Jacques Chirac, Robin Cook, Bill Clinton, Kofi Annan, King Abdullah of Jordan, Javier Solana, Hosni Mubarak, and a host of Scandinavians: They don’t have much in common—other than an apparently sincere, deeply held belief that God, or somebody, has called upon them to help solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in the Middle East. So many world statesmen have been making the Jerusalem/Cairo/Beirut rounds in the past few days, it’s a wonder there is any hotel space left. One imagines the proprietors of the relevant Hiltons ringing one another in consternation, inquiring as to whether the latest posse of diplomats has finished its investigations and is ready to move on.
But then, maybe they’re used to it: After all, the Middle East has been one of the central concerns of Western diplomacy for much of the last quarter century. Dozens of hoteliers have made money out of it, and dozens of statesmen have made entire careers out of it. Henry Kissinger set the precedent—the term “shuttle diplomacy” was invented for him. If you’re the American secretary of state, you can’t avoid spending big chunks of your time in Israel; if you’re the American president, you can’t ever forget about it. Bill Clinton, who is landing in Sharm al-Sheikh even as I write this article, has clearly decided to dedicate the few remaining weeks of his presidency to the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the eternal squabble over the division of Jerusalem, plans for which have been drawn up, according to one Israeli diplomat of my acquaintance, more than 60 different times since 1967. Not that you have to represent a superpower to get involved either: French diplomats, Norwegian diplomats have all taken part, and the now mostly forgotten Bruno Kreisky, Austrian chancellor in the 1970s, made an enormous name for himself—well out of proportion to the significance of his country—as a Middle East negotiator.
And yet, from the perspective of the past two weeks, it is hard to see what these 25 years of frantic activity have brought us, other than possibly some of the most upsetting photographs to grace newspaper front pages in some time. Despite the efforts of the best and the brightest around the world, Israeli helicopters were bombing civilian targets in Gaza a few days ago, Palestinians were lynching Israeli soldiers, and children were caught in the gunfire. Maybe it is time to ask ourselves a serious question: Do we need Middle Eastern diplomacy at all?
Certainly the presence of outsiders hasn’t helped matters much this past week. It is notable, for example, that rather than talking about the real issue at stake—Jerusalem, and how to divide it, rule it, run it—the Israelis and Palestinians have fallen to blows over the deeply irrelevant issue of whether or not there should be an international inquiry into who started the violence in the first place, and if so, who should organize it. Arafat went to Paris, where Chirac encouraged him into thinking this was a good idea; the Israelis said they would agree only if the inquiry were to take place under American auspices. And so on. Now work is taking place on a compromise formula that would involve the Americans and the Norwegians, as if it really mattered. “There is no interest on our side to internationalize this,” an anonymous American official rather pompously told the New York Times.
It’s a bit late for such sentiments, given that the pattern of recent days is really the pattern of many years. At any given moment, one can always expect Arafat to delay doing a deal—just as he delayed the acceptance of an invitation to this summit, in anticipation of an Arab League meeting in Cairo next weekend—on the grounds that he might just get more support in the Arab world or in Europe if he hangs about for a while longer. Ditto the Israelis, who can always hang back, looking toward the United States. Far away though it is, the whole thing is oddly reminiscent of Northern Ireland, where the drawing of outsiders into the peace process is a traditional means of slowing it down. There, too, sympathetic foreigners serve to stiffen the spines of those who might otherwise be inclined to compromise.
But although the media keep using language like “last chance” and “last ditch effort,” there is another way. Clinton and Mubarak don’t actually have to hang about while both Barak and Arafat periodically pack their bags and threaten to leave. They don’t have to use their considerable combined charm in order to cajole them into staying, or to look on with faint, wintry smiles as they sign another lukewarm agreement to meet again in another month’s time. Instead, they could do the threatening, they could pack their bags, and they could even leave, abandoning Israel and Palestine to their own resources. Left together, without any outsiders to listen or to provide excuses or money, the two groups might be forced to come to some kind of accommodation. Even letting them fight it out might be preferable to the current stalemate, for they aren’t as unevenly matched as many try to make out. Israel has the more powerful army, but Israel is also a democracy, and few Israelis want to live in a country that is constantly at war.
There is always a chance, of course, that today’s summit in Sharm al-Sheikh will produce a miraculous breakthrough, but in the very unlikely event that it does, that will be thanks to Arafat and Barak, not Clinton, Mubarak, Solana, and whatever Norwegians or Russians have tagged along. And if it doesn’t, maybe the outsiders ought to have the good sense to turn their backs and start walking away from the Middle East as fast as they can.