The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

What's with the hullabaloo on Malley-Agha?

A few days ago, many bloggers with an interest in Israel/Palestine noticed the op-ed by Robert Malley and Hussein Agha. Helena Cobban thought it was banal and Stephen Walt was frustrated with its ambiguity. The American Jewish Committee said it was all the Palestinians' fault anyway in a letter to the NYT. The American branch of Peace Now said the Malley-Agha argument that fundamental roots of the conflict must be tackled head on is besides the point, since the two-state solution is about finding a compromise. Uber-Zionist Jeffrey Goldberg derided what he thought was a rejection of the two-state solution (which in any case he only pretends to believe in, at least in a serious sense).

But most of all they complained that the headline was inappropriate; their argument is not so much that the "two state solution doesn't solve anything," but that it does not solve everything. Malley called the headline unfortunate and clarified that, no, he hadn't suddenly become a one-stater, and no, he is not saying Israel is not or should not be a "Jewish state" (whatever that means - Malley states that, obviously, Israel will be considered a state for the Jews no matter whether it defines itself as a Jewish state, which arguably it already does in terms of its Basic Law and the preferential treatment accorded to Jews through aliya.)

I wonder in all this uproar whether people are losing sight that the Malley-Agha duo are not activists or academics, but policy advisors. The most important bit of their piece comes at the end:

For years, virtually all attention has been focused on the question of a future Palestinian state, its borders and powers. As Israelis make plain by talking about the imperative of a Jewish state, and as Palestinians highlight when they evoke the refugees’ rights, the heart of the matter is not necessarily how to define a state of Palestine. It is, as in a sense it always has been, how to define the state of Israel.

This is, in my view, an extremely polite way of saying that for a solution to be found Israel has to decide what its borders are (it has not thus far, keeping the option of Eretz Israel.) Secondly, Malley-Agha are extremely practical analysts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they do not believe (like many senior Palestinians in Fatah) that the right of return is a possibility, but recognize that a symbolic concession towards recognizing it is necessary. What has never been clear from the Israel side is whether it is ready to abandon the potentiality of Eretz Israel and settle for a limited state, roughly around the 1967 lines, that would provide a reasonable framework to deal with the "demographic timebomb" that frighten so many Israelis. I am not sure that many Israelis are willing to give up on this potentiality (some because of ethno-religious chauvinism, others to provide "strategic depth"), and the international community has never pushed seriously on this.

The tiresome argument over settlement expansion being played out by the Obama administration is a waste of time. The too timid message behind Malley-Agha, I suspect, is that Israel must start defining itself more clearly rather than trying to limit the sovereignty of a Palestinian state. And that the US (hullo, this is an op-ed in the NYT not Haaretz!) has to get serious about getting it to do that. This may be an interpretation based on what I'd like too, but whatever the intent of the op-ed, most important is its audience: US policymakers, not the Israel-Palestine activist/think-tanker/academic crowd.

Anyway, I leave you with what I think is the best (and funniest) op-ed on Israel/Palestine I've read in a while, written by Ezzedine Choukri, who worked on the Oslo process for the UN in the 1990s. Choukri makes a different point to the Quartet: stop wasting time on confidence-building measures, and move full speed ahead towards imposing a solution:

There is no point in repeating the arguments and counterarguments on each side of this debate; the parties have done so ad nauseum. Instead, try looking at this matter as if we were arranging a marriage between two hostile families; many of whom -- including the prospective bride and groom -- doubt the intentions of the other and question the possibility of finding agreement on the marriage's terms.

The mediators, who see in the marriage a possible end to the hostility between the two families that would bring peace to the village, are trying to convince bride, groom and the members of the two families of the merits of such a deal.

In the midst of their zeal, and to allay the multiple concerns of the groom (who has commitment issues as well as problems with his boisterous family members), the mediators encourage the bride to have sex with her prospective groom before the marriage is concluded. "Sex would entice him to proceed; it will reassure him that the money he will put in the marriage will be well rewarded," they say.

Mostly liberal in their thinking and ways of life, the mediators see no problem in the proposition (neither does the prospective groom, for all too different reasons). After all, millions of couples in America and Europe engage in premarital sex as a way of experiencing each other and determining whether it would be a good idea to proceed further. There is no disrespect, foul play or wrongdoing involved. They argue.

The proposition sounds logical to the bride (and quite convenient for the groom). Yet the bride's family is really conservative. Even if she finds it tempting, the bride knows well that she cannot face her family with such a proposition. "It will be suicide," she says. However, not wanting to undermine the prospects of her own marriage, the bride is willing to engage in premarital intimate encounters -- but short of intercourse. And in return for these intimacies she requires the groom to make demonstrable progress towards signing the marriage contract.

Thrilled by this "window of opportunity", the mediators spend weeks negotiating the nature of these intimacies; how much skin is involved, whether it would be made public or kept secret, how far they will go, how frequently they will meet, etc. At the same time, they negotiate the nature of demonstrable steps that would satisfy the bride in return; the nature of commitments the groom has to make, whether these would be reversible, phased, synchronised with the intimacies, etc. (Verification and arbitration remain contentious and unresolved issues).

Instead of working on finalising the terms of the marriage contract, the mediators waste everyone's time on fine-tuning the terms of these confidence-building measures. Naturally, neither the groom nor the bride derives any pleasure from their halfway intimacies, and they are busy quarrelling over each other's compliance with the terms of the deal. The families get no closer to marriage; nobody has negotiated the terms of that agreement -- and its difficult issues didn't become any easier on their own. In the meantime, the bride's family gets angrier as they feel they were taken for a ride (again) and eventually lock the bride at home. And those who always opposed the marriage on both sides feel vindicated in their prejudice: "this marriage will never take place," they say; "if they can't even agree on these tiny matters, how are they going to face common life with all its challenges?"

Senator Mitchell and friends: would you please drop the useless confidence-building track that depleted precious political resources of so many mediators before you and focus on the real issue? Get the marriage contract signed, after which you can have all the sex you want.