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The U.S. Should Get Out of the Israel-Palestine Game

Forty years of dealmaking have seen nothing but deteriorating conditions in the Holy Land.

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Credit: WikiCommons

The first time I went to Jerusalem (crouched in the back of Margaret Thatcher’s obsolete VC10 jet) in 1986, it was an easy matter to drive down to Bethlehem for the evening, and drive back again in time for bed. I recall no checkpoints and no fences. Try that now, after nearly 40 years of incessant peacemaking, and see how you get on.

The contrast in other parts of the region between those bad old days and now is even more striking and almost cruel to remember. We have since then had an awful lot of diplomacy, but no true improvement. As an Arab Israeli colleague of mine once said as we navigated the complexities of the wriggling frontier between Israeli Jerusalem and Arab Ramallah, “Oh, for the good old days before we had peace!”


He had a point. Unbelievably, Israelis living near Gaza used to go there at weekends for the nightlife—pleasant beach-front bars and hardly a hijab in sight. Jerusalem itself was reasonably relaxed, even around the Temple Mount. It was an entirely different world. Many thousands of Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza traveled daily into Israel to work, an arrangement which led to friendship, or at least mutual cooperation, between Jews and Arabs, and which enriched the Arab population. 

In the same era, the Jewish state was still obviously descended from the original ramshackle arrangements of 1948, when much of the world’s Left had still supported the Zionist enterprise with money and Czech weapons. A fair number of kibbutzes, more or less communism in practice, still existed. The Foreign Ministry was still housed in temporary shacks, and offered visitors a type of coffee now almost extinct, the once-famous “Botz” (literally “mud”) made by pouring hot water into coffee grounds in a worn mug and not caring much what happened next. I only ever encountered this substance in Israel and in Soviet-occupied Prague, which may give a clue to its origins. No doubt these days there are plentiful cappuccinos in smooth modern offices. Israel, isolated as never before from its neighborhood, transformed by immigration and glowing with economic success, is now a wholly different place, harder to love and yet still just as important to the world.

Mrs. Thatcher, when I followed her to the Holy Land that year, had gone to call on Yitzhak Shamir, the shriveled old terrorist who had by then become Israel’s foreign minister. As she sat awkwardly with him, nobody knew that this relatively relaxed period was almost over. About 18 months later, Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization launched its “First Intifada,” an allegedly spontaneous rising against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. This proved far more effective than the conventional wars against Israel waged in 1948, 1967, and 1973. Yasser Arafat’s uprising, slingshots against guns, children against soldiers, occupied against occupiers, was a form of political judo. It turned Israel’s strength against itself and destroyed its good image. It has been so ever since. Thanks to this inversion, Western statesmen have persisted ever since with failed and damaging efforts to make a new peace.  

In the age of TV (and even more in the age of the computer) no open society can cope for long with such tactics. It will either be too weak and lose authority, or it will be too tough, and the world will regard it as cruel and brutal. And so it happens. The Western world, especially the Left that had once admired the Jewish state, has turned against it, except (to begin with) in the United States. That is how we got to where we now are. The intifada’s leaders greatly worsened the living conditions of Arabs under Israeli occupation. They cut off the economic and social links between the two peoples. They made life into an increasing misery of suspicion, enforced searches and checkpoints. When riots were later supplemented by organized murder, this only grew worse, making the case for a physical barrier unanswerable.

How the USA, Israel’s ultimate protector and sponsor, would like to be rid of this problem. They sought and failed to do so at Madrid in 1991. They seized hungrily on the Oslo proposals, eventually dragging Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on to the White House lawn together in 1993 for what must have been the most insincere handshake in history. (I was there.) Even in that great liberal wet dream, the TV series The West Wing, President Bartlet attempts an obviously unworkable Arab–Israeli deal at Camp David.


But the awkward, unsayable fact is that a new peace cannot now be found. After the pogrom of October 7, 2023, it must surely be obvious to even the dimmest that the “two-state solution” is just an incantation uttered by people who want to appear serious but are actually not thinking. The idea of a sovereign Arab state right next to the heart of Israel, governed by Hamas or something like it, and separated from the Jewish state by no more than a fence and a raked strip, is so absurd that it is amazing anyone suggests it. But who do the advocates of this “solution” think will govern such a state?

The real Camp David deal, achieved in 1978–79 by President Jimmy Carter, cannot be repeated. Its arrangements, amusingly, are based on the crude sort of “land for peace” appeasement that everyone claims to be against in Ukraine. Israel gave up its 1967 Sinai conquests, which had for once in its existence provided that tiny country with what it most grievously lacked, defense in depth. Appeasement doth never prosper, for if it prosper, who dares call it appeasement? When this policy suits the mighty, it is hung with garlands and proclaimed to be “peace,” just as it was in 1938.  

Carter ended the repeated conventional wars between Israel and its neighbors by giant acts of cynicism. As well as the territorial appeasement, there was a huge monetary pay-off, linked to the freedom to buy advanced weapons. Ever since Camp David, the U.S. has paid giant sums to Cairo. The price of keeping Egypt sweet currently runs at about $1.3 billion a year.  

This insincere arrangement has always reminded me of a clever George Orwell sneer in The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell was mocking well-meaning attempts to mix young men from the hostile English classes in youth camps, but it applies just as well to Egyptians and Israelis. He said such artificial truces reminded him of “the animals in one of those ‘Happy Family’ cages where a dog, a cat, two ferrets, a rabbit and three canaries preserve an armed truce while the showman’s eye is on them.” We all know, of course, what will happen when the supervision breaks down.

Could it? The current peace has no warmth in it. Beguiled western media covering the 2011 “Arab Spring” in Tahrir Square largely failed to notice the Jew-hatred evident during the 2011 mob overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. His portrait everywhere in Cairo was daubed with Stars of David. During the months that followed, Israel’s embassy in Cairo came under severe mob attack, and its staff had to be rescued by Egyptian commandos. In more normal times, the so-called “Cold Peace” is obeyed by Egypt without any popular enthusiasm. For instance, during peaceful interludes, there are about 50 times as many Israeli tourists in Egypt each year as there are Egyptian tourists in Israel.  

But the Camp David Accords have so far lasted remarkably well, precisely because they are so cynical. Their greatest weakness is that they depend on economic and political stability in Egypt that cannot really be guaranteed. The world saw this when the 2011 Arab Spring, quite predictably, placed the Muslim Brotherhood in office. Here we saw once again how American foreign policy is increasingly in the hands of utopian world-reformers rather than hard-headed guardians of diplomatic wisdom. Western political leaders, who had at first gushed about this development, slowly grasped its implications. This was why they choked back their protests in August 2013 when hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters were shot down in the Cairo streets. The Brotherhood had mistakenly thought that winning an election would put their party in power, and that the democratic West would take their side against violent repression. 

Had Syria’s tyrant, Bashar al Assad, conducted such a massacre,  he would have been furiously denounced by the Western powers for “killing his own people” and perhaps bombed. But the man in charge of the Cairo killing, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, soon afterwards became his country’s president with the blessing of the State Department, the White House, and all the other moral arbiters of the Near East. Since then, Western nations have at least not been quite so enthusiastic about democracy in the Arab Muslim world. But they will not let go of the utopian fantasy that one more heave will create love and justice on the banks of the River Jordan.

To which my reply is, “What do you really care about?” Is your concern for some fanciful golden dawn, accompanied by Nobel Prizes all round? Or do you wish to improve the actual conditions of the people who live in the region, so that each man shall live under his own vine and his own fig tree and none shall make him afraid? 

If the latter, then may I recommend the course adopted by Alice in that fine philosophical work, Through the Looking Glass. Once she realized that, if she repeatedly walked towards the garden, she would never reach it, she walked away from it instead and was rapidly among the flowerbeds. If you desire peace in the Middle East, stop seeking a vast general solution and instead work to improve the lives of those who must live in the midst of this intractable, inherited, diplomatic mess. 

Imagine, for example, the giant wealth of the Arab Muslim world concentrated upon building a new Gaza of civilized housing and good governance, gleaming on the shores of the Mediterranean. Perhaps one day, many years hence, people from Nablus to Gaza and from Dan to Beersheba will joke about how they do not miss the bad old days when they had peace.