In Washington: Why not realism?

It's time for some new thinking. The old thinking is deadly and is anything but pro-Israel.

hillary clinton 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
hillary clinton 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
In a recent speech before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton eloquently raised questions about who are the foreign policy "realists" and who are the "idealists." She said: "If there is one idea that has been floated about over the last six years that I would like to see debunked... it is this false choice between realism and idealism. "Is it 'realist' or 'idealist' to stop nuclear proliferation? "Is it 'realist' or 'idealist' to come together on global warming? "Is it 'realist' or 'idealist' to help developing nations educate their children, fight diseases and grow their economies? "And is it 'realist' or 'idealist' to believe we must turn around the ideology underpinning terrorism?" I would add another specific question to Clinton's list. Is it "realist" or "idealist" to believe that Israel can only survive and thrive by reaching an agreement with the Palestinians that establishes a West Bank/Gaza Palestinian state in exchange for ironclad guarantees of security from the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world (as the so-called Saudi plan posits)? The answer to my question is obvious. Anyone who believes that Israel can stand another decade or two or three of intermittent war, terrorism, a growing Iranian threat and a strategically damaging occupation is living in a dream world. It is not the advocates of negotiations who are idealistic and naive. It is those who oppose them ("there is no partner") in the pixilated belief that somehow Israel can unilaterally achieve security. It is perhaps easier to believe that the status quo is somehow good for Israel if one doesn't know too much about what is going on there. American status quo boosters may not be aware that the political situation following the Lebanon war has descended into pure folly. Ehud Olmert's popularity is in the tank, with the ever-ready Binyamin Netanyahu breathing down his neck. Amir Peretz is even less popular than Olmert, and is being challenged for leadership of the Labor Party by the very ministers he appointed to the government. Ehud Barak is running again, anxious for a rematch with Netanyahu. This last is, in itself, worthy of comment. Netanyahu and Barak - both of whom have a good chance of winning their respective party's leadership struggles - are two of Israel's shortest-tenured prime ministers. Netanyahu served 1,063 days, Barak 661. Each was defeated because the electorate believed (by large margins) that he had failed. Each failed because he had not been able to achieve an agreement with the Palestinians (Netanyahu because he didn't want to and Barak because he didn't know how). Nevertheless, each is fairly well-positioned for another go. THE HOPE is that Barak and Netanyahu have learned from their mistakes. They need to understand that changing policy is realistic while standing still - which in Israel takes the form of piling one condition after another as prerequisites for negotiations - is the height of naivete. In this country, pro-Israel organizations seem especially wedded to the status quo. Every time anyone issues a call for renewed US diplomacy to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, all the usual suspects rush to their word processors to fire off their criticism. The criticisms are invariably predictable. Part one is all about the Palestinians and how they have yet to produce an acceptable "partner." Part two is about the various generous Israeli "offers" of the past. And the third (this one is very popular these days) is the argument that Middle East peace isn't all that important anyway. It goes like this. "Anyone who believes that the Iraqi insurgency (or Iranian nuclear development, or the intercommunal struggle in Lebanon, or the Shi'ite-Sunni rivalry, etc.) will cease because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved is hopelessly naive." As if anyone ever suggested that any of these problems would be solved if the US seriously engaged in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. No, what the advocates of urgent US diplomacy say is that movement on the Palestinian issue will enhance America's standing in the Middle East and the ability to accomplish our regional goals. The forces of the status quo usually conclude with the statement the Arab-Israeli conflict isn't central to the region's problems anyway and everyone should stop focusing on resolving it. It is a bizarre argument. What a change from the days when Israel's champions insisted that peace was their highest priority. No more. Now the line is that peace would be nice but that it is unattainable and may, in fact, be less preferable than perpetuating the status quo. Of course, many of the people who are on the ground fighting this endless war feel differently. Haaretz recently featured an interview with Nissim Levy, who served in the Shin Bet for 20 years, coordinating activities in both Gaza and Lebanon. He is not proud of everything he did during those years, but views his actions as necessitated by the exigencies of war. But he does not believe that counterterrorism is a strategy that can solve Israel's security problem. "There is no choice other than a diplomatic process to solve that problem," he says. "My goal," Levy says, "was to reduce the terrorist threat to zero, or almost zero, so that the Israeli government can solve the problem... My friends and I worked like dogs and managed to reduce the problem to a minimum [during the period of Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation that followed Oslo]. There were almost no terror attacks and then the government came and said, 'There's nothing, so why make a decision now? Let's postpone it.' And they postponed it. I kept my part of the bargain but the governments didn't keep theirs." That's the truth. Governments perpetuate the occupation because ending it requires facing up to political challenges they would rather duck. Israel's supporters in the US do the same thing. Meanwhile, the clock ticks and Israel's situation deteriorates. It's time for some new thinking. The old thinking is deadly and is anything but pro-Israel. The writer is director of policy analysis for the Israel Policy Forum.