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There are no more “Risks for Peace” and we all had better get used to it

May 3, 2011 9:53 am 4 comments

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President of the Palestinian Authority Yasser Arafat (R) shakes hands with Shimon Peres (L). Photo: World Economic Forum.

It is time for everyone to grow up and recognize that the favorite slogan of would-be peacemakers in the Middle East—”Israel must take risks for peace” has been rendered dangerously passé. The opening of Egypt’s border with Gaza, which will lead to the full rearmament of Hamas, and the power sharing recently announced between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas, means that the most Israel can reasonably hope for in the foreseeable future will be “risks for a long-term hudna—an unstable cease fire with an organization dedicated to its destruction.” Many observers predict that Hamas will end up in control of the West Bank as well as Gaza under this deal, which has already been “cautiously welcomed” by the Secretary General of the United Nations and the European Union. Apparently they hope that Hamas will be tamed by the PLO, though there is no evidence that Hamas has moderated its fundamental position in any way. On the contrary, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh affirmed again this week that Hamas does not recognize previous deals between the PLO and Israel and does not recognize the legitimacy of Israel’s existence—it also calls on the PLO to cancel its own recognition of Israel. During the time that Hamas has been in power in Gaza it has kidnapped and killed Israeli soldiers, repeatedly shelled Israel’s civilian areas for months at a time with all of the weapons at their disposal, and brutally murdered Palestinians affiliated with the PLO. Nor has Hamas been shy about its clear and present objective—the destruction of Israel and its replacement by an Islamist state in all of historical Palestine.  These are not Israeli assessments; they are explicit public statements of Hamas leadership.

Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas continues to claim that he favors a negotiated solution with Israel, but has refused since the end of the Bush Administration to negotiate. Internet leaks now reveal that he cut off talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the hopes that a new American administration would favor Palestinian claims, which turned out to be true. Yet Abbas also casts blame on President Obama, in a recent Newsweek interview, for helping to push him up a tree on issues which had never interrupted negotiations before, like Israeli building in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, and then asking him to come down again when the Americans thought that he should. Abbas claims that Obama did this three times and that the Palestinian leader had no choice but to refuse.  Americans should be very concerned for what all this means for American credibility in the region (distrust of the administration is now the one thing that all parties to the conflict seem to share) but for Israel the impasse is a strategic dilemma that will not go away. It is not just building in Jerusalem or in the West Bank that has Abbas avoiding peace talks.

Recently Abbas and his lieutenants have insisted publically that they do not accept the one element of the Quartet’s roadmap that makes that roadmap possible for Israel to embrace—the acceptance by Palestinians that except for a symbolic number, the descendants of refugees who choose to do so will return only to a Palestinian state and not to Israel. This is one matter on which Israel will not and cannot compromise, no matter what government is in power. Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert offered to absorb 10,000 refugees as part of a comprehensive deal, but Abbas (we now know thanks to Palestinian Wikileaks) called that a “joke” and insisted on an open-ended approach that would ultimately give every Diaspora Palestinian the right to citizenship in Israel if they chose.  What makes this particularly striking is Abbas’s simultaneous insistence that the future state of Palestine will tolerate “not even one Israeli” within its borders.  Optimists can claim that with Abbas, one never really knows when he is merely grandstanding to shore up his own internal position or trying, as Arafat once said, to avoid assassination; with Hamas at least, one always knows where one stands.

This is the crux of the dilemma for Israel. Israel’s friends, and some who call themselves its friends in the international community, are right to point out that the status quo cannot continue forever, and that a two-state solution, if it can be achieved, poses the best hope for a future in which the State of Israel remains both demographically  Jewish  and democratic.  It is also the best hope in the near future for dignity and prosperity for the Palestinians. But the world’s impatience with Israel, starting with the current American administration, and its desperate insistence that if only Israel wanted it badly enough peace and justice would break forth upon the hills of Judea, is more likely to lead to a hot shooting war this summer or soon thereafter.  Up until now, every territory evacuated by Israel with the exception of Sinai has almost immediately brought missile fire and terrorist infiltration closer to Israel’s civilian population centers.  Unless something very drastic changes within Hamas in the near future (i.e. it publically undertakes to recognize Israel and its past agreements with the PLO) there is close to zero chance that any Israeli government will allow a Palestinian state in which Hamas plays a defining role to emerge in the West Bank and Gaza. Why should they? The most even the so-called moderates in Hamas have been willing to say is that they would consider a long-term cease fire with Israel. But this scenario itself is extremely doubtful. For one thing, despite all of the talk among diplomats, there is no way to keep an independent Palestinian state permanently disarmed. The Western world has fundamentally refused to tolerate even the siege of the terror mini-state currently operated by Hamas in Gaza—does anyone think that it will allow Israel to stop ships carrying missiles clandestinely to Palestine on the high seas? But missiles won’t have to come by way of sea now that the border with Egypt will be essentially un-policed, despite a 2005 agreement between the US, Egypt and Israel that brought an end to Operation Cast Lead.  And what happens when revolution (inevitably) comes to Jordan as well, making it too into essentially a Palestinian state, only this one boasting a credible military? Israel will be forced to place itself on a hair-trigger footing for war, which the Iranians and their allies (Hamas, Hezbollah and others) will know how to exploit when it suits them.

None of this necessarily means that Israel should refuse to negotiate or even reach agreements on long-term arrangements with the Palestinians. That is something Israelis and their elected leadership will have to decide, together with their neighbors.  But “risks for peace” are one thing and “risks for a cease-fire with an organization dedicated to Israel’s destruction” are something else again. Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have grasped this in recent comments he has made about the need to establish anti-missile batteries in-between Israel and the Palestinians. Under changed circumstances it is absolutely crucial for Netanyahu and Israel’s diplomatic corps—and friends of Israel in their private capacity—to get the message out clearly so that Americans, Europeans and forces in the Arab world can hear: Israel will continue to take sensible risks when these are conducive to long term stability and avoidance of bloodshed. But the nature of the risks it undertakes will be commensurate with the peace that is credibly on offer. Less than full peace must mean less than full Palestinian statehood, and Israel should resist all international pressure that fails to offer crystal clarity on this essential point. Western peace proposals all seem to foresee relatively open borders between Palestinian and Israeli neighborhood in Jerusalem—not to mention the so-called “holy basin”— but to the extent that this is not the case, Jerusalem will perforce be off the table, because there is no way to draw clear and defensible borders through it.

Among the popular slogans of the Middle East peace-making mill is that “one can only make peace with one’s enemies.” So be it. But one is not usually asked to help improve the military, diplomatic and economic footing of one’s enemies before they have even foresworn in principle the aim of destroying one’s people or one’s state, root and branch. No European power has ever done so, nor has any Arab nation, and properly so. Anyone who thinks about it for even a moment knows that if the situations were reversed, with Jews in the weaker position, we would scarcely be holding negotiations today over the disposition of our shared homeland.  This should give us pause, and no one should ever be embarrassed to state these things plainly.

Above all, we need to overcome our propensity for outmoded slogans that help to structure faulty ways of thinking about peace and war. The “greater Israel” slogans have largely lost their force in Israeli and Diaspora Jewish politics since Oslo and the disengagement from Gaza. The strong ideological right and left have both diminished in influence in Israel over the past two decades—perhaps blessedly so. It opens the possibility for more realistic assessments of what is possible and desirable. Yet the slogans of the left have a way of popping up again in European capitals and in the press releases of the American State Department. “Risks for Peace” is one of them. It creates a false euphoria among people who think that if Israel were just “brave” and “determined” enough, peace would flow inevitably. This was the tenor of President Barak Obama’s recent statement to the heads of Jewish organizations, for example, that it was up to Israel as the stronger party to “create the conditions for peace.” Well, the United States is much stronger than the Taliban, and it has not yet been able to create those conditions in Afghanistan.  American non-interventionists can at least argue that the US has the option of retreating once more behind its ocean fortress and its tough travel restrictions. Israel has neither of these options.

Friends of Israel in North America and elsewhere should therefore agree on at least one common commitment. While fierce and raucous debates about Israel’s policies and peace platforms are likely to continue, including the unseemly attempt by some American Jewish organizations to impose solutions on Israel through recourse to American diplomatic and economic power, we should at least be honest about what is on the table. “Risks for peace” is a slogan that helps everyone to feel good because it implies that the risks are only theoretical, while the peace will be very real. Just the opposite is becoming more likely. We should advocate for our positions honestly, and let go of dangerous and misleading slogans.

4 Comments

  • The author is right in saying that it’s faulty to blame the stalemate solely on Israel’s refusal to take adequate risks for peace. But to pretend that expanding settlements isn’t a very large part of the problem is one of the dangerous delusions of the right. Also, it was Bush’s team that pushed hard for the PA elections that gave us a Hamas majority, despite warnings from Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike that the timing would produce such a problematic result

  • Maurice Harris

    There’s much I appreciate about this essay. However, in its critique of the Obama Administration it fails to point out that 8 years of Bush policy led to an exacerbation of many of the intractable problems. It was the Bush Administration that turned a blind eye while the settlement population approximately doubled. The author is right in saying that it’s faulty to blame the stalemate solely on Israel’s refusal to take adequate risks for peace. But to pretend that expanding settlements isn’t a very large part of the problem is one of the dangerous delusions of the right. Also, it was Bush’s team that pushed hard for the PA elections that gave us a Hamas majority, despite warnings from Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike that the timing would produce such a problematic result. I agree with the author’s overall point that it’s incorrect to lay the brunt of the blame on Israel for the current mess – there far too much blame to go around and far too many malevolent parties on the other side too. But I would find the author’s piece more convincing if it also made clear that Israel’s long term interests gain nothing by continuing to build on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. If Bibi were to clarify his intentions by ceasing fully all building over the Green Line and then lay out his absolute conditions for Palestinian statehood, citing the security issues that the author has correctly laid out, then no one could question his sincerity.

  • I agree actions speak louder than words. We must never forget,nor be fooled into a sense of well being. peace can only follow when the arab community recognizes the right of the Jewish state to exist. NEVER AGAIN !

  • Chaim Forer

    “risks for peace” taken since Israel began to negotiate with its implacable enemy were no less irrational then than they are now. Let’s be honest enough to acknowledge that the Israeli government knowlingly gambled with Jewish lives against common-sense and the advice of experts. Unfortunately, the govt continues on with its inane policies all based upon a misunderstanding of our “friends,'” not to mention our enemies’ intentions.
    \

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