, to the extent that you have to question whether either ever had any intention of accepting any kind of compromise. It is unclear whether, at the end of the talks, Israeli and American negotiators twirled their extensive moustachios and went “Mwa ha ha ha!”, but for all the good it’s done their image, they might as well have.
In my post on Wikileaks, I mentioned the major role in diplomacy of the tedious superhero, Captain Obvious, and he pops up again here. In that case, American diplomats spent a lot of time making comments about the countries they were stationed in that anyone who read a decent newspaper could have made, without the high salary and alleged expertise. Here, it’s not so much that people said obvious things, but that they took obvious positions. It was obvious for the Palestinian side to say one thing in public and another in private, not to mention flatter the other side, because in practice that’s how political negotiations proceed. Likewise, being totally intransigent is exactly what left-wing/pro-Palestinian types have accused the Israelis of being for years; and the same people usually blame that intransigence on unquestioning American support. It all suggests that the reason governments try to keep diplomacy confidential is less because it requires secrecy to work, than because it involves doing things that are politically expedient but morally questionable and/or unpopular, and they don’t like to be caught at this. “Plausible deniability” seems the appropriate phrase.
But why is it expedient for the Americans to back the Israelis? This is an interesting question, which none of the commentary on the matter I have read really seems to address. Given the assumption that the Palestinian leadership wants a Palestinian state and has failed to achieve one by violence and the Israeli Government doesn’t want one, but has to “negotiate” for the sake of its image, their stances are easy to explain. What’s the US interest in the matter? From a purely selfish point of view, the only thing of interest in the Middle East to Westerners is oil, and Israel doesn’t have any of that. At this point in any discussion, the dreaded phrase “American Zionist lobby” usually crops up and before you know it you’re swept away on the river of wacky conspiracy theory to the shores of anti-Semitic craziness. Having entered that caveat, it is true that there is a strong pro-Israeli lobby in America and that appeasing their Jewish voters is about the only reason I can think of why members of the US Congress that no-one has ever heard of outside their own constituencies think it important to mention their support for Israel at election time. Well, it’s either that or that they are pompous and self-important blowhards in love with their own opinions (it takes one to know one).
However, Congress doesn’t make American foreign policy, most Americans aren’t Jewish (nor are all American Jews Zionists) and the pro-Israeli stance has been shared by both Democrat and Republican Administrations when the tendency has been for the Jewish vote to go largely to the Democrats, so the best political lobbying in the world can’t totally explain the phenomenon. My own view is that, particularly in the beginning, it was a case of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”; during the Cold War, Arab governments were frequently of an authoritarian socialist type and often armed by the Soviets, whereas Israel is a liberal democracy. Nowadays, of course, the US (and other Western countries) share a common fear of Islamic fundamentalists in and out of government with Israel, so this continues.
There is, though, an irrational element to it too, an aspect of what you might call “imperial vanity” or “superpower vanity”. Great Powers be involved in every part of the world; otherwise how can they claim to be Great? Of course, they can only do so by having allies everywhere, and being allies, they then have to be supported. One might argue that being, or remaining, a Great Power is an irrational goal since it adds nothing to the happiness of one’s population, but the drive to “greatness” is as emotionally based for countries as for people and often not responsive to rational contradiction. If America, therefore, having supported Israel for so long, were now to stop doing so, it would appear weak for failing to sustain a friend and lose status as a Power. In effect, therefore, having made them an ally, America has made itself dependent on Israel. It’s a point Machiavelli might have appreciated, since he says of allied armies The Prince might call on, “You are left in the lurch if they are defeated, and in their power if they are victorious.”
This doesn’t bode well for the likelihood of any future peace agreement. The Palestinians can’t settle for anything less than their own state; the Israelis won’t agree to this and the US is in effect stuck with backing Israel, and the Israelis know it. The deadlock will only end when someone is prepared to take a hit on their ambitions – to abandon having a state; to abandon occupying everything already taken by conquest or to abandon an ally. It should be fairly evident from what I’ve already said that all of this runs on the most cynical calculation, with morality considered at best for PR purposes. An elderly Palestinian woman interviewed in one of the papers covering the leak said something to the effect that she did not expect to get justice from Israel, but hoped that God would not let the Israelis get away with this. I can’t pretend to know God’s views on the matter, but a just result right now seems more likely to come from Him than us.