After Barak: Benign Neglect

Charles de Gaulle, lamenting the fractiousness of the French, famously wondered, "How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?" De Gaulle should have tried dealing with the Israelis. Israel, with more than a dozen feuding parties, is a country in which some people seem to care most about making sure there is no bus service on the Sabbath, and some care most about seeing that there is such service. There is truth in the jest that two Israelis can generate three factions.

However, given sufficient provocation, Israelis can produce an emphatic electoral outcome. Provoked by Prime Minister Ehud Barak's astonishing concessions to the Palestinians (95 percent of the West Bank, division of Jerusalem) and by the Palestinians' contemptuous and violent response to the concessions, Israelis cashiered Barak, replacing him with Ariel Sharon, who says that the Oslo "peace process," begun nearly eight years ago, is dead. Since the "process" began, 550 Israelis have died in the violence that is the vocabulary of Yasir Arafat's Palestinian Authority. Those deaths are, as a percentage of Israel's population, equivalent to 25,300 American deaths, or approximately half the U.S. fatalities in the Vietnam War.

Barak's manic diplomacy failed spectacularly, but creatively. Spectacularly, in that the region has been destabilized. Creatively, in that his diplomacy called Yasir Arafat's bluff, and proved that Arafat was bluffing about wanting a settlement that stops short of Israel's destruction. Enter Sharon, stage right.

On Oct. 15, before the election was called, but with the violence mounting amid talk of Sharon's joining Barak in a national-unity government, Sharon, appearing on ABC's "This Week," was asked if he would refuse to join such a government unless it "agreed no longer to talk about negotiating a division of Jerusalem." "Yes." He said: "I don't see any possibility to divide Jerusalem." Would he join a government that would give up Israel's protective buffer, the Jordan Valley? "No." It would be "a major mistake." He rejected a "right of return" of Palestinian refugees, even one limited to 100,000.

Sharon is not opposed to negotiations, but he understands that Israel cannot negotiate until it decides what it considers nonnegotiable--a concept foreign to Barak's messianic and improvisational style. One thing that Sharon considers nonnegotiable is his understanding of secure borders--that is, the essential territorial requirements for Israel's defense. This involves complex calculations about what land is and is not essential, given the ever-evolving threat.

It is difficult to reduce that calculation to a bright red line that can quickly alleviate the Israelis' demoralizing sense that their government no longer knows how to draw such lines. So immediately after the election, Sharon reiterated the least recondite of his nonnegotiable items: Jerusalem, the nation's capital, will not be divided.

By so saying, Sharon says that Israel's diplomacy is not restricted by a ratchet that makes any proffered concession irreversible. Unfortunately, the United States continues tiptoeing around its duty to take a step that should have been taken decades ago, a step that would have helped keep Jerusalem off the negotiating table. Israel is the only nation in which the United States refuses to locate its embassy in the nation's capital. The perverse purpose of this refusal is to contribute to keeping the final status of Jerusalem--the capital of the only democracy in a region remarkably immune to the spread of democracy--a subject for negotiation.

In 1980 candidate Ronald Reagan promised that if elected he would move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Twelve years later candidate Bill Clinton made the same promise. Last May candidate George W. Bush said, "As soon as I take office I will begin the process of moving the U.S. ambassador to the city Israel has chosen as its capital." However, Secretary of State Colin Powell says, "Well, you know, 'process' is a word that has different meanings to it." And, "We are studying [the move]." And "at this time of tension, at this time of a considerable level of violence in the region, at this time when a new election is about to unfold, we will continue to examine when that process will begin."

Oh. So, the embassy should be moved when there is no tension. Which is to say, the move should be made when the move will make no difference.

Powell has already mastered the pitter-patter of Middle East diplomatic boilerplate. He says the United States will continue as an "honest broker." But surely that bromide assumes what the events of the last few months refute. They refute the notion that an "honest" party can "broker" an agreement between a nation that craves peace and a political-military-terrorist movement that will settle for nothing short of that nation's destruction.

Today the pertinent question is whether the United States will dare to be dilatory. For a while, a policy of benign neglect would benefit a region that has suffered enough from America's diplomatic fidgets. That means the State Department should not have a senior official whose job description is Middle East Fidgeter.

The Bush administration should refrain from naming a replacement for Dennis Ross. He has resigned after eight years as the diplomat whose assignment was to massage the continuing crisis. Such a special envoy, whose sole project is to keep the "peace process" proceeding, can feel validated only by generating agreements--agreements with a man, Arafat, who has never kept any agreement.

Americans are a problem-solving people. They assume that in politics, as in mathematics, a problem is something to be solved. The Middle East challenges Americans to distinguish between problems, which have solutions, and messes, which can only be managed. And the next stage in realism is to recognize that America cannot manage messes from afar.