Bradley Burston
Haaretz (Opinion)
May 19, 2009 - 12:00am

Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to the Obama White House, the first such meeting since both men came to power, has been widely billed as a key indicator of the Obama administration's intentions in the realm of Mideast policy.

"What may be Israel's most intransigent government ever elected," The Economist suggested this week, "is scared stiff that an American administration may squeeze it until its pips squeak."

Fevered conjecture over the talks has tended to center on whether and how the prime minister will say aloud five of the world's most anemic magic words: two states for two peoples.

At the same time, even some of Netanyahu's more acerbic critics freely if ruefully concede that any Obama drive for a two-state solution has been sandbagged by the inability of the Palestinians to coalesce politically for the sake of that second state.

"The snag," continues The Economist in an editorial, "is that the two halves of the Palestinian movement are at daggers drawn and have fluffed repeated opportunities to reconcile."

There is a lesson here for both sides, and it goes beyond what Barack Obama has in mind for them:

Over the years, Washington and the world have coddled both Israel and the Palestinians, whose behavior has come to resemble that of spoiled children.

Are they not deserving of sympathy? Of course they are. Never since the events of 1948 has the region seen a decade of such consistent violence, an extraordinarily high ratio of civilian casualties, and a universality of despair, as in the Second Intifada (2000-2004), the Second Lebanon War (2006) and the Gaza War (2008-9).

As with parents who become more and more indulgent the more clueless they realize they actually are - and the more out of control their kids get - Washington and the world have allowed Israel and the Palestinians both to run off the rails in whatever direction they happen to see fit at the moment.

Why? For the same reason that bad parents spoil their children:

They're afraid of them.

For generations, both Israelis and Palestinians have been snowing their respective allies, who have been afraid, either electorally or physically, of being perceived as not loving them enough.

In the case of Israel, the White House has stood often on the sidelines, politically neutralized, as the Jewish state undertook initiatives, in particular, settlement construction, which have proven painfully costly, morally dubious, and otherwise harmful - first of all, to Israel itself.

As the peace process unraveled in the late 1990s and then-prime minister Netanyahu burned through political capital in visits to Washington, senior Clinton administration Mideast official Aaron David Miller famously recalled that "all of us saw Bibi as a kind of speed bump that would have to be negotiated along the way until a new Israeli prime minister came along who was more serious about peace."

In the case of the Palestine that has yet to arise, global donors who lavished hundreds of millions of dollars and euros in aid, failed to require that the funds be spent on the needs of the needy, and the phantasmagoria of corruption that ensued led directly to the rise of Hamas, the crippling of Fatah, and the collapse of the peace process.

As in the case with spoiled children, as Israel and the Palestinians received more and more attention, they focused more completely on themselves, cataloguing, memorizing, publicizing and, frequently, exaggerating, every real and imagined injury, dismissing and ignoring damage and injustice done to the other.

Like spoiled children, hardliners on each sides spin a narrative in which the other side "started it," and bears sole responsibility for the entirety of the fighting which no one seems capable of stopping. Like brats, they have no room for another narrative, for someone else' distress, to feel remorse or extend sincere apologies to address wrongs they themselves have committed.

Like spoiled children, they have been treated all too often with excesses of sympathy and compensatory, largely unappreciated gifts, rather than the respect and honesty that would better have served them.

Like spoiled children, the hardliners demand to be allowed to continue whatever destructive behavior they choose, for the sake of fairness.

This behavior, in turn, engenders revulsion on the part of the neighbors [Israeli or Palestinian] who thus become favorably disposed, or at least, complicit, when harsh punishments are heard being meted out in the neighboring household [air strikes, crippling aid embargos, rocket attacks].

The result, for Israel, has been an unaddressed clash with its own future, as the number of Arabs living in Israel and the West Bank continues to rise, and Gaza continues to seethe, with no solution remotely in sight.

The consequence, for Palestinians, has been the self-immolation of their movement for independent statehood, and, in blaming the occupation for all ills, an acquired, abject incapability to alter for the better a tragic present.

Small wonder, then, that this remains the most infuriating peace process in the world. For the present, you don't have far to look to see why the Obama administration may, in the end, decide instead to devote its energies to more promising pursuits.

This may be the time to ask what, exactly, it is that Netanyahu has to lose by endorsing in broad strokes the two-state formula first conditionally endorsed by his Likud in 2003. On Monday, hours before the meeting, pollster Mina Zemach said that more than 50 percent of the Israeli public currently favors the two-state solution, and a total of 78 percent "would be willing to live with it" in the context of a future peace.

The answer, of course, is that on both sides, there is always someone who is ready, like a spoiled child, to wreck everything if things don't go his way. Take Netanyahu's own brother-in-law, Hagi Ben-Artzi, who was quick to point out that just by uttering five simple words, the prime minister, inaugurated two months ago, could return from Washington to find himself out of a job.

"I believe that he learned the lesson from his prior term, and won't fall into the same trap again, in which [having agreed to the Wye peace accord], he immediately returned home and was toppled by the parties of the right. I assume that he doesn't want to see this repeat itself at the beginning of this term."

With the perspective of the spoiled child, Ben-Artzi continued that at a time when there was a new Hitler in Tehran, threatening to annihilate the Jews, all the questions of an Israeli-Palestinian peace, two-states, settlements, Jerusalem and the like, should be put aside altogether as "nonsense."

"When you've got cancer," he said, "you don't bother yourself with a scratch on the foot."

And what of Israel's crucial ally, Washington? According to Ben-Artzi, Israel should feel free to attack Iran on its own, even if America is against it. "After the big war with Iran, we'll talk."


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