Thursday, January 24, 2008


Watching Gazans rushing into Egypt after militants blasted open the separation wall reminded me of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The two happenings have in common the benign intervention of a third party to the dispute that caused the wall to be erected. The long-standing Communist part Secretary Ernest Honecker had been persuaded by the recently elected Gorbatchev to step down, as the population of the Democratic Republic of Germany was becoming more and more restive. However, that remedy didn’t improve matters, and by the summer of 1989, things were going from bad to worse. That was when neighboring Hungary, which since the beginning of the Kadar regime that followed a bloody uprising in 1956, had been hankering to play a role in the East-West European standoff, quietly opened its border with Austria. That meant that the hundreds of East Germans vacationing at Lake Balaton, a favorite resort with Eastern Europeans all but barred from traveling to the West, could walk across, and from there, reach West Germany. Once the vacationers realized this, they besieged the West German Embassy in Budapest for visas, and that was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Empire.

What’s happening in Gaza is somewhat similar in that the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, a staunch American ally who also has diplomatic relations with Israel, has turned a blind eye, telling his police to allow Gazans to buy up everything in sight. (Interestingly, unlike the East German, who wanted out, Gazans are not trying to stay in peaceful Egypt, they want to bring food and other necessities home.)

Will Mubarak’s show of independence from President Bush, who visited just last week, proclaiming there would be a Palestinian state by the end of his term, have comparable effects on the plight of he Palestinians as the dismantling of the Berlin Wall that followed Hungary’s open border gesture? There’s no doubt the situation in Palestine is as ripe for solution as was the East-West standoff in 1989 (both incidentally, resulting from the Second World War).

Alas, that similarity is not likely to mean much, and the reason is that there has not been a change either in Israel or in Washington that could be compared to the elevation of Mikhail Gorbatchev in the Soviet Union. Gorbatchev knew things had to change (he hoped he could maintain a communist system by introducing more openness, or glastnost, but it was too late).

Alas, in Washington and Jerusalem, we go from one backward looking regime to another. The only change in policy that would really make a difference, since we’ve talked ourselves hoarse without getting the Israelis to accept the fact that the Palestinians have as much right to a state as the Jews, is to do a 180 degree turn: get out of Iraq and occupy Israel. There have been timid suggestions over the years of he possible utility of a U.N. peacekeeping mission to Israel, but the Israelis have consistently said “niet”. They do not trust anybody with their security, for reasons which go back seventy years to Hitler. Between those who claim that God gave them the land the Palestinians have been living on for centuries, and those who feel it is their responsibility to see to it that another Holocaust never happens, there is little room for any acknowledgment that nothing is forever and that life consists of change and transformation.

A U.S. occupation may sound like a joke, but think of the benefits: we keep our military machine tuned; we keep the oil flowing from every Arab pump without having to actually wage war; we remove the threat to Israel from Iran (they wouldn't be that foolish).

The alternative is actually worse: today, when asked about the crisis at the Egyptian border with Gaza, the Israeli President, Simon Perez, in the monotonous, understated tone we’ve become used to through decades as a high-level Israeli politician, used words that have a specific, historical meaning. He said: “It’s Egypt’s problem.” For those of use familiar with the standing Jewish argument that the Arab countries should have taken the Palestinians in when the Israeli state was born, that can mean only one thing: Israel’s blockade of Gaza is meant to achieve that goal. Unwilling to give up Gaza, with its population, to Egypt, Israel toys with the idea that perhaps the Gazans will simply decide to stay on the other side of the wall. That’s no more likely to happen than it did with the East Germans. Most of them stayed put, working to bring their now liberated country up to the economic level of the rest of Germany.