The Middle East is the graveyard of a certain kind of optimist. Not the optimists of tumult, change and unpredictability—they find comfortable ground. If you hope for disorder, the Middle East is a dreamscape. But the optimists of process, calm, predictability and peace often come to grief. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and American President Barack Obama met again today in Washington, there was more than a personal animus. Leaders do not have to love each other. There is a deep philosophical divide between the optimism of the American president and Netanyahu’s skeptical immobility.
Obama believes that changing Israeli actions can change the Palestinian mindset. He seems to think that the narrative of “Nakba,” a Palestinian term meaning “catastrophe” that marks the founding of the state of Israel, is contingent and could be softened and ended if Israel would be more forthcoming. This is based on a view of human nature that privileges pragmatism over ideology, amity over enmity—order over upheaval.
The prime minister, on the other hand, views optimism as a luxury he cannot afford. In the Israeli narrative, while it is certainly true that many Palestinians lead unenviable lives, that is not the source of hostility, but rather the result of it. As is regrettably clear from recent surveys of Palestinian opinion, Israel’s presence is seen by many as fundamentally illegitimate. The Israelis know this, and so no longer see concessions as a peace offering, but a plum to be grabbed by the Palestinians on the way to the next concession. If your negotiating partner believes they are entitled to everything, anything you give is but a partial payment on the entire debt that will one day be reclaimed.
For generations maps have existed in the Middle East which outline the possibility of a settlement. Experts know virtually every tree, branch and blade of grass, and where the line would fall in a potential two-state solution. But then each side retreats to its position: the Palestinians to the grievances of being stateless and unfree, and the Israelis to the certainty that Palestinian rhetoric of rights and peace is a tactic, not an endgame.
The Camp David agreement was a long time ago. Since then, neither the closeness of the American and Israeli leaders nor their dislike has brought peace closer.
Netanyahu has reaffirmed his commitment to a two-state solution. The vast majority of Israelis, in poll after poll, agree if it could bring an end to the conflict. But they are deeply and rightly suspicious that the Palestinians and their surrounding neighbors wish never to live in peace with a Jewish state in their midst. As the Middle East grows more tumultuous, Israel continues to be a bastion of Western values nestled in a region that savagely rejects them.
Optimism is an important feature of human progress, even in the Middle East. But for now, to the Israeli leader, the ancient words still ring true: “They cry, ‘Peace! Peace!’ but there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14).