Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Campaign to Panic Israel Into a Bad Strategy

This article appears in the Jerusalem Post—but I have made improvements and prefer you to read and use this version. I own the rights.

By Barry Rubin

I have a high regard for Aluf Benn, a brilliant guy and one of Israel’s best journalists. He has just become editor of Haaretz, Israel’s left-wing newspaper, but is the most moderate person to hold that post in many years. Benn has written an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times.

Michael Herzog has written something similar and indeed I've read about a dozen articles with the same talking points. The message is that Israel must rush to help create a Palestinian state as fast as possible in order to protect its own security, even survival. Of course, if this state were to demilitarize (Herzog’s proposal), end the conflict, give up the demand for Palestinians to “return” to Israel, and implement a permanent peace treaty that would be a great idea. And if such a deal would improve Israel’s regional position that, too, would be good. And if the Palestinian side was eager to make a compromise peace agreement with Israel, that would be viable.

But since none of these conditions apply this line of argument simply makes no sense at all. It would be great to have a stable peace. Unfortunately, this approach is a formula for a vastly worsened strategic position for Israel and the certainty that it would lead to another decades’-long round of conflict.

Benn makes three points:

1. Israel was very worried about the “Arab Spring.”

2. However, now Israel doesn’t have to worry.

3. Therefore Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should rush to work with President Barack Obama and get the peace process started again.

Let’s look at Benn’s point 2 and the reasons he gives for Israel no longer having to worry:

--Syria’s regime is in serious trouble and cannot use the anti-Israel card to escape. But that doesn’t change the fact that the regime is still there and can still try to use aggressive actions against Israel. Moreover, it isn’t clear the next regime in Syria will be better. And the fact that Syria is weak at present doesn’t really change anything in strategic terms since it has been weak for a long time.

It isn’t as if the Palestinian Authority has been held back by fear of Syria. In addition, neither Israel nor the United States has influence within Syria to affect events. So what great opportunity does this give Israel?

-- Hamas is “moving away from Iran and closer to Egypt.” Again, so what? The implication is that Hamas is moving from a radical patron (Iran) to a moderate one (Egypt) so that it might be more politically flexible. Yet in fact what’s happening is a sorting out of revolutionary Islamists into Sunni and Shia camps. The actual patron of Hamas is the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt, since it borders the Gaza Strip, is a more dangerous ally for Hamas than is Iran. Already, arms and money flow in more freely than before. Egypt’s government won’t pressure Hamas to make peace with Israel or to stop terror attacks. That was President Husni Mubarak’s policy and he’s now on trial for his life.

-- “Turkey, cold toward Israel for a year, signaled a desire to turn from Mr. Assad and get closer to the American camp.” No. Israel’s attempts to resolve the Mavi Marmara affair with Turkey’s government failed completely because the Ankara regime didn’t want a deal. Every time it appeared Israel might meet its demands the Turkish government raised its demands.

And while Turkey has turned against the Assad regime that’s not joining the “American camp” but wanting to ensure Syria’s next government is friendly toward Turkey (but not necessarily to the United States), say a Sunni regime with Islamist leanings like the one in Ankara. And, if Turkey’s regime has influence it wants a strongly anti-Israel government.

--“Most important, the transitional rulers in Cairo stuck to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel — always Israel’s deepest concern.” The key word here is “transitional.” Since these people will be out of political power in a few months and their successors will gut the treaty of meaning even if they don’t cancel it, how’s that reassuring?

In a previous New York Times op-ed, Benn was critical of Obama and urged him to convince Israel of his own friendliness and effectiveness. That hasn’t happened yet there’s no hint in his new article that a lack of American support is another factor worrying Israel. Benn says Netanyahu: “Should have used this spring and summer to reach a new understanding with Mr. Obama based on confidence about the American-Israeli friendship. He should have worked out an agreement on how to reignite the peace process, rather than antagonize the American president.”

Perhaps, however, much of this problem is due to Obama? And how could Netanyahu get a process going since the Palestinian Authority didn’t want to talk and instead has focused on declaring unilateral independence through the UN?

Benn suggests Netanyahu can “change course,” having “reaped “diplomatic fruits” from the regional crisis. I fail to see what these fruits might be. Benn then concludes:

“His timidity and cynicism will prove costly for Israel when the Arab storm reaches its shores. Before time runs out, he must leverage Israel’s new strength to join Mr. Obama in creative diplomacy to avert a diplomatic debacle in September and pursue a stable peace with the Palestinians.”

But what could Netanyahu have done otherwise? Does “timidity” mean not to take big risks for no return and to make things worse? Does “cynicism” mean believing—correctly—that the PA isn’t ready to negotiate seriously?

When a storm is coming you don’t throw open all the doors and windows and move out onto the balcony (or porch or back deck or patio) to live in the belief that this will dispel the thunder, lightning, hailstones, hurricane, tsunami, or tornado. That would be crazy. The same applies to this bizarre piece of analysis.

I don’t get it. What’s the supposed big opportunity being missed? It is truly bizarre to claim that things are about to become much worse so Israel has to put itself in a weaker strategic position in order to prepare for the crisis. If the critics were arguing that if Israel made big concessions there would be full peace and the conflict would disappear that would be internally logical. But they don’t dare openly make such a claim since it is obviously—after the experience with the 1990s’ peace process—ludicrous.

So what are they left with? Israel will be more unpopular if it doesn’t give in? But popularity through concessions has been tried and failed.

There will be more Palestinians born? But the demographic numbers are wrong (based on PA fabrications); it doesn’t matter in practice; and a strategically weaker Israel would still be facing numerically larger neighbors that would still be hostile.

Israel will have a Palestinian Arab majority or rule over a larger population so it cannot be a democracy? But Israel doesn’t rule the Gaza Strip or the populated portion of the West Bank now. And nobody in Israel is proposing annexation.

The final assumption is that Israel must “prove” it wants peace, something it has been doing energetically for 20 years without persuading those who won’t be persuaded.

What is lacking in this attempt to panic Israel into taking extreme risks, then, is any logic whatsoever. This has nothing to do with “left” or “right” ideology but simply the nature of reality.

Certainly, it can be useful for Israel to make statements to indicate its desire for peace and its flexibility. But nobody can make a case for a desperate need to get an agreement right away or to make major concessions. The creation of a Palestinian state will not defuse the forces of revolutionary Islamism but only encourage them; it will not strengthen Israel’s stability and defense but weaken it.

If Yitzhak Rabin or Shimon Peres were prime minister could they really do anything different? Having a left-of-center government would improve Israel’s image among left-of-center Western intellectuals and leaders. But what might actually be different in diplomatic or strategic realities?

Now Israel’s government has responded, saying to the PA: If you are willing to talk about recognizing Israel as a Jewish state (by the way, the PA’s constitution says that Palestine will be an Arab and Muslim state), Israel will talk about pre-1967 borders. Within hours, this offer was turned down by the PA. Naturally, there will be no effect on the same people clamoring for more unilateral Israeli concessions.

Unless critics of Israel’s policy provide a more attractive option in real terms they’ll continue to be ignored both by Israel’s leaders and voters. Insults, false arguments, and panic do not suffice.

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