Great Powers Hold Key to Mideast Peace
EU, Russia and U.S. must be the prime movers.

By Howard M. Sachar
February 16, 2004

As the Bush administration seeks to resolve its entrapment in the Iraqi imbroglio, it has once again confined to the back burner its timorous and erratic effort to cope with a very different Middle Eastern crisis, the lethal and potentially far more destabilizing Arab-Israeli confrontation. Several weeks ago, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell virtually acknowledged that deferral when he poignantly noted that Washington still nurtured the hope of fulfilling the role of "honest broker," in order to foster "negotiations," between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

"Honest broker"? Is this the role that is needed for the mighty United States at this critical juncture of Arab-Israeli relations? It is worth recalling that the very term "honest broker" was first used by Bismarck in 1878, when the German chancellor offered his good offices in mediating an international crisis in the Balkans. But the confrontation of 1878 was not between two miniature political entities. It was essentially between two mighty empires, Russia and Britain, each of which was formidable enough in its Great Power role to tolerate the role of an "honest broker."

Negotiations? What a proven prescription for failure! Smaller nations, frantic in their quests for territorial security, and nurtured in an unending reciprocity of suspicion, rancor and blood, possess no track record whatsoever in "negotiating" boundaries or formalizing peace treaties among one other — with or without honest brokers.

For precedent, one may hark back to the sequence of 19th and early 20th century Great Power conclaves (Vienna, London, Paris, Berlin, among others) that established the independence of Greece, Belgium, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Albania; or the Paris Peace Conference of 1919-20 that sculpted an aggregation of European successor states and Asian mandates from the debris of the pre-World War I empires. Which of this seething heterogeneity of contentious races and nations ever managed to negotiate their respective sovereignties or autonomies, their frontiers or financial claims? It was unthinkable that any of these political neophytes, marinated as they were in an immemorial folklore of religious, cultural and political hatreds, could have achieved a voluntary meeting of minds with neighbors. Periodic diplomatic negotiations between them tended at best to be unproductive, at worst, inflammatory.

More recently, when Egypt's President Anwar Sadat and Lebanon's President-elect Bashir Gemayel moved on their own to deal bilaterally with Israel, they paid with their lives, and with their peace initiatives posthumously exposed as mine fields of diplomatic fragility. It required the 1991 Persian Gulf War and a conference jointly sponsored by Washington and Moscow in Madrid (later transplanted to Washington) to devise the framework for a so-called "negotiated" settlement between Israel and Hashemite Jordan.

With hardly an exception, it has been the imprimatur of Great Power endorsement alone that legitimizes the sovereign identities of frightened and hostile smaller nations, that defines their mutual boundaries and arbitrates their reciprocal demands and grievances.

Do Great Powers, then, have a celestial right to impose their own territorial templates upon the world's minor players? To this cri de coeur loosed with much anguish in the "Revolt of the Small Powers" at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, a response was provided by Georges Clemenceau, David Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson — and in almost identical language. It was precisely the horrifying danger of being sucked into a future conflict of irredentist claims and counterclaims, the Western statesmen emphasized, that obliged them to perform their own diplomatic surgery upon Europe's fulmination of regional animosities. After all, had it not been for the Allies' recent and unprecedented military sacrifices, the very political existence of the successor states, whatever their ultimate dimensions, would have remained moot.

By the same token, neither an Israeli nor a Palestinian state would have been even faintly conceivable if dependent upon a meeting of minds among Jews and Arabs alone. After World War I, it was the victorious Western powers that formulated the geopolitical contours of Arab nations and Jewish homeland alike. After World War II, it was the United Nations that sanctioned the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab sovereign entities. No one contends that these dispensations begat a paradigm of justice and equity, let alone a guidebook for neighborly congeniality. But their conceptual framework, like that of the European successor states, has survived a chain reaction of boycotts and wars, and within its ethnographic lineaments two national organisms, one de jure, the other de facto, have finally achieved a near-parallel international recognition.

Beyond that recognition, both protagonists in the Holy Land conflict have been afforded a staying power that neither could have generated on its own. Without an effulgence of U.S. and German financial aid, and a semiofficial membership in the European Common Market, Israel early on would have foundered in bankruptcy. Its armed forces, deprived of access to French and American military equipment, could not indefinitely have resisted a tightening Soviet ring of Arab proxies. Similarly, had the Palestinian Authority not been assured the fullest measure of American and European diplomatic support, and the EU's guarantee of open-ended financial subsidies, Yasser Arafat's incipient government would have imploded almost instantly in the morass of its own ineptitude.

Altogether, the United States, Western Europe and, lately, the Arab "moderate" governments, have paid their dues in their respective commitments to Israelis and Palestinians. And each of these benefactors now faces grave dangers to its own interests should the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, like the Balkan crisis of 1914, continue to metastasize at its own genetic pace. Each Arab-Israeli war — in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 2002 to our own day — has intermittently widened the risks of Great Power confrontation, of blocked international waterways, of large-scale energy stoppers, of political assassination, of institutionalized terrorism and, lately and most ominously, of resort to weapons of mass destruction.

Honest broker? Negotiations? It is the caucus of heavyweights, the Great Powers themselves, and most specifically the European Union, Russia and the United States, that at long last must cease functioning as mediators and adopt instead the role of principals. Their own statesmen now face the urgent and historic responsibility of signing off on a Geneva-style blueprint for the Holy Land that reflects not only the prestige and weight of their own best collective judgment, but the tacit approval (if opinion samplings are accurate) of the "silent majority" alike of Palestinians, Israelis — and American Jews.

Could such a blueprint be enforced under American and European diplomatic and economic ultimatums? The query should be reversed. Without Great Power diplomatic benediction and economic life support, would there ever have been a Palestine or an Israel? Without an assured continuum of American and European patronage, could either of these diminutive claimants to international recognition and goodwill sustain its political credibility or financial viability beyond even the near future? Not least of all without the force majeure of uncompromising and unrelenting Great Powers pressure, could an Ariel Sharon or Arafat face the political risks of accepting so much as a pragmatic accommodation for mutual quietude, let alone a formal, official and institutionalized peace treaty? Good luck.

Howard M. Sachar, a modern history professor at George Washington University, is the author of "A History of Israel" (Alfred E. Knopf, second edition, 1995) and other volumes on the Middle East.

Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times