By sobering coincidence, I finished reading Jonathan Schell's new book, The Seventh Decade, just as George W. Bush, Ehud Olmert, and Mahmous Abbas were getting ready to go onstage for their starring roles in the U.S. - produced theatrical spectacle, "Peace Talks at Annapolis." Schell thinks that the new phase of the nuclear age we are in now may be the most dangerous of all. "Peace Talks" gives us one more good reason to believe he may be right.
Schell's main point is simple enough, though its ramifications stretch out endlessly. The technically hard part of making a nuclear weapon is producing the enriched radioactive fuel. Once that's done, the rest is pretty straightforward engineering. So the important question is not, "Who has the bomb now?" It's, "Who has the fuel to make the bomb some day?" When the nuclear age began, it was only the U.S., Britain, and the Soviet Union. Now dozens of nations can make the bomb some day -- thanks in part to the "generous" American policy of spreading nuclear technology around the world.
Schell was kind enough to read my book on Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" plan, so he knows that it had nothing to do with peace and everything to do with scoring propaganda points in the cold war. But the unintended fallout was to give lots of countries the technical wherewithal to enrich nuclear fuels. The prospect of endless proliferation came up a few times at national security council meetings in the Eisenhower years, but no one gave it any attention. They were too busy trying to defeat the Soviets.
Now the Bush administration is just as busy trying to defeat "the terrorists" and any government that stands in the way of U.S. global hegemony. To buy friends (and boost the nuclear power industry) they are ready to sell nuclear power technology around the world, while threatening to nuke anyone who acquires the same technology without U.S. approval. (Are you listening, Iran?)
There are two great arcs of countries that can make the bomb some day. One stretches from Russia through China, to Korea, Japan, and probably Taiwan. The other stretches from India through Pakistan, Iran, maybe Syria, certainly Israel, down to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both of which recently made deals to get nuclear technology from the U.S. (We can safely assume that Iraq would be in that arc some day, if the U.S. gets its way and keeps permanent U.S. military bases there, which will probably house nukes.)
Which brings us to the spectacle of "Peace Talks at Annapolis." I call it a spectacle because no one expected it to be much more than a grand photo op to boost the political fortunes of the stars: Bush, Olmert, and Abbas. Now the news reports tell us that, after some intense last-minute arm-twisting, the U.S. managed to extract a real agreement. The Israelis and Abbas' rump Palestinian government will begin permanent peace talks and get a genuine peace agreement within a year.
Or so they say. Aaron David Miller, a former negotiator for the Clinton administration, voiced the view of most knowledgeable observers: "The chances for a Palestinian state in George Bush's term are slim to none." Miller, a Democrat, blamed it on the Bush administration's lack of "will and skill" to pull off a peace treaty.
But even with all the will and skill in the world, it's doubtful any American leader could pull it off. Last week the prestigious Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported that top right-wing politicians in Israel have achieved a "targeted assassination" of the peace process. They've put up obstacles to peace so high that Olmert, a weak leader at best, can never pull them down.
They got the Knesset, Israel's parliament, to pass a law that 2/3 of the Knesset must approve any changes in the boundaries of Jerusalem. That will never happen. So the Israeli negotiators in the "peace process" can never accede to a fundamental Palestinian demand, that both nations share Jerusalem as their capitals.
They also got a hidden "kicker" in the joint declaration issued at Annapolis: "The parties also commit to immediately implement their respective obligations under the performance-based road map." Israel has always insisted that its obligations under the road map begin only after the Palestinian authorities have suppressed all anti-Israeli violence. Ha'aretz reports that the right-wingers who want to block peace are requiring Olmert to persist in the peace-blocking policy.
Israel will have a dependable partner in that effort. The declaration say that the Bush administration will judge whether both sides are fulfilling their road map obligations. The long-standing U.S. tilt toward Israel is certainly not going to change any time soon. As the Washington Post reported: "People who have spoken to Bush in recent weeks say he has made it clear that he has no intention of trying to force a peace settlement on the parties. The president's fight against terrorism has given him a sense of kinship with Israel over its need for security, and he remains skeptical that, in the end, the Palestinians will make the compromises necessary for a peace deal." So the U.S. will never say Israel has failed its road map obligations, and the Israelis can go on stalling forever.
The Palestinians helped the Israelis to stall by accepting an agreement with no binding timetable for negotiations. The declaration says only that both sides will "make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008." The Israelis can easily put up all their roadblocks to peace and then say, "Hey, we made every effort, didn't we?"
According to some reports, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wanted a more meaningful agreement at Annapolis, knowing that a failed effort at peace is worse than no effort at all. According to The Economist, "Ms Rice shuttled and shuttled, but could not stop Israel from repeatedly raising the bar. For his part, Mr Abbas, having threatened to pull out of Annapolis if it proved to be devoid of content, turned out not to have the guts-no doubt fearing a withdrawal of American support for his precarious regime."
Precarious indeed. Abbas knows that the Palestinians will never accept a state that does not include Gaza, and he has no power to bring Gaza into any agreement. In case he missed that point, more than 100,000 Gazans were in the streets protesting the Annapolis meeting. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority banned all demonstrations and news conferences during the meeting. Nevertheless, hundreds demonstrated, and police used batons and tear gas and fired into the air to suppress them. Police beat and detained journalists too. (So much for the democracy the Bush administration supposedly supports, while it systematically destroys the duly elected government dominated by Hamas.)
Israel's strategy has always been to keep its opponents divided. If the past is any guide, Israel is now likely to string out the "peace talks" (with U.S. help) while it continues occupation policies that enrage Palestinians more every day. When the Palestinians get frustrated enough with Abbas' fruitless efforts, Hamas' fortunes will rise and his government will fall, or at best get embroiled in civil war. That will give the Israelis a chance to complain once again, "We have no partner for peace."
But then a real peace process, which would have to include Hamas, was never the point in the first place. Few take even this pseudo-peace process seriously -- including, it seems, the president. Daniel Kurtzer, who served as Bush's ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005, said, "You don't get a sense that he's invested in it. Nobody associates President Bush with this policy."
The policy everyone associates Bush with is the brewing war -- whether hot or cold, no one can say for sure -- against Iran. Most observers agree that the spectacle of "Peace Talks at Annapolis" was staged, above all, to impress Iran by consolidating a pro-U.S., anti-Iranian alliance in the Middle East.
Just as in Eisenhower's day, it's all about containment, drawing a clear line between our side and theirs and then standing tough. One part of that line runs right through Palestine, between the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government. When Abbas agreed to the Annapolis declaration, he hardened the opposition to his rule and made the dividing line clearer than ever.
Meanwhile, the U.S. got Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and other anti-Iranian Arab states to line up more clearly alongside Israel and the pro-Abbas Palestinians on "our" side. They are all brought together by their fear of Iran and its growing influence with popular Arab factions like Hamas. So the Middle East is becoming more polarized than ever, as if the two sides were squaring off to do battle.
If it ever comes to that, will the battle be nuclear? That's the terrifying question Jonathan Schell raises, reminding us that most of these potential combatants have, or may soon have, the fuel to make nukes. As of now, actual nukes exist only in Israel (some 200 or more) -- and in Pakistan, which has no direct role in the Middle East drama now. But with its political future uncertain and its border with Iran always unstable, who can predict what might happen? And if Pakistan were to get involved, what would India do?
Schell's point is that nuclear proliferation, fostered by U.S. policies, is leading toward an ever greater likelihood of nuclear war, some day, some where. The U.S. is involved up to the ears in every region of the world, pushing and pulling with little regard for the long-term consequences of its tactical maneuvers.
The spectacle at Annapolis is just one more in an endless line of examples. What seemed like an innocuous publicity stunt and symbolic message to Iran could have unpredictable results. In a world menaced by proliferating nuclear weapons, unpredictable should mean unacceptable. Schell concludes that nothing is acceptable short of the total, global abolition of nuclear weapons. A hearty Amen to that.
But even without nukes, a Middle East battered by endless conflict and oppression would be unacceptable too. For the sake of justice as well as safety, the U.S. government must take genuine steps to promote a just and lasting peace between Israel and Palestine -- as two secure and viable states, with all political parties democratically represented -- rather than promoting a charade of peacemaking that is bound to fail.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.