The ‘If Only Israel’ Syndrome
The “If Only Israel” (IOI) syndrome is the misguided notion — peddled in the name of Israel’s “best interests” by some in the diplomatic, academic, and media worlds — that if only Israel did this or that, peace with the Palestinians would be at hand. But since Israel doesn’t, then the Jewish state constitutes the principal, perhaps the only real obstacle to a new day in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Striking, isn’t it?
Poor Israel. If only it had the visual acuity of these “enlightened” souls, including, most recently, a slim majority of Irish senators, then all would be fine. After all, according to them, Israel holds all the cards, yet refuses to play them.
The thinking goes: Why can’t those shortsighted Israelis figure out what needs to be done — it’s so obvious to us, isn’t it? — so that the conflict can be brought to a screeching halt?
If only Israel reversed its settlements policy. If only Israel understood that Gaza’s tunnel-diggers and kite-flyers are just exercising their right to “peaceful protest.” If only the IDF restrained itself. If only Israel stopped assuming the worst about Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. If only Israel went the extra mile with President Mahmoud Abbas. If only Israel got beyond its Holocaust trauma. If only Israel ______. Well, go ahead and fill in the blank.
The point is that for the IOI crowd, it essentially all comes down to Israel. And IOI syndrome has only been strengthened by its adherents’ assessment of the current Israeli government, of course.
After all, many media outlets, from the Associated Press to CBS News to Der Spiegel, branded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “hardline” from the get-go. Their word choice simply reinforces the notion that the conflict is all about alleged Israeli intransigence, while generally avoiding any descriptive judgement of Abbas and his entourage.
At moments like this, it’s important to underscore a few basic points too often lost in the din.
First, the Netanyahu government follows on the heels of three successive Israeli governments that sought to achieve peace based on a two-state settlement with the Palestinians — and failed. Each of those governments went very far in attempting to strike a deal, but, ultimately, were turned away.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak, joined by President Bill Clinton, tried mightily to reach an agreement with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. As confirmed by Clinton himself, the answer was a thunderous rejection, accompanied by the launching of a deadly wave of terror attacks on Israel.
And, not to be forgotten, a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon also took place during the Barak era. It was met by the entrenchment of Hezbollah, committed to Israel’s destruction, in the vacated space.
Then, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defied his own Likud Party — indeed, he left it to create a new political bloc — and faced down thousands of settlers and their supporters to leave Gaza entirely. It was the first chance ever for Gaza’s Arab residents to govern themselves.
Had Gazans seized the opportunity in a responsible manner, they could have created unstoppable momentum for a second phase of significant withdrawal from the West Bank. Instead, Gaza quickly turned itself into a terrorist redoubt, realizing Israelis’ worst fears.
Finally, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, joined by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and urged on by Washington, pressed hard for a deal with the Palestinians in the West Bank. According to Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, the Israeli offer “talked about Jerusalem and almost 100 percent of the West Bank.” Not only was the far-reaching offer not accepted, but there wasn’t even a counter-proposal from the Palestinian side.
Prime Minister Netanyahu inherited a situation in which: (a) Hamas holds the reins of power in Gaza, spends precious funds on digging tunnels to attack Israel, flies kites to set extensive fires in Israel, and teaches kids to aspire to “martyrdom”; (b) Hezbollah is continuing to gain strength in Lebanon, thanks to Iranian largesse, and has tens of thousands of missiles and rockets in its arsenal; (c) the Palestinian Authority has been AWOL from the negotiating table; and (d) Iran continues to call for Israel’s destruction while enhancing its military capability, entrenching itself in Syria, and funding Hamas.
So before Israel gets any further lectures on what needs to be done, perhaps we should take stock of what’s transpired — and why.
There have been at least three bold Israeli efforts since 2000 to create a breakthrough — and three successive failures. And that’s not to mention Netanyahu’s 10-month settlement freeze and the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to seize this opportunity to break the stalemate.
The vast majority of Israelis yearn for peace, and understand the considerable price the country will have to pay in territory and displaced population. Poll after poll proves their readiness, but only if they are assured that lasting peace, not new phases in the conflict, will be the outcome. Tellingly, few see that possibility on the horizon anytime soon.
Israelis don’t have to be pushed, prodded, nudged, cajoled, or pressured to seek a comprehensive peace beyond the current treaties with Egypt and Jordan. More than any other nation on the planet, they have lived with the absence of peace for 70 years, and know full well the physical and psychological toll it has inflicted on the country.
Rather, they must be convinced that the tangible rewards justify the immense risks for a small state in a tough area. Those rewards begin with its neighbors’ acceptance of Israel’s rightful place in the region as a Jewish and democratic state within secure and recognized borders. And that, far more than settlements, checkpoints, or any of the other items on the IOI bill of particulars, gets to the essence of the conflict.
The Gaza disengagement in 2005 demonstrated that settlements and checkpoints can be removed when the time comes. But unless and until the Palestinian side recognizes Israel’s legitimacy, and stops viewing the Jewish state as an “interloper” that can be defeated militarily or swamped by “refugees” — who are in most cases third- and fourth-generation descendants of the original refugees from a war started in 1948 by the Arab world — then whatever the IOI folks call for will inevitably be a secondary issue in the real world.
Only when this recognition is reflected in Palestinian textbooks, where children have been taught for generations that Israelis are modern-day “Crusaders” to be driven out, can there be hope for a brighter future.
Unless and until the Palestinian Authority succeeds in building a serious and accountable governing structure, including an enhanced capacity and will to combat extremism and incitement, then Israel will have no choice but to operate in the West Bank to prevent attacks against its civilian population.
And unless and until the forces seeking Israel’s annihilation — from Iran’s current regime to Hamas and Hezbollah — are contained, then there will always be a long shadow cast over the road to peace. Some would argue that this view gives the spoilers too much power over the process. Rather, it simply acknowledges the inescapable and ominous realities faced by Israel, a country the size of New Jersey and one percent the size of Saudi Arabia.
Israel doesn’t need sanctimonious lectures, however well-intentioned some might be, on the path to peace. Rather, it needs genuine partners. Without them, peace remains elusive. With them, it becomes inevitable.
David Harris is the CEO of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).