Peace with Realism

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What Must Be Done for Peace:

Important Update

The preceding series of articles, "What Must Be Done for Peace," written one year ago, attempts to call attention to some difficulties in achieving peace that are often overlooked. Unless one maintains that Israel's very existence is the problem, a review of the history shows that what has most inflamed the conflict and kept it going since the beginning is Arab rejectionism. Refusing to consider any Jewish right to even a small part of the British Mandate, the Arabs rejected opportunities for a Palestinian state three times: in 1937 (Peel Commission), 1947 (U.N. Partition), and 2000 (Camp David proposal). Arab animosity towards Israel is older than Israel itself. The reason for Arab belligerence is not anything specific that Israel has done, but rather Israel's existence.

As the preceding series has documented, for the most part Arab sentiment has not changed. Anti-Semitism is rampant throughout the Arab world, and has become a political tool. And in spite of all attempts to work out a peace process, statements by Arab leaders within the Arab community have demonstrated their undying intent to wipe out Israel completely and turn the entire region into a Palestinian state.

The Palestinian Strategy

If the Palestinian Arabs truly want a state of their own, then their strategy makes no sense. They continue pursuing random violence, targeting innocent civilians with bombs designed to inflict maximum injury and pain, making impossible the Israeli withdrawal they say they are demanding. They could have continued negotiating. They could have built on the offer that was already on the table. They could have shamed Israel with nonviolent resistance. All this would have given them their state. Instead, their chosen strategy pushes a Palestinian state farther and farther into a remote and undetermined future.

The Palestinian Arab strategy makes no sense if the goal truly is a Palestinian state. But it makes perfect sense if the goal is not a Palestinian state at all, but the total elimination of Israel. If that is the case (which seems increasingly likely), then the Palestinian extremists may be justified in believing that if they are not winning, at least they are not losing. They are sustaining a war against Israel that has lasted far longer than any of the wars initiated by the Arab states. And they are shaking Israeli morale harder than any war fought be regular Arab armies. Israel cannot give away its own existence. Therefore, unless something changes radically, the only realistic prospect is for the violence to continue to increase until the region is engulfed in total destruction.

This is why the conclusion of the preceding series ("What Must Be Done for Peace") stated that for peace to become possible, the world must unite in rejection and condemnation of terrorism. If terrorism can be eliminated from the equation, Israel will have no justification for remaining in the territories and will have to withdraw, making a Palestinian state possible. But as long as there are those in power who would continue to make excuses for terrorism and to give legitimacy to Yasser Arafat, who continues to support terrorism and undermine the peace process, then the conflict will not end. Israel cannot withdraw from the territories as long as its withdrawal will become the occasion for the consolidation of the terrorist network. The escalating conflict will be locked in place.

The key to peace is the elimination of terrorism. If that could ever be achieved, then Israel's continued presence in the territories would become untenable. And if the world does not unite in opposition to terrorism, it will spread, as indeed it has already begun to do. Like the proliferation of a virus, the toxic effects will be difficult to contain. One wonders what it will take for the world to realize that when you intentionally go after defenseless people, including children and the elderly, with bombs containing nails soaked in rat poison, you are tearing apart the very fabric of civilized life that makes it possible for human beings anywhere to live in community.

Israel's Mistake

There is nevertheless another important factor that was neglected in the preceding series and that must be addressed. If the Palestinian strategy is for Israel's total destruction - and I believe it is - then Israel is playing right into Palestinian hands.

Israel's policy of extensive settlement building in the territories has placed it in a precarious position. If Israel remains in those settlements and continues wanting to be a Jewish state, it risks losing its democratic character as Arabs eventually become a majority throughout Israel/Palestine. But if Israel withdraws without a negotiated agreement, then the territories will become a base for unrestrained terrorism. The Oslo years have already taught us that lesson.

How did Israel get boxed into such a dangerous corner?

Israel's presence in the territories began after the Six Day War, a war Israel fought for its survival. After the war Israel announced its willingness to give back the territories, but only in exchange for an agreement of peace. This was not unreasonable - the alternative would have been a unilateral, unconditional withdrawal that would have restored the conditions that led to war in the first place. Israel wanted something more durable than the "status quo ante." However, as the Arabs made very plain in the Khartoum Resolutions and elsewhere, they had no intention of recognizing Israel or negotiating peace with it. And so the situation stagnated for years.

However, with the transfer of Israeli leadership in 1977 Israel made its greatest mistake, for which it is still paying a heavy price. The previous Labor government had built a limited number of settlements in the territories for security purposes. But after 1977 the new Prime Minister, Menahem Begin, began referring to the territories by their biblical names, Judea and Samaria, and greatly accelerated the settlement building program. This acceleration continued under Begin's successor Yitzhak Shamir. A network of settlements was constructed whose purpose was not security but the fulfillment of a religious vision, possibly leading towards annexation. Israel became entrenched in the territories to the point where extricating itself would become extremely difficult if not impossible.

The Gaza should have been returned to Egypt along with the Sinai as part of the 1978 Camp David Accords, but Begin did not want to give up his Gaza settlements, and Sadat agreed to let him stay. Sadat was no fool: why should he want responsibility for the Palestinian refugees living in Gaza as long as Begin was being so obliging? Then in 1987 Foreign Minister Shimon Peres reached an understanding with Jordan's King Hussein (the "London Agreement") that might have resulted in a return of the West Bank to Jordanian rule. However, Prime Minister Shamir torpedoed the agreement as soon as he heard about it: he could not give up his vision of a Greater Israel. But then the Intifada broke out, and the following year King Hussein, every bit as pragmatic as Anwar Sadat, relinquished his claim to the West Bank. Just as with Sadat and Gaza, with Hussein and the West Bank the message to Israel was: you want this hot potato, now you've got it.

Israel's settlements policy, from 1977 to the present, was terribly misguided. Not only has it made the lives of Palestinians more difficult and inflamed Palestinian resentment, it has also dangerously compromised Israel's security. It is clearly in Israel's interest that it remain both Jewish and democratic. But it is difficult to see how both the Jewish and democratic character of Israel can be preserved if Israel must assume responsibility not only for itself but for the territories: the total Arab population in the region is roughly equivalent to Israel's and is increasing at a faster rate. One Palestinian advocate puts it this way: "Things will get resolved very nicely. The settlers are creating a binational state all by themselves." There are also Jewish "Post-Zionists" who are calling for a single, binational state; they seem to have forgotten what life was like for a Jewish minority in an Arab country. The best hope for Israel's survival now lies, ironically, in the formation of a Palestinian state.

But the big Catch-22 still remains. If Israel stays in the territories, its future is in doubt. But if it withdraws unilaterally, it risks creating a vacuum to be filled by a Palestinian terror state that would pose a mortal threat. And the Palestinian reactions to the phased withdrawals of the Oslo years give every reason to believe that such concern is well founded. The strident voices calling for unilateral Israeli withdrawal seem either not to know or not to care. What then is the solution?

What Israel Can Do

There may be no solution. But there is hope of one. There is so much mistrust between the Israelis and Palestinians that any arrangement acceptable to one is bound to be rejected by the other. But the United States has come up with a reasonable plan, the Roadmap, that both sides at least nominally accept.

As I have stated in my editorial, there is nothing in the Roadmap that is not consistent with Israel's self-interest. It is to Israel's advantage to support it, by showing a clear commitment to dismantle settlements provided that the Palestinians hold up their end by eliminating terrorism. Israel's commitment to the Roadmap must become much clearer and less equivocal, and Israel's supporters need to reconsider any feelings they may have that the Roadmap is in any way a sellout. It is not. It is an opportunity for Israel to extricate itself from an untenable situation, or at the very least, to reclaim the moral high ground and expose the Palestinians' true intentions if the Roadmap fails.

More options are available now because the Roadmap provides an opportunity for movement that was not present before. What Israel can do for peace is make a strong commitment to the plan and implement Phase I, especially regarding the settlements. At the time of this writing Israel has just approved the construction of 22 new homes in a Gaza settlement (Neveh Dekalim), and has removed a number of outposts in the West Bank only to have others spring up to take their place. Israel must control this unauthorized settlement growth if it expects the Palestinians to control their terrorists.

By siding with the Roadmap in deed as well as in word, Israel can send the message that it is clearly working for peace. It can also train the spotlight on Palestinian violations of the Roadmap, which are numerous and blatant. The terrorists have called a three-month ceasefire, which is a violation since the Roadmap requires an unconditional end to terrorism in Phase I. And in spite of this limited cease-fire, terrorists are still attacking Israeli soldiers and civilians. Meanwhile the Palestinian leadership is doing virtually nothing to stop this or to reign in the terrorist groups. Instead, the Palestinians are introducing new conditions that have nothing to do with the Roadmap, such as the release of prisoners, and making threats as to what will happen if their demands are not met.

Clearly there is much that both sides can do to get the process going. The most important thing is to avoid repeating the failure of Oslo. Oslo failed largely because there was no efficient monitoring of compliance, so incitement and preparation for terrorism continued. Even now there are signs this is happening. An Israeli intelligence report has found that Palestinian terrorists are using the cease-fire to reorganize, recruit more suicide bombers, and rebuild their arsenal. They are increasing production of their Qassam rockets and testing new ones with an extended range. This limited, conditional cease-fire is not a step toward peace, but rather a temporary, strategic withdrawal to facilitate continuation of the war.

What if Israel complies with Phase I and the terrorism continues? Then at least Israel will be able to say that it did what it could. Phase I obligations do not threaten Israeli security. By meeting those requirements Israel will have done its part and will have leverage to resist excessive demands that really do endanger security, such as the release of prisoners who have participated in the planning or execution of terrorist acts. To preserve their credibility the Palestinians will have to comply with their own obligations. Compliance must be carefully and consistently monitored, which was not done during the Oslo years.

The Real War

While Israel has blundered badly with its settlements policy, it would be a huge mistake to consider this a war about settlements. The terror war against Israel began long before the existence of a single settlement. To the Palestinians, this is a war for the elimination of Israel. The PLO Charter makes this clear. The Hamas Charter makes this clear. Sermons in mosques and the miseducation of the young make this clear. And most of all, Palestinian actions make this clear. The cease-fire is one in name only. Just last week terrorists shot a woman and her three children near Jerusalem, and this was not an isolated incident. And the very day I am writing this, barely more than a month into the three-month "cease-fire," there were two suicide bombings, killing two Israelis and injuring more than a dozen. Hamas claimed responsibility for one attack, and Arafat's Fatah group claimed the other. And these too were not unique: Israeli authorities stopped at least 10 other suicide bombings, all during the so-called "cease-fire." If the Palestinians wanted to destroy any possibility of creating a state of their own and hold Israel in the territories forever, they could not have picked a more effective strategy. Perhaps that is the real Palestinian agenda, in hopes of bypassing any two-state solution and grabbing everything, including Israel, for themselves.

Israel's primary concern must be its security. Israel's settlements policy not only has made life difficult for the Palestinians, it has, ironically, become the greatest threat to Israel's security. Now is the time for Israel to signal a genuine willingness to change that policy, and to see if the Palestinians truly wish to respond with peace. Such a response from the Palestinians seems even less likely in light of today's bombings, but the Palestinians must still be put to the test. And in any case, it is not in Israel's interest to have settlements scattered throughout the West Bank and Gaza that contribute nothing to security and are a liability to defend. Those who would continue to build in the territories during what should be a time of reassessment are not advancing either Israel or Judaism; they are undermining Israel's security.

The increasing tendency to theologize the conflict is one of its most alarming developments. More and more it is changing from a war between Arab and Jew to a war between Muslim and Jew. The Qur'an and Hadith are often used to support both anti-Semitism and the war against Israel. One great danger now facing Israel is the possibility of a misguided religious ideology of its own continuing to influence its foreign policy. Israel has historic and spiritual ties to the land immediately west of the Jordan, but now is not the time to reclaim that land. Even those who believe in a messianic vision cannot be sure of its timing, and what seems increasingly clear is that forcing such a vision now would not mean Israel's fulfillment but its destruction.

The worst thing that could happen would be to turn this conflict into another religious war, like the many that have caused nothing but destruction throughout human history. And for Israel the danger is particularly acute. Making this a religious war, Jewish messianism vs. Islamic holy conquest, Greater Israel vs. Greater Palestine, would obscure the real war: the war for Israel's survival.

August 12, 2003

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict:
Peace with Realism