…Proximity talks are a big retreat from reality–not a surprise, but a big retreat nonetheless–when the Palestinians want only to talk with the Americans. And then, the Americans will talk to the Israelis, and back and forth through the American mediator, presumably a tired Mitchell who hasn’t had a fresh idea in years. Now he has allowed the Palestinians to push him back to the idea of indirect negotiations, and, apparently, Obama also does not object–or maybe it was his own fix-it device. This is an old nightmare in the Jewish memory bank. Already, at Versailles, there was no contact between the Zionists and the Arabs and no contact at later conferences at which the question of Palestine was discussed.
The St. James Conference, called the London Round Table and convened by Neville Chamberlain(!), attracted all the leading Zionists and the best-known non-Zionist Jews. Saudi King Ibn Saud’s son, Emir Faisal, was in attendance, as were Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al Said (who was butchered on the streets of Baghdad 20 years later) and Jamal Al Husayni, a relative of the notorious grand mufti of Jerusalem. We have a description of what happened in London from the eminent historian Walter Laqueur:
The Arabs refused to sit at one table with the Jews and arrangements were made for them to reach the conference hall in St. James’s Palace by a different entrance. There were, in fact, two separate conferences. Only on two occasions did informal meetings take place between Jewish leaders and the representatives of Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The Palestinian Arabs refused any contact with the Jews.
Eight years later, another conference assembled in London, this time summoned by the British foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, who–how can one say this?–simply did not like Jews. The conference, writes Laqueur, “was a repeat performance for those who had been to St. James’s Palace eight years before. There were no new proposals to be discussed, nor, as in 1939, were there any direct meetings before Arabs and Jews.”
The Arabs put their fate in the gods of war, expressing “the view both privately and on occasion in public that historical conflicts are always settled by force of arms and that one might as well have the struggle right away and get it over.” The General Assembly convened in November 1947 and sanctioned the creation of a Jewish state (yes, specifically Jewish state) and an Arab state (not, as it happens, a Palestinian state, since even the concept of a “Palestinian” did not have real life at the time–the “Palestinians” were the Jews). Thus, the Arabs went to war … and were handily defeated. At the various armistice talks, no Arab would sit at a table with an Israeli.
That the president and his team should now take up this old Arab formula for disguising reality demonstrates the poverty of their grasp of the problem at hand. In fact, Obama seems to think that he is the superego of the conflict and that his function is to hand out dicta on how to end it. But he has no dicta for the Palestinians and plenty for the Israelis. The Jewish state has many conditions under which it would be prepared to give more rather than less. Alas, the president can’t bring himself to publicly acknowledge this. The fact is that he does not particularly like Israel. Which is why it is so frightful to have his messenger running between Jerusalem and Ramallah making demands on the Jews.
Martin Peretz is the editor-in-chief of The New Republic.