Argument

Do Palestinians Really Want a State of Their Own?

Not right now, they don't.

The Palestinians have all the leverage, a former top State Department specialist on the Mideast peace process recently told me over red wine in Tel Aviv. "I'm not sure they'll ever sign on the dotted line." In that moment of candor -- lubricated no doubt by the Golan Heights cabernet -- the ex-bureaucrat admitted something U.S. President Barack Obama's administration would never concede publicly: The Palestinians are under little to no pressure to sign a final peace agreement with Israel.

The consensus among right-thinking people, of course, is that self-determination is the incentive par excellence for Palestinian leaders to strike a deal. That was the view Obama articulated on Feb. 27, four days before he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, when he told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that more than anything else, the Palestinians seek "the dignity of a state." Secretary of State John Kerry repeated the "dignity" talking point on March 3 at the pro-Israel policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

But if the Palestinians are desperately seeking a negotiated settlement that grants them a state of their own, they're certainly hiding it well. In July, Kerry announced an ill-advised nine-month deadline for delivering Middle East peace. That gestation period is nearly complete, but there doesn't seem to be a bun in Washington's oven. Undeterred, the administration is making a final push: Netanyahu visited the Oval Office on March 3, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas set to follow on March 17. If, however, Kerry and Obama are to succeed where their predecessors have all failed, they will have to fundamentally reassess their policy toward the Palestinians.

It's actually the Israelis, not the Palestinians, who are under pressure from all corners to reach a peace deal. Obama often reminds the Israelis that time is working against them, as high Palestinian birthrates could mean that the land between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River will have an Arab majority before long. For his part, Kerry warns Israel that the threat of boycotts and delegitimization is growing. The European Union, meanwhile, has set new guidelines against its funds going to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and it is considering labeling goods that originate there. The United Nations has declared 2014 the "International Year of Solidarity With the Palestinian People."

The Palestinians, meanwhile, are watching from the sidelines with glee. As one Palestinian negotiator told an Israeli official during a spate of terrorist attacks a decade ago, "Victory for us is to see you suffer." Viewers of the Palestinian Authority's official television station are unceasingly reminded that the Arab-Israeli conflict is an existential, zero-sum dispute. The channel assures its audience that cities in Israel will ultimately return to Arab rule, that the murder of Israeli civilians is a heroic deed, and that Jews are "barbaric monkeys, wretched pigs" -- or in the words of putatively peace-minded Palestinian Authority official Jibril Rajoub, "Satans" and "Zionist sons of bitches." And that's not to speak of the fire-eyed theocrats of Hamas, who run the show in the Gaza Strip.

It's inconceivable that Palestinian leaders, watching Israel squirm under unprecedented international pressure, would allow the Jewish state to rehabilitate its image as peace-seeker. Instead, they recognize that after the peace talks' inevitable failure, the Jewish state will be faced with only bad options. If Israel maintains the status quo, international pressure upon it can only grow. If it unilaterally withdraws from all or part of the West Bank, it will almost certainly face the same rocket attacks that followed its last two withdrawals -- from Gaza in 2005 and from south Lebanon in 2000. This time, however, the rockets will be aimed at Tel Aviv and its international airport. The Palestinian Authority will then argue that it can't be blamed for the security breakdown, because it was not consulted in carrying out the withdrawal.

The Obama administration seems determined not to contemplate the idea that the Palestinians habitually choose Israeli occupation over independence. But we've seen this show before: In 2000, Israel offered to dismantle more than 60 settlements, withdraw from 92 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, share the prickliest areas of Jerusalem's Old City, and grant the Palestinians a capital in the city's eastern areas. Some 100,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants would be allowed to move within Israel's borders. Yasser Arafat, then the Palestinians' leader, turned down the offer without making one of his own and then gave tacit or explicit sanction to the Second Intifada, an outburst of bombings and shootings that killed more than 1,000 Israelis over several years.

Between 2006 and 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Abbas 36 times, giving even more concessions -- offering some 95 percent of the West Bank, with swaps of land in Israel to bring the exchange to 100 percent, and a fund for Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Abbas walked away. As Olmert lamented in 2013, "I am still waiting for a phone call."

Is Abbas as toxic as Arafat, the unreformed terrorist? No. Is he Palestine's version of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, ready to turn his sword into a ploughshare and lock hands on the White House lawn? Not a chance.

Abbas may have realized that Israel, to use Obama's words, "is not going anywhere." Sadly, he has obdurately refused to pass on the memo to his people -- in Arabic, he continues to feed them the fantasy of a wholesale "right of return" of millions of Arabs to Israel that no Israeli leader will ever allow. In 2012, he conceded to an Israeli journalist that he would return to his Galilee hometown of Safed only as a tourist -- but quickly walked back his comments after the resulting uproar. Having thus primed his people, Abbas predictably finds that there is virtually no Palestinian constituency for a realistic peace deal.

That's why Shlomo Avineri, an octogenarian Israeli peacenik and former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, can write in the dovish daily Haaretz: "Don't expect Abbas to sign anything." That's why, this week, Abbas's underlings reacted to Netanyahu's AIPAC speech -- a veritable olive branch, by his standards -- with canned outrage. Netanyahu's demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, thundered Fatah Central Committee member Nabil Shaath, is "totally rejected" and "contravene[s] all the rules of the peace negotiations."

None of this is to suggest that Israel is blameless. Israel could have avoided many, though not all, of its current predicaments by not having embarked on the West Bank settlement enterprise in the first place -- at least not in areas distant from Israel proper and heavily inhabited by Palestinians. The enterprise has been damaging to Israel because it obscures the fact that Palestinians still overwhelmingly reject the Jewish state to begin with and because it gives the Palestinians a plausible pretext for endlessly deferring difficult decisions. In other words, it gives them nearly limitless leverage.

So what is to be done? The good news is that the United States does have ways to influence the Palestinians to negotiate seriously -- if only it is willing to use them. Washington is the single biggest donor to the Palestinian Authority, and thus Congress could condition U.S. aid on stopping all that monkeys-and-devils incitement (two such initiatives are currently in the first stages of legislation). The United States could also offer significant aid boosts to the Palestinians if they make tangible steps toward peace, and threaten corresponding cutbacks if they fail to do so.

Such a policy will ultimately benefit the Palestinians more than anyone. Washington, as well as the world, does them no favors in forever excusing their failure to better their lot and in painting them as a people always acted upon but never acting. The Palestinian leadership currently has no incentive to make a deal -- but in the interest of peace, that can and must change.

Photo: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Putin's Reich

The dark echoes of ethnic nationalism in Russia's lost empire.

At 4:45 a.m. on Sept. 1, 1939, a German warship opened fire on the city of Danzig, a Polish-administered enclave -- overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Germans -- that had been separated from Germany since World War I.

Throughout the previous decade, Adolf Hitler had intimidated neighboring states into relinquishing regions where German speakers made their homes: France in the Rhineland in 1936, the Anschluss absorption of Austria in 1938, followed by the most famous such capitulation, the Franco-British appeasement that forced Czechoslovakia to hand Germany the Sudetenland region -- again, largely populated by ethnic Germans.

But it was in Danzig where bullying failed and true violence began. Among the city's residents was Günter Grass, a German boy whose description of the opening salvos of World War II would later win him a Nobel Prize for his novel The Tin Drum.

It's so easily written: machine guns, twin turrets. Might it not have been a cloudburst, a hailstorm, the deployment of a late-summer thunderstorm like the one that accompanied my birth? I was too sleepy, such speculations were beyond me, and so, the sounds still fresh in my ear, like all sleepyheads I simply and aptly called a spade a spade: Now they are shooting!

In Crimea and in Donetsk, they are not yet shooting. But efforts to enforce the rights of ethnic groups across international borders often lead to war, especially when those groups are the remnants of a collapsed empire.

Vladimir Putin, Russia's stridently nationalistic president, should consider the parallels as he plots his next move. Putin talks a lot about precedent these days as he seeks to justify his infiltration of Russian special forces and intelligence agents to seize government centers in the Ukrainian region of Crimea.

"I believe that only residents of a given country who have freedom of will and are in complete safety can and should determine their future," Putin said on Tuesday, March 4. "If this right was granted to the Albanians in Kosovo, if this was made possible in many different parts of the world, then nobody has ruled out the right of nations to self-determination."

No one, of course, is fooled by this. Indeed, when compared with the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo, the Russians today are playing the Serbian card. At issue in Kosovo, then an autonomous province of Serbia, was the protection of an ethnic Albanian majority from a larger power using violence. That is, a larger power using a "lost tribe" -- in that case, ethnic Serbs -- as an excuse to occupy and repress another ethnic group. And this is precisely what Russia has in mind in Ukraine.

If Putin wants to consider the potential consequences of his current actions, he should first remember his stint as a KGB agent -- in Dresden -- a city obliterated by firebombing at the end of a world war started in the name of reuniting the lost tribes of Germany.

Putin is no Hitler. This goes without saying, but must be said nonetheless. But Putin's own frequent evocations of Nazis and fascists in his descriptions of the Ukrainians who overthrew and impeached pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych has invited Hitler into the conversation.

So -- when considering ethnic ties as a pretext for bold diplomatic bullying and outright military adventures -- are there actual similarities between Hitler and Putin?

The dispersion of ethnic groups across multiple states in diasporas is not new or confined to Germany and Russia. Nor, of course, is it peculiar to Europe. Often, the lost-tribe argument proves a useful pretext for diplomatic snubs, and sometimes war.

For example, Thailand and Malaysia dispute ownership of southern Thailand, where Muslim insurgents have been battling security forces since the 1970s. India and Pakistan have gone to war repeatedly -- in 1947, 1965, and 1999 -- over their rival claims to rule the people of Kashmir. Indonesia invaded the island of East Timor in 1976 allegedly to free it from colonial Portuguese rule -- but truly to prevent Timorese independence (which it granted only reluctantly in 1999).

Non-Russian former Soviet states have also experienced this plight. In the early 1990s, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a bitter conflict over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic Armenians were resisting Azerbaijani rule. When Georgia's ethnic Russians in South Ossetia and Abkhazia declared separatist states in 1991, Georgia pushed back and tried to squash these attempts. But Tbilisi was unsuccessful: Russia rolled in with tanks and troops in 2008.

Even in the Americas, the ghosts of plantation policies and imperial collapse are present. In 1836, the Republic of Texas cited protection of the rights of ethnic Americans -- Anglos -- as part of its reason for declaring independence from Mexico. More recently, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher went to war in 1982 over the "ethnic Britons" of the Falkland Islands.

The Soviet empire's collapse is only the most recent example of ancient ethnic diasporas -- or colonial remnants -- sparking modern wars. Ever since the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union (which we are constantly reminded ranks as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century in Putin's eyes), Russia has played this card, arguing that when sizable Russian communities remain in former Soviet states, there is justification for treating these countries as less-than-sovereign entities.

This hardly began with Putin. In 1990, Boris Yeltsin, his predecessor, ordered a Russian army led by Gen. Alexander Lebed to Moldova to support a separatist bid by ethnic Russians in that newly independent -- and largely ethnic Romanian -- country. This would become a harbinger of things to come in Georgia in 2008 and possibly now in Ukraine. At the time, the ethnic Russian (and some ethnic Ukrainian) citizens of Moldova declared themselves the republic of Trans-Dniester -- named for the river that formed the border of a region called Bessarabia, which, history buffs may recall, Joseph Stalin stole from Romania in the 1939 deal that also split Poland between Stalin and Hitler.

There he is again. Nary a bad word about Stalin from the current Russian government, of course -- a man who, some scholars argue, killed even more people than the Austrian corporal, if not in such a spectacularly racist, efficient, and megalomaniacal way. But Hitler stalks the current narrative in multiple ways. Here, European history offers a template for reassembling an imploded empire, as well as tradecraft for stoking up public support in Russia for actions that might otherwise be seen as reckless.

While Putin's motives may only pay lip service to the alleged peril ethnic Russians face outside the federation's borders, he has rich ground for sowing doubt about the motives of Ukrainian nationalists. In the months before Hitler turned on his Soviet ally in 1940, German agents expertly fomented anger and intrigue in many non-Russian communities within the Soviet Union, from the Baltic lands to the Tatars of Crimea to Ukraine.

Few remember now the many divisions of Hitler's armies that were drawn from ethnic groups in conquered territories and even neutral states, including Ukraine. Indeed, Ukraine contributed some 80,000 troops in three divisions to the German Wehrmacht, including one division of the Waffen SS. Ukrainians were hardly alone. Germany fielded divisions manned by Georgians, Armenians, Finns, the Vichy French, and even the neutral Swedes during the war. And Russia itself was not immune: Ten full divisions of anti-communist White Russian émigrés joined Hitler's army -- some 250,000 officers and Russian elite styling themselves as the "Russian Liberation Army" under the czarist general Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov.

Ukrainians and others also fought Russian partisans alongside German units and served as guards in Hitler's death camps -- John Demjanjuk, the former U.S. autoworker from Cleveland whose prosecution on war crimes made headlines in 1993, was one of them. But Ukrainian nationalists -- and their cohorts in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, and countless other places duped by Hitler into siding with the western "liberators" -- had been murdered and starved to death in the millions by Stalin's communist tyranny in the 1930s. What might have seemed as a lesser of two evils may, in retrospect, have been a greater evil -- or at least a commensurate one.

Nonetheless, for Russians, the word "fascist" has very real and profoundly divisive emotional consequences. The shame of non-Russian nationalists at the sins of their grandparents remains fertile today. The sins of Stalin, however, have been downplayed repeatedly, particularly since Yeltsin's brand of romantic Slavic nationalism gave way to Putin's Soviet nostalgia and all its big-power trappings.

For all his citations of Western-led interventions in Libya and Kosovo as precedents for Russia's actions, Putin must understand that he is stirring a very dangerous pot. Russia has land borders with 14 countries -- more states than any other nation on Earth other than China (which also borders 14, including Russia). Many of those neighboring states contain large populations of people who self-identify as Russians. But Russia itself also contains millions of ethnic Koreans, Mongols, Uighurs, and others whose crowded, resource-starved motherlands may someday have their own designs on reincorporating their lost tribes.

In the Russian Far East, this dynamic is palpable, and it is common to hear Russians in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk complain about the influx of Korean and Chinese money, along with immigrant workers. Some 80 million Chinese and 45 million Koreans live in the provinces that border Russia. The population of Russia's own Far Eastern territory, Primorsky krai, is below 2 million.

All that land, all that oil -- and lost tribes, to boot. Putin should be worried less about the precedents he cites and more about those he sets.

Photo: YURIY DYACHYSHYN/AFP/Getty Images