One of the oddest features of Middle East debate in this country is its near-total detachment from the realities of the Middle East itself. Whatever happens over there, the players here can be trusted to continue reading from the script they learned years ago.
In reality, Israel votes to begin dismantling settlements and withdrawing from the Palestinian territories, moving its supposedly immoveable security fence toward the 1967 border and ending practices such as house demolitions and hunting down suspected terrorists. The Palestinians’ elected leader praises Jerusalem and its leader, the onetime bête noire Ariel Sharon, for creating a new and promising atmosphere for peace. Yet critics here, including tenured professors supposedly capable of reading a newspaper, continue to shower Israel with accusations of intransigence, racism, brutality and worse, as though nothing at all had happened.
Israel’s friends, for their part, continue waging a proxy war against the Palestinians and their surrogates in this country as though there were no new leadership, no cease-fire, no new negotiations. In reality, Israel’s biggest neighbors respond to the Sharon initiatives with encouragement and upgraded diplomatic ties, while the Palestinians themselves begin cracking down on terrorism with an unexpected vigor that wins praise from Israel’s own military chief of staff. Yet pro-Israel groups here respond with guarded skepticism, warnings not to believe too quickly and new campaigns to silence Arab voices. In Congress, Israel’s friends rush to reward the Palestinians with a rash of proposals to hobble financial aid with conditions and caveats.
It might be that these virtual wars over here actually serve the purposes of real-life strategists over there. Perhaps as they sit over there and plan their next moves, they suppose that if they keep their advocates here in a state of high alarm, they can pressure the other side and therefore put it at a disadvantage at the negotiating table. Such is the global impact of the American political arena. Before talks can succeed on the other side of the globe, Americans must be convinced that talks cannot succeed.
The conditions of real life in the Middle East might shift abruptly from one day to the next, but American advocates need not adjust their understandings accordingly. They don’t live there. Theirs is a virtual war, fought on the battlefields of the imagination.