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Common Ground

With a looming deadline, deep-seated distrust, and competing claims to resources, Washington’s effort to reach a debt deal is a stateside version of the ongoing quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace

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Obama and Boehner, Netanyahu and Abbas. (Netanyahu: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images; Obama: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images; Boehner: Win McNamee/Getty Images; Abbas: Omar Rashidi/PPO via Getty Images)

You’ve seen this movie before: Bitter rivals, bound by the interests of shared history and common geography, find themselves unable to resolve a decades-old policy dispute with potentially world-historical implications. A deadline looms, offering an opportunity for both sides to draw lines in the sand. A pro forma bit of bureaucratic maneuvering escalates into a crisis. Terms are negotiated, but each time a deal seems close it comes unglued at the last minute, for reasons that make more sense to the people involved than to the increasingly anxious and exhausted spectators watching at home—sometimes, it turns out, for reasons as petty as a nasty or unreturned phone call. Frustrated, the leaders turn to the public. One side claims to be on the side of of justice and liberal democracy; the other side appeals to the equally resonant tenets of self-determination and liberty.

Welcome to Jerusalem on the Potomac, or, if you like, Ramallah on the Hill, in which the political leaders of the fiscally challenged United States are playing roles long ago made famous by their stymied counterparts in the Middle East. In the last few days, the fraught negotiations over raising the federal debt ceiling—which are really negotiations about what the government should provide for its citizens—have increasingly come to look and sound like nothing so much as the familiar, tedious peace process. “Out of many, we are one,” President Barack Obama reminded the American people after the collapse of yet another round of talks Monday night. “Peace would herald a new day for both our peoples,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced before him, in May.

And the debt-ceiling negotiations in Washington are failing for exactly the same reason the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations have historically failed, at Camp David, Wye River, and myriad other retreats. The underlying differences—mutually exclusive claims to a finite piece of land in one case, mutually exclusive views of what government is for on the other—are arguably unbridgeable, even in the best of circumstances. As a result, the incentives for those in charge point toward minimizing personal losses over risking career suicide in service of achieving a sweeping solution that is politically risky and possibly untenable. In both situations the losers are the anonymous masses—Social Security recipients, mortgage-seekers, Israelis and Palestinians trying to live normal lives in Sderot or Gaza—but everyone knows who they would blame for a deal they don’t like, whether it’s Obama or Boehner, Netanyahu or Abbas.

Obama and Netanyahu have sought to cast themselves as the responsible adults in their respective rooms—the ones pushing harder, and risking more, to achieve the impossible. “I stood before my people, and I said, ‘I will accept a Palestinian state,’ ” Netanyahu said in that May address, before the U.S. Congress. “I’m willing to take the responsibility,” Obama said last Friday, in a hastily called press conference after Boehner broke off another round of talks. “That’s my job.”

And Obama could fairly be accused of making the same mistake in the debt negotiations that he has in his own efforts in the Middle East: moving too fast to concede ground in the center before reassuring his base that he won’t bend on their red lines, namely Israel’s security and primacy over mercurial Arab allies, or the principles enshrined in the New Deal and the Great Society and everything else the Democrats have spent the last 80 years building.

Nevertheless, the president’s real problem isn’t the fundamentalists on his own side: Nancy Pelosi is no Avigdor Lieberman, despite last week’s grumbling from the Democratic caucus. Just as Hamas holds the ultimate veto over any peace plan Abbas and Netanyahu could bring themselves to agree to, it’s the extremists in the Republican camp who are holding everyone else hostage to their demands. Like militants on the Palestinian side, these angry Republican ideologues have shown themselves constitutionally unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of the other side’s worldview, and perfectly happy to take down the whole ship rather than compromise their ideals.

It’s not surprising that, after last week’s breakdown of so-called grand bargain negotiations between Obama and Boehner, a conspiracy theory began making its way around Washington: that the big blowup was staged to give Boehner some plausible deniability that will allow him to ultimately make a deal. “‘It’ll help if we look mad at each other,’” Politico writer Mike Allen summarized Boehner’s supposed pitch. “If that’s the deal,” he added, “they should both get Academy Awards.” The episode echoed the constant refrain of Israeli diplomats: that the Fatah-aligned leaders of the Palestinian Authority are happy to talk about unity with Hamas in public, while in private they beg the Israelis for help controlling their sometime mortal enemies in Gaza.

So, now we’ve arrived at a place where, it appears, all parties prefer to remain in the limbo of no deal rather than agreeing to a deal they don’t really like, hoping that they might get a less bad deal, or at least make their opponents look worse, tomorrow. Just as the Israelis and the Palestinians perennially look to the Americans or the Europeans to come in and referee, the players in Washington have looked to Wall Street and the ratings agencies to come in and knock heads, but so far it’s the bureaucrats at the Congressional Budget Office—a more successfully nonpartisan analog to the United Nations missions in the Middle East—who have had the most immediate practical impact.

If Obama and Boehner can make a debt deal before next week, and head off the disaster that default would bring, it won’t be because the Republicans, and specifically the Tea Partiers, decided to compromise their position. It will be because Obama and Boehner either found the courage to stand up to the extremists or found a way to defuse their power. If not—well, we all know what it feels like to lament lost opportunities once it’s too late.

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No partisan slant in YOUR dialogue now IS THERE.

There are a few of us who do believe that cutting SPENDING is the WAY OUT.

Raising taxes is folly, and entitlements have to be cut for us to survive.

Say what you will, but this Jewish Republican says ‘NO’ to raising the debt limit.

bill says:

“Republican angry extremists? Militants?”

Ms Hoffman is deliriously partisan far left. The fact Ms Hoffman would support our country going bankrupt due to out of control spending tells me she isn’t credible.

Ms Hoffman has to realize this is really a battle over the solvency of our government. We’re paying too much out and bringing too little in. And before she jumps on the tax raising mantra if you abscond all the wealthy’s money which you can only do once it adds up to $1 Trillion–still leaving us with a budget deficit.

As a Jew, Ms Hoffman’s piece reminds me of why I long ago renounced my Democrat Party identification. They’ve forgotten if you want to provide for government dependents, you’d best make sure we have sufficient tax payers subsidizing. But evidently she believes in money trees planted in her front lawn.

Disgraceful piece.

bill says:

And what is this equation to the Israelis-Arabs? We all know there’s only one way the Arabs make peace with Israel. And that is if Israel agrees to “right of return” allowing all “Displaced” Arabs and descendants into Israel as full voting citizens voting Israel out of existence. We all know Clinton gave Arafat everything he wanted except “right of return” and Arafat nixed the deal.

How can so many of fellow Jews be either so misguided, or educated idiots?

Ms Hoffman’s article is utter nonsense. Its like comparing apples to olives. How can you publish such rubbish?

Michael says:

There’s no dysfunction in either the American political or the Palestinian-Israeli stalemates. What is common to both situation is the heightened role of ideology in which the conservative wing in both societies have won the political narrative of their respective societies. In the US, even such easy policies such as letting the Bush-era tax cuts for families making over $250,000 would have been a more efficient way of boosting the economy than any of the plans out there. And in Israel, anyone who is a student of the issue, knows that the prevailing idea for peace was the 1967 borders -with agreed upon swaps and adjustments. Review the Taba negotiations if you’re in doubt. We’re doomed by ideologues in both societies.

Rocky says:

By the time the clock ran out for the Weimar Republic on January 30, 1933, Germany had experienced over a year of failed Federal governance and inconclusive elections. The old line parties were not able to put together a coalition government and in the end, Adolf Hitler, as head of the largest party in the Reichstag was reluctantly asked by President Paul von Hindenburg to become Chancellor. Many older Jews thought the Hitler business would blow over in a few years but it did not.

We don’t know what will happen if the clock runs out on August 2 and the US defaults. But I assume it will be bad news. The financial markets will undoubtedly react very badly. A financially weakened US will not be good for Israel or for American Jews. Many Americans already oppose US policy in the Middle East, from the starting of two wars, to sending foreign aid money that the country doesn’t have. Even if the financial crisis is kicked down the road for a few more months, everyone knows that the US is almost broke, that the rich don’t want to lose their tax breaks and that the middle class and poor do not want to pay higher taxes either or lose their entitlement programs. The country is very divided and much of the electorate is economically illiterate and votes based on its religious beliefs. I guess, in the end, we get the government we deserve.

bill says:

Reverting back to the 1948 borders make Israel “indefensible” enabling easier attacks upon her, not leading to peace.

Glad you aren’t negotiating, Michael.

Michael says:

Bill. The ongoing negotiations and primary goal on both sides before hardline religious nationalism took over was the 1967 borders with some changes. This is not Michael’s position: it was the position of Israeli negotiators. Sorry that you’re not aware of this history. By the way, for all of you writers out there “reverting back” is a redundant phrase. “Reverting” means going back.

jacob arnon says:

“With a looming deadline, deep-seated distrust, and competing claims to resources, Washington’s effort to reach a debt deal is a stateside version of the ongoing quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

There a lot of historical and contemporary analogies one can use to compare to the negotiations in Washington between Democrats and Republicans, but the the Arab-Israeli conflict is not one of them.

To see all the world’s event in terms of this conflict is both a Judeo-centric and a lazy way of thinking.

Hershel (Heshy) Ginsburg says:

Michael,

The Taba offerings were accepted by Arafat & his mad minions, despite the negotiations being conducted by the most dovish of the dovish (e.g., Yossi Beilin, Yossi Sarid among others).

And just in case you still don’t get it, Ehud Olmert offered Abu Mazen a deal that exceeded the Taba negotiations, so much so that your great white hope Tzippy Livni (pun intended) was horrified when she learned of Olmert’s offer. Nonehtheless, abu Mazen turned down the offer and did not even bother with a counter-offer. In an interview by the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl a bit more than 2 years ago, abu Mazen confirmed Olmert’s offer and said the sides were too far apart to bother with a counter-offer.

This interview was a moment of epiphany for Diehl, no closet Likudnik (p’tooi, p’tooi), who had the intellectual honesty, which you apparently lack, to realize that the Pals were not willing to strike a deal that the Israelis could remotely begin to live with. Since then he has been a harsh critic of both the Pals and the Obamnoids’ foolish and flawed I-P policies.

There is deep seeded narrative among “progressives” that if only Israel were more forthcoming to the Pals, an agreement would be reached, peace would break out both between the Israelis and the Pals, and from there throughout the whole world. This narrative has been repeatedly tested over the decades and it has never even approximated reality. We Israelis now recognize this reality and have electorally penalized Meretz & Labor accordingly.

And yet the narrative persists outside Israel to her detriment. I guess the progressobabbelian vocabulary lacks the words than mean “reality check” and addles “progressive” brains accordingly.

Or why sully the fundamentalist narrative with some inconvenient facts.

hg
Jerusalem / Efrata

Hershel (Heshy) Ginsburg says:

***MAJOR CORRECTION***
The first line of my post above should read:

“The Taba offerings were **NEVER** accepted by Arafat & his mad minions”.

HG

jacob arnon says:

I posted this also on Marc Tracy’s blog but it actually belongs here:

“How the Tea Party Is Like Hamas”

I despise the Tea Party, and I hate Hamas.

Yet, I can see more differences between them than similarities.

One huge difference is that the Tea Party is fueled by libertarian principles, while Hamas is fueled by anti-libertarian Koranic principles.

Another difference is that I suspect that many Tea Party members are hypocritical opportunists, while most Hamas members are true believers in Eric Hoffer’s sense of the term.

Michael says:

Heshy,

Firstly, a little tochacha. Please lose the angry tone and the cutting ad hominem asides. I’ve noticed it before in your postings. It would be nice if you wrote with a bit more dispassion, even if these are weightly issues. Secondly, I did not write that we or the Palestinians accepted anything that came out of Taba. In fact, we don’t really know all the facts about those negotiations. The point is that all reports indicate that both sides were close to one another’s position – evidence that (at least once upon a time) Israelis and Palestinians could talk to one another. Regarding your own position, do you want to keep all of Judea and Samaria and is it for religious or nationalist reasons or simply for pragmatic, security reasons. If the former, then the ideological divide between you and I is great indeed and the concept of negotiation itself is meaningless. Let us know your position.

bill says:

Personally, I don’t want the Israelis to compromise. “Right of return” is all the Arabs will accept. The liberal Jews in the US happy to sell Israel down the river now regarding America as their homeland, financially comfortable, traveling easily in powerful political circles, hiding behind “social justice” liberalism and the Democrat Party, and having the chutzpah to tell Jewish Israelis how to best run their country negotiating with Arabs in a place thousands of miles away.

As an American Jew the lefty Jews here are disgraceful. And when I observe the Rahm Emanuels, Axelrods, Barney Franks, Chuck Schumers, Gerrold Nadlers, Barbara Boxers, Diane Feinsteins, and the like screwing up the US and Israel Christian Evangelicals are first to support it becomes easy to see why many don’t particularly care for us (Jews).

Golda says:

No, you haven’t seen this movie before. As an Israeli, I have to say Hoffman is projecting her understanding of American politics on the Israeli situation, which is not analogous. This piece is embarassing.
If you are going to cover the Middle East, please find writers who
have a real grasp of the situation and something to say.

reuven says:

Michael,
you words about retaining civility in discussion, particularly at this time of year, is much appreciated. we know that our enemies cannot do anything to us that compares what we can do to ourselves.

i do believe that jews have a right to live in judea and samaria. our bonds to that land are attested to by a rich historical, religious, literary, and archaeological tradition. it would be the height of racism (or bigotry, if you prefer) to insist that jews are the only people who may not live on that land, particularly as Palestinians live in peace, security, prosperity and with equal (ish) rights in the State of Israel. if it were possible to arrive at some framework of shared sovereignty which would provide for a similar situation for jews in judea and samaria, we should consider it most seriously. since, however, the palestinian leadership desires – according to its own words (look again today at the words of the sec gen of the PA, or this interview with Nabil Shaath http://elderofziyon.blogspot.com/2011/07/another-moderate-saying-he-wants-to.html ) to destroy the state of Israel and certainly to prevent jews from living in judea and samaria, and control of yehuda and shomoron provides both a defensive advantage and a moral imperative (the right of jews to live in their ancestral homeland), it is hard to see an alternative at present.

by the way, any interpretation of the camp david summit or the taba negotiations which implies that Arafat and his group were at any time willing to declare an end to the conflict flies in the face of the accounts of american negotiators at the talks. one should not hide behind phrases like “we”ll never know what exactly went on” when these negotiators, who are not shy in their criticisms of israeli positions, give us in fact a very good idea of what went on and why the talks broke down.

this is all beside the point in relation to a critique of the above article, which does not merit serious thought.

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Common Ground

With a looming deadline, deep-seated distrust, and competing claims to resources, Washington’s effort to reach a debt deal is a stateside version of the ongoing quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace

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