There's an old joke about three guys stranded in the desert, dying of thirst. They have a can of water - but can't open it. One guy, an engineer, uses a stick as a lever and a rock as a fulcrum and ... nothing. The second guy, a physicist, does some calculations, drops the can from a predetermined height at a carefully considered angle and ... still nothing. Finally, the third guy, an economist, looks at the can and says: "OK. I have the solution. Assume a can opener."
A similar joke could be told about those who have worked on what we call - with more hope than precision -- the "peace process" in the Middle East. Diplomats and negotiators have urged Israel to give up land (Gaza, for example) for peace. They have focused on negotiating easy issues figuring that would "create momentum" for a comprehensive settlement down the road. They have attempted to "build confidence" among the warring parties, as if the conflict were just a big misunderstanding. And they have assumed leaders who did not exist as a way to conjure a preferable reality.
Each of these approaches has failed, and if those who will be handling the Middle East portfolio in the Obama administration want to understand why they should spend a little time listening to the extraordinary Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh. Recently, he gave a wide-ranging interview to a group of Americans visiting Israel, including Michael J. Totten who posted a transcript on his indispensable website.
Among other things, Toameh makes clear how stupid experts can be. In the 1990s, for example, peace processors "gathered all these PLO fighters from around the world, released thousands of PLO fighters from Israeli prisons, gave them uniforms and guns, and called them security forces. And the result was the people who had never received any basic training, people who had never finished high school, became colonels and generals in Yasser Arafat's [Palestinian] Authority."
Arafat stole billions of dollars donated by Americans and Europeans to aid Palestinians. Some of the money went into foreign bank accounts and to Arafat's wife who was living large in Paris. Some went not to build Palestinian hospitals and schools, but instead for bars, restaurants and a gambling casino -- across the street from a refugee camp. "The fact that Arafat was crooked didn't surprise us Palestinians," Toameh says. We were only surprised by the fact that the international community kept giving him money and refused to hold him accountable when he stole our money."
Arafat's corruption and misrule, followed by the vacillation and weakness of his successor, Mahmoud Abbas, helped radicalize Palestinians and pave the way for Hamas to win elections under the banner of "change" and "reform." But based on its militant interpretation of Islam, Hamas also is committed to "resistance"- another way of saying that its non-negotiable goal is the extermination of what it sees as the infidel state of Israel.
"Hamas is not going to change," Toameh says. "All these people who believe that Hamas will one day change its ideology, that pragmatic leaders will emerge in Hamas, these people are living under illusions. Hamas is not going to change. To their credit we must say that their message has been very clear. It's the same message in Arabic and in English. They're being very honest about it."
After so many missteps, what is possible now? Toameh thinks it's time to think small, to look for ways to manage the conflict, rather than attempting to solve it with some grand design similar to those presented with elaborate ceremony in past years at such venues as Annapolis, Taba, Camp David, Oslo and Madrid.
This conflict is not just about Palestinians and Israelis or even Arabs and Jews. "Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, the Muslim Brotherhood, all these people are playing a very negative role in this part of the world," Toameh says. "Iran wants to fight to the last Palestinian."
He does offer some advice: "If I were an Israeli Jew I would go to the Palestinians and say, ‘Listen, folks. I'm prepared to give you a Palestinian state and the Israeli majority approves of that, not because we love the Palestinians, but because we want to be rid of the Palestinians.' There's a majority of Jews today who want to disband most of the settlements and take only two percent of the West Bank. In the wake of these positive changes that have happened inside Israel, all you need is a strong partner on the Palestinian side. There is some hope, but only if there is a strong partner on the Palestinian side."
Which, Toameh is quick to acknowledge, there is not at the moment. There could be in time, however, and working toward that goal would be a useful task for the peace processors to take on. But simply "assuming" that the Palestinians have decent leaders and that the Israelis have a Palestinian interlocutor willing and able to cut a deal that will lead to peace is as futile as wishing for water - or a can opener - in the desert.