Media: Indecent proposal

Should Obama impose a solution on the parties to avoid a Middle East war? Editors at ‘The Economist,’ unrealistically, believe this is the answer.

January 7, 2011 15:45
WORRIED ABOUT war. The cover of this week’s ‘The E

The Economist 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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Israel is the focus of the cover story on this week’s The Economist, the prestigious British newsweekly, that is extremely influential in elite circles in the US as well. There is a picture of President Barak Obama leaning his head on his right hand, looking deep in thought, while in the background is a picture of a Merkava tank. On top is a headline reading: “Please, not again,” which only becomes understandable after looking at sub-headline that follows in red: “The threat of war in the Middle East.”

Picking up on this theme, the magazine’s main editorial puts forward the thesis that unless Obama takes bold diplomatic moves in the peace process, there is a real risk of war.

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What has suddenly changed that causes The Economist to sound the alarm? Its editorial notes that the wars of 2006 and 2009 were only limited ones. But since that time Iran has provided Hizbullah with 50,000 missiles and rockets, and so “for the first time a radical non-state actor has the power to kill thousands of civilians in Israel’s cities more or less at the press of a button.” This massive attack could be the result of a skirmish along the borders with Lebanon or with Gaza.

The scenario that The Economist then paints is that under such circumstances, Israel will retaliate with “double force.” It then suggests that this kind of war “could easily draw in Syria, and perhaps Iran.” After describing the causes of a future regional war, it offers a solution: “All of this should give new urgency to Arab- Israeli peacemaking.”

What is the connection between reaching an agreement with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the rocket forces of Hizbullah? Without much explanation, the editorial simply suggests: “Give the Palestinians a state on the West Bank and it will become much harder to justify going to war.”

Blaming US policy for the failure to reach a political solution to the conflict through direct peace talks (there is no Palestinian responsibility), The Economist then concludes that Obama, along with the rest of the world, must change his tactics and impose a solution on the parties.

The editorial cannot be shrugged off. It is important because it reflects how many European foreign policy experts view the Middle East. Nonetheless, it is deeply flawed in two basic ways. First, and most fundamentally, it confuses the main source of potential escalation and war, Iran, with the diplomatic target of the peace initiative it recommends, the Palestinians.

Dealing with the latter will not alter the hostile intentions of the former.

HISTORICALLY, RELATIONS with the Palestinians and tensions with Iran’s proxies, Hizbullah and Hamas, have been on two completely separate tracks. In April 1996, while prime minister Shimon Peres was negotiating with the Palestinians, the Israeli-Lebanese border deteriorated and Israel was forced to launch Operation Grapes of Wrath against Hizbullah.

Again in 2008, when prime minister Ehud Olmert was in advanced negotiations with both Abbas and the Syrians (through the Turks), there was a massive escalation of rocket fire by Hamas that resulted in Operation Cast Lead.

There was simply no correlation between Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy and the military escalation with organizations supported by Iran.

In fact, from the Iranian perspective if there was a link between the two, it was based on a logic which was the exact opposite of what The Economist proposed: Iran often sought to promote terrorism to prevent Israel and the Arabs from coming to any agreement. Thus, the more diplomacy progressed, the greater the motivation of Iran had to disrupt it.

The remedy of The Economist is as unrealistic as its analysis. It proposes new muscular American diplomacy based on the idea that by drawing a map as “a new starting point,” the parties can be pressured to finish the rest of the details. But what motivation will the Palestinians have to concede anything on security or refugees if they receive their territorial goals of the pre-1967 line on a silver platter? Israel will have lost all its territorial assets and have nothing to trade for concessions.

Finally, The Economist uses the worn argument that the outlines of an agreement are known: namely, the Clinton parameters, which were proposed after the failure of the Camp David and Taba negotiations. They were never signed and certainly cannot bind subsequent Israeli governments.

Moreover, many responsible Israelis had serious reservations about what Clinton proposed at the time: Shaul Mofaz, chief of General Staff in December 2000, was reported to have told the cabinet in the name of the entire General Staff: “The Clinton bridging proposal is not compatible with Israel’s security needs and if it is accepted, it will threaten the security of the state.”

This frank analysis was not a secret at the time, but rather was leaked and splashed across the headlines of a Friday Yediot Aharonot. The Clinton proposal, it should be recalled not only divided Jerusalem, but also pulled the IDF out of the Jordan Valley, replacing it with international forces that were supposed to become responsible for Israel’s defense.

The Economist wants this solution imposed nonetheless, even if it plainly leaves Israel more vulnerable. It does not consider how regional conditions have changed since that time. For example, in 2000, Iran was not getting close to nuclear weapons. It did not dominate Iraq and was not in the process of turning it into a satellite state that it could use against Israel and the Sunni Arab states in the region.

The Economist pretends it is calling for pressure on “both sides,” but it is clear that it is talking about leaning mainly on Israel, to push it back to the 1967 lines and denying its right to defensible borders.

Progress in the relations with the Palestinians has a value in its own right, but it will not fundamentally alter what appears to be Iran’s determination to move the Middle East down the road of greater escalation. The Economist makes a determination that too many people in the Middle East see America as “weak” and they believe that “its power is waning.” It is a fundamental error to believe that American power is declining, given that no other state can compete with its global reach, if it decides to use it.

Nevertheless, if Washington seeks to alter the impressions that The Economist describes, the way forward is to correctly identify the main factor threatening war in the Middle East, Iran, effectively deterring its destabilizing activities, and not by bullying Israel, which the British newsweekly clearly prefers.

The writer is president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former ambassador to the UN.

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