Road map just another Mideast mirage, says N.Y. editor

Fighting the effects of a cold and mildly embarrassed by the lofty title of his upcoming lecture, "Mirage and Reality in the Middle East," The New Republic editor Martin Peretz is still living up to his reputation as one of the media's most unyielding opinion-makers.

Peretz, co-founder of the online financial daily, said the war in Iraq lent credence to many of the ideas he has espoused throughout his journalism career.

"There have been all kinds of mirages surrounding the Middle East, many of which are beginning to unravel with the war in Iraq," Peretz said during a recent phone interview from New York. He will speak in San Francisco on Monday.

"There was the mirage of the powerful Iraq, a farce which was revealed when [Saddam] Hussein's own soldiers abandoned the country," said Peretz. "There was also the mirage of Arab unity foiling the United States' plans for regime change, and, of course, there's the mirage of Arab unity for Palestine, a mirage that won't go away anytime soon, because it benefits the powerful Arab elite."

Peretz also contends that one of the biggest fallacies surrounding the Middle East — European commitment to peace in the region — has been recently subjected to harsh scrutiny.

"The European governments are always running around pontificating about regional issues [in the Middle East], but they can't produce a single concession from the Palestinians, which means that they are of absolutely no relevance to the Israelis.

"Take [German Foreign Minister] Joschka Fischer, for example. I don't know what was accomplished by his recent visit to [Palestinian Authority President] Yasser Arafat, except that he conferred the illusion of legitimacy upon Arafat, at a time when progress can only be made through his departure."

The European presence in the Bush administration's "road map" to Middle East peace (including the creation of an autonomous Palestinian state) has stymied the process, according to Peretz, who added that he was "not particularly heartbroken" about that possibility.

Peretz said he believes this road map will follow in the failed footsteps of previous peace plans — the 2001 Mitchell Plan and Tenet Plan — "which is just as well, because there are too many ambiguities in it."

According to Peretz, the chief failure of the current plan is its insistence on a timetable. Peretz maintains that the road map should be contingent upon performance clauses and not linked to stringent dates and deadlines. He also contends that in order for the plan to succeed, the end of that road map has to be visible from its inception.

"There are issues that Israel cannot, should not and will not budge on, such as the right of return or the status of Jerusalem," he said. "These are issues that will never be conceded by Israel."

Pertez is heartened, however, by the general American populace, which he said can see through the "anti-Israel" rhetoric promulgated by much of the media.

"The American public opinion, from my point of view, has been sound, despite an almost unrelenting assault on Israel by the media. I'm astounded by the junk that's handed to the public, like being told [Syrian President Bashar] Assad was a rationalist merely because he studied science and ophthalmology. The American public gets besieged with all kinds of nonsense like this, and yet by and large, they know who the parties are who want to see a new reality emerge from the Middle East, and who the parties are that want to see the status quo remain in place.

"One reality that's imperative to note is that democracy in the Middle East will necessarily be a long process. If it's just a ballot-box democracy that emerges from Iraq and other countries, it might well be more volatile and violent than maintaining the old autocracies."

Peretz reserved his most succinct comments for a question regarding the aforementioned analysis. When told that it resembled a nightmarish Catch-22, Peretz paused, and then replied, "Yes, it certainly does."