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September 22, 2011

Blessed are the Businessmen and Women

WASHINGTON— Sixty-four years ago today, one of the most prescient memos in American history was placed on the desk of George C. Marshall, the United States Secretary of State.  It was written by Loy Henderson, the director of the State Department’s Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs.  Coming less than a month after a special committee of the United Nations had recommended partitioning Palestine into two states—one Jewish and one Arab—it precisely predicted the violent future that partition would bring.

“The plan is not only unworkable,” the memo argued, but “if adopted, it would guarantee that the Palestine problem would be permanent and more complicated in the future.”   In an equally perceptive memo to President Harry Truman two months later, Henderson wrote, “the plan . . . leaves no force other than the local law enforcement organizations for preserving order in Palestine.  It is quite clear there will be wide-spread violence in that country, on both the Arab and Jewish sides, with which the local authorities will not be able to cope.”

Henderson’s message was delivered to the President personally by Under Secretary of State Robert Lovett.  But Truman, wildly unpopular at the time, was convinced that in order to win the Democratic nomination for President—let alone the 1948 election—he needed to support partition.  As Truman himself put it, “I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism.  I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”

Five days later, the U.S. voted for partition in the UN General Assembly and Palestine descended into violence.  The following March, Truman renounced partition and called for a UN trusteeship of Palestine, bringing charges that he was weak.  Two months later, Israel unilaterally declared independence, inviting Jews to return to their historic homeland, where they had lived two thousand years before Mohammad was even born. Truman reversed himself again, making the U.S. the first nation to recognize Israel as an independent nation.

As UN delegates invoke Truman’s name this week in preparation for tomorrow’s General Assembly vote on a Palestinian Authority request that Palestine be recognized as an independent state, it’s hard not to see the irony:   invoking Truman means invoking the triumph of politics.  Yet, it is precisely the political games being played by all parties involved in the Middle East today that has made compromise of any kind impossible.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can’t compromise because the ultra-orthodox members of his governing coalition, led by ultra-secular Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, won’t even allow Israel to apologize for killing nine Turks in last year’s flotilla raid, let alone negotiate a two-state solution.

Lieberman can’t compromise on the building of settlements in the West Bank, which have tripled since the failed Oslo Accords in the early 1990s, because the vast majority of new settlers are the secular Russian Jews and ultra-orthodox Jews that he represents.

President Barack Obama can’t compromise, or push Israel publicly in any way, without incurring the wrath of Jewish supporters in America or opportunists in the U.S. Congress—who have been falling all over themselves the past two weeks competing on who can propose the most extreme punishment for Palestinians should the UN vote go through (at this point, “cutting off all US funding for the Palestinian Authority” represents the least offensive measure).

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas can’t compromise, or even publicly state that Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state, because the leaders of Hamas will use it to rally Palestinians against him.  Hamas can’t compromise because its reason for being is the destruction of Israel—preaching, as Palestinian educator Sari Nusseibeh has written, that negotiating peace pales in comparison to fighting and “a guaranteed paradise in the afterlife.”

Muslim leaders across the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and the newly combative Turkey—none of whom have lifted a finger for six decades to help Palestinian refugees and all but ignore the people of Gaza as anything but a political tool against Israel—can’t compromise if their claims for regional leadership are to be successful.

Meanwhile, Palestinian supporters at the UN tomorrow will likely vote in favor of a fictional short cut to Palestinian statehood, leading to celebrations in Ramallah—only to dissolve next week to the reality that nothing has changed.

Through it all, an eight year-old girl in Sderot will go to bed tonight to the sound of rocket fire, while an eight year old boy in Gaza stands in line for too little food, one of the 80 percent of Gazans dependent on aid agency bread to stay alive.  What becomes of him when Netanyahu retires to one of his three homes, Obama writes his memoirs, and Abbas retreats to the sun of Sharm el-Sheikh?

Will he steep himself in the wisdom of people like former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who said, in 2001 that “resolving these differences—whether this year or in ten years—will entail the same choices, with the same geography, and the same necessity to visualize a different future and let go of old hurts?”  Or will he choose to simply lead a Third Intifada—leading to more funerals and more tears, while people in the region grow poorer?

Maybe the Bible had it wrong.  Maybe the peacemakers are not blessed.  But maybe the businessmen and women can be.

Everyone remembers the famous handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in front of Clinton’s outstretched arms in 1993.  But they didn’t see what happened next:  Clinton went to the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House, where he met with 600 Arab-American and Jewish-American businessmen and women.  All of them were committed to making serious investments in the Middle East, to help peace take hold.  It never happened because, as Clinton has recalled, “somebody set off a bomb every time we got ready to make a little progress, which provoked Israel to close the borders, which crushed the Palestinian economy.”

With all the peace-makers unable to compromise, maybe it’s time for business to lead.

Maybe Clinton himself should lead a Middle East version of the Clinton Global Initiative—call it the Swords to Plowshares Initiative—and persuade business leaders to make specific commitments:  that if a two-state solution can be reached, a wave of new jobs, business, and investments will flood into Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel.

Maybe the cry that helped take down apartheid in South Africa—“I ain’t gonna play Sun City”—can be converted instead into, “I am going to play Gaza City.”

Maybe if the benefits of peace were made material and not ethereal, with concrete commitments rather than vague promises, it would be the kind of disruptive development that sparks compromise.

In other words, 64 years after Loy Henderson’s memo to Harry Truman, maybe the key to Middle East peace isn’t where the buck stops—but where the bucks will start.