“The peace process is about to be frozen for years,” I said with apprehension to my interlocutor, a senior Israeli diplomat who had been involved in Washington in some of the most important negotiations of the previous 20 years. “In the years ahead, President Obama will be occupied solely with the American economic crisis, and no one will take an interest in the Middle East process any longer,” I explained.
This conversation took place immediately after the new president took office in 2008, in the midst of the most severe economic crisis experienced by the United States since the Great Depression of the 1930s. I was certain, in that moment, that I had a good grasp of the administration’s order of priorities.
My interlocutor laughed. “That’s not how it works,” he said. “With all due respect for economic problems, there are thousands of people in Washington who earn their living from the peace ‘process.’ Economic crisis or not, there’s a large group that is working on the peace process, working on the terror threats, working on Middle Eastern affairs – and will always work on the ‘process.’”
He was right, of course – my approach was naïve. The “process” did not stop and will not stop, just as the Israeli and American assessments of “increasing threats” of terrorism, war, cyber attacks and chemical warheads never stop, but are only updated according to the spirit of the time and the latest technology.
These are machines with a life of their own. Maybe the time has come to stop being naïve and ask ourselves who the true stakeholders are in the Middle East peace process, where their true interests lie and who the current status quo serves.
In the past decade, Prof. Noam Chomsky made the headlines in Israel largely for his comments about the peace process and the Israeli occupation. Yet, many of the supporters and detractors of Chomsky – whom The New York Times termed the greatest intellectual of his generation – are unfamiliar with or do not fully consider the implications of one of his most important books, “Manufacturing Consent” (1988), which deals with the role of the media in preserving the status quo that serves the elites, the conglomerates and the establishment. Even right-wing, dyed-in-the-wool capitalist economists quote Chomsky’s analysis of the way the press works.
Let’s consider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the occupation and the “peace process” through Chomsky’s prism. Not the Chomsky who took a clear side in the conflict and condemns Israel for the occupation, but the Chomsky of “Manufacturing Consent,” who sees the public discourse that the media generates as serving the political and economic interests of the ruling establishment.
The bulk of the discourse and discussion about the “occupation” and the “conflict” in the Middle East overall (and the Israeli-Palestinian case in particular) is focused on history, culture, religion and the “extremists” – such as the “wacky,” “messianic,” “off-the-wall” Israeli settlers and their supporters. Or on the United States, the Israeli defense establishment and on politics. Or on the extremist Muslim groups – the “terrorists” who want to throw the Jews into the sea – and the backing they receive from the current axis of evil, which formerly revolved around Syria and now revolves around Iran.
These two dominant narratives ignore what others find obvious: that every status quo, every large system, always has beneficiaries who have no real desire for change. The more time that passes, the more layers of vested interests that are added – in the government, the army, the diplomatic corps and the industry of peace NGOs that benefit from the existing situation, make a living from it and acquire their prestige from it.
Forty-seven years after the Six-Day War and 20 years after the Oslo Accords, the number of interest groups that benefit from the occupation, the conflict and the “process” is growing by the year. In Israel, the numbers have begun to enter the public discourse over the past year: the vast size of the army, the staggering waste, the frightening actuarial commitment to noncontributory pensions.
Every so often, a few retired generals suddenly leap up and espouse a “dovish” stance, as former Shin Bet security service and Mossad chiefs did in recent years. But this is of dubious authenticity. They always recall that “the occupation corrupts” and that we must strive for peace – but only after they are removed from positions of power. One always suspects that their new opposition or peacenik approach is a way to grab headlines or to enter politics.
There is no obvious connection between the social-justice protest that erupted in Israel in the summer of 2011 and the wave of social protests that swept large parts of the Arab world beginning in Egypt a year earlier. Israel is a democracy with a Western-scale per capita GDP, whereas in Egypt, which is ruled by the army, the per capita GDP is a fifth the size of Israel’s.
But the social protest in Egypt, which spread to other states in the region, completely changed Middle East politics and reminded the entire Western world of what is obvious: that the majority of the Arab states are ruled by small, extortionist elites who control the lion’s share of the economy. In the Arab world, too, as in many other countries, the headlines about reforms and the opening of markets are underpinned by a foundation of capitalism serving those who are well-connected to the government, the monarchy or the army.
In fact, in Egypt, where the wave of protests began, inequality lessened in the decade that preceded the events in Tahrir Square. A World Bank report that sought to understand the background of the protest movement reached the conclusion that, in the years leading up to the protest, the perceptions of the Egyptian public began to undergo a process of change. Egyptians became far more aware than before of issues relating to the economy and the cost of living. The religious- and security-oriented discourse fell off, the discourse on the economy and inequality took off.
We need to examine the prospects for the peace process in the Middle East and the ways to advance it not only through the mirror of history, religion and culture, but in a far more technical manner. The crucial question is: Which groups benefit from the situation of war, which groups thrive on the “process” and who will benefit from a significant change in the situation?
Every change in relations between Israel and the Palestinians will have far-reaching consequences in the Arab world, and for the Palestinian state and its economic relations with the West. In Israel, it’s a prodigious security budget of $20 billion that is and will be the focus of discussion; for the Palestinians, it’s a vast industry of donations totaling billions of dollars, which has only grown in the past decade.
Is it really the case that the entire Palestinian leadership, all the Palestinian businessmen with close ties to the government and all the dozens and hundreds of NGOs that are funded by the European Union and the United States are longing for an end to the conflict? Or is any such hope also tinged with apprehension that this change would also threaten the existing political and economic order to which they have become accustomed?
In Israel, large segments of those who view themselves as the left-wing or peace camp have, for many years, exempted themselves from addressing the country’s economic and social questions. It was accepted, politically correct and legitimate to write off all the problems of poverty, inequality and corruption in Israel as “marginal” in comparison to the “process.”
In the summer of 2011, the Israeli public decided that it was no longer buying into this approach. They sent a message to the politicians: Until such time as you achieve peace, start dealing with the cost of living, with the health and education systems, with the inequality, with the corruption and with the infrastructures. It is worth noting that the attempt by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to focus the public discourse on the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons also met with mounting public indifference.
Israeli businessmen who tried to kick-start the peace process in recent years encountered public apathy. I advised a few of them to recall what Maurice Lévy, the CEO of Publicis and chairman of the international board of governors of the Peres Center for Peace, said two years ago in a different context: “The public has lost faith in the elites.” This loss of authenticity connects also to the peace process, and to the way in which the public perceives the people involved in it.
Fifty-three years ago, an American president warned his nation against the “military-industrial complex” – the takeover by economic and military interests of foreign and security policy, creating a tentacular, all-powerful interest group. The Israeli-Palestinian version cannot rest only on war; in the Israeli complex, the threats of war and terrorism dovetail with the “process” and an incessant striving for peace.
When will peace come? What will the breakthrough be? Maybe when the governmental leadership and the military and economic elite reach the conclusion that the current path is threatening its control, power and legitimacy. Maybe when the process will be led by grassroots movements that will seek true change and results, and not view it through the prism of politics, career, livelihood and prestige.
Possibly, too, the answer is that long-term structural changes have to occur within both parties to the conflict – of the sort that transpired four years ago in Tahrir Square and three years ago on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv. From them will emerge new politics, new leadership and new values that will make it possible for both sides to do the right thing: to make peace in our region.