Israel, the Middle East and cognitive dissonance



Try as I might, there are some things I just don’t get.


For starters, I’m seeking to understand Israel’s options in today’s Middle East.


To listen to some observers in the media and in foreign ministries, it’s all quite simple and yet puzzling – simple because the answer is obvious, and puzzling because somehow Israel is the only country that doesn’t get it.


These observers insist that while the Palestinians want peace and the region supports it, Israel, for reasons best known only to itself, opposes a deal, preferring the status quo to the dawning of a new era.


In fact, a majority of Israelis and their friends see an entirely different reality. As a longtime supporter of a two-state agreement, I recognize that whatever the inherent risks of such a deal, the alternative poses far more danger to Israel’s long-term future. Thus, I wish I could join those who believe there’s a deal to be had now if only Israel seizes the moment.


What country, without a true day of peace over its 66-year lifetime, and compelled, time and again, to defend its right to exist, secure its borders, and bury its children, wouldn’t go the extra mile to achieve an accord that promises a new start.


Yes, Israel has a handful of extremists – what country, tragically, doesn’t have them? – who believe their guidance comes not from elected governments but from a “higher authority,” and who plot deadly violence against sitting prime ministers or neighboring Arabs. But they mustn’t be confused with the vast majority of Israel’s peace-seeking citizens or democratic Israel’s commitment to the rule of law.


But here’s the problem: the Middle East, which has never been an oasis of serenity, is becoming ever more dangerous and unpredictable. And that Middle East is Israel’s immediate neighborhood, not a distant geographic entity, making the prospect of peace still more elusive.


Take Syria.


European countries are beginning to realize that Syria isn’t as far away as the maps would suggest. With thousands of Europeans having gone there to fight in the jihadist war, Europe fears what happens when the veterans return, brimming with battlefield experience and visions of their next front. And one taste of it may have come in Brussels in May, when four people were killed at the Jewish Museum. The suspect arrested by French authorities had fought in Syria.


That very same Syria is Israel’s northern neighbor.


And Syria’s President Assad is helped by Hezbollah forces (and their Iranian training and funding), headquartered in Lebanon. That’s the same Hezbollah that calls for Israel’s destruction and has amassed an arsenal of tens of thousands of deadly rockets.


Lebanon is also Israel’s neighbor.


As if that were not dangerous enough, the world has also awakened to the menace of the Caliphate-aspiring ISIS and its advances in Iraq and Syria, accompanied by a brutality shocking even for a region that has known more than its share of it.


Israel is separated from ISIS forces in Iraq only by fragile Jordan, a country that wouldn’t be able to defend itself against an onslaught except, perhaps, with the help of outside forces.


Iran continues to loom large in Israel’s consciousness, with its nuclear ambitions, ICBM program, support for terrorist groups, patterns of deception, yearning for a world without a Jewish state, and belief that it can outmaneuver the West.


Though separated from Israel’s eastern border by 800 miles, Iran’s missiles can reach that far, and so can those of its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas.


And speaking of Hamas, there is, of course, the Palestinian issue.


Again, we hear familiar calls from Europe and elsewhere to press ahead on a new peace initiative and to chastise, if not “punish,” Israel for dragging its feet.


But here again we have a case of cognitive dissonance.


PA President Mahmoud Abbas made a choice to join forces with Hamas, a terrorist group that seeks Israel’s annihilation, and form a “unity” government. That its cabinet is purportedly “technocratic” does not change the inherent nature of what he did. He knew a priori that such a move would kill all chances of revitalizing the peace process. This was a red line for Israel.


And sure enough, once firmly ensconced in that “unity” government, which received immediate endorsement from the U.S. and EU, Hamas resorted to form, kidnapping and murdering three Israeli teenagers and firing scores of missiles at Israeli population centers.


Some in those same media outlets and foreign ministries reached into their never-changing toolkit and called for an end to the “cycle of violence.” Shame! Can there be any moral equivalence between a democratic nation fighting to defend its citizens and a terrorist group seeking to murder them?


And yet to listen to those observers today, one would also have the impression that the only barrier to peace is Israeli settlements.


I must reluctantly tip my hat to the Palestinians for this brilliant PR coup.


Even as every Israeli prime minister – right, left and center – since Shimon Peres has sought to advance peace with the Palestinians after the 1993 Oslo Accords, only to be rebuffed, there’s this urban legend that Israel, not the Palestinians, is responsible for the impasse.


While Israel has offered one plan after another for a two-state agreement based on substantial withdrawal from the West Bank and territorial swaps, removal of settlements, and even division of Jerusalem, the Palestinians, led by President Abbas since 2005, have always found a convenient pretext to say “no,” or to say nothing at all, or to demand still more.


And yet we’re supposed to believe the ball is in Israel’s court, as if the historical record didn’t exist, the “unity” government with Hamas never happened, kidnappings and missile attacks against Israelis weren’t occurring, and the volatile region Israel lives in weren’t going from bad to worse.


It’s high time to end the cognitive dissonance and see things as they really are. No, it’s not a pretty picture. I wish it were different. But to avert one’s eyes from the stark truth simply isn’t a strategy for dealing with the Middle East.