Interesting Times: Converging on containment

Was this Israel's 'saddest election'?

What a mess. This, I admit, is my gut reaction to the long list of parties produced by this election, none of which topped 30 Knesset seats. Just before Ariel Sharon's illness less than three months ago, Israelis seemed to want stability and continuity and were ready to hand him 40 seats. What happened? What the public seems to be saying is that it favors Ehud Olmert's path over the alternatives, but is telling him: "We don't completely trust you, so not too fast." The most straightforward explanation of Kadima's loss of one-quarter of its expected strength is that Olmert pledged to forge ahead with a large unilateral withdrawal, while Sharon had taken an opposite tone: "no plans" for further withdrawals. Olmert's shifting of his withdrawal plan into high gear after the Hamas election victory had an internal logic in that it reenforced the "no partner" situation that is disengagement's foundation. But Olmert's seeming enthusiasm for withdrawal, coupled with his anti-settler iron fist at Amona, must have been somewhat rattling to voters, compared to Sharon's more ambiguous approach. Yet it cannot be argued that even Olmert's rush to "converge" overly disturbed the public. If it had, the parties that fought to block Olmert's plan, Likud and National Union-NRP, would have received much more than 11 and 9 seats, respectively. Even if you throw in Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beiteinu, which did not make its position against disengagement the centerpeice of its campaign, the total is 32 seats. By contrast, the most pro-withdrawal Jewish parties - Kadima, Labor, and Meretz - received 52 seats. Accordingly, this election must be regarded as the first to ratify Ariel Sharon's radical new Israeli strategy toward its existential challenge: unilateralism. On Wednesday in this newspaper, Daniel Pipes argued that as a result of this revolution in Israeli thinking, "not one of the leading parties offered the option of winning the war against the Palestinians. It's a striking and dangerous lacuna." Pipes rightly noted that wars are won "when one side is forced to give up on its goals" - in the Arab case, destroying Israel. But few Israelis "still worry about the unfinished business of getting the Arabs to accept the permanence of the Jewish state." Instead, Pipes observed, Israelis have chosen various forms of conflict management, of which unilateralism is one. SOMETHING STRANGE, indeed, has happened. Until Sharon's revolution both Right and Left embraced victory strategies that envisioned a full peace as the end point. The Left pretended that the Arab world had already given up its war goals and was just waiting to put that result on paper. The Right may have thought that peace was only possible in the indefinite future, but saw victory in more Pipesian terms: peace through patience and strength. Left and Right still hold these views, but the new government will now have a solid Knesset majority for Sharon's third approach, which might also be given a name from another time, place and war: containment. Containment, the Cold War strategy forged by Harry Truman against the Soviet Union that held until Ronald Reagan, was also not a victory strategy. It ruled out capitulation, but it also did not envision a Soviet collapse. It was classic "conflict management." Reagan brought a different approach. He spoke about consigning the Soviets to "the ashheap of history" and branded them the "evil empire." Nine years after his election in 1980, the Berlin Wall fell. We here seem to have reversed the sequence; after pursuing victory for decades, we have reverted to containment. My hope, however, is that our current containment phase will lay the groundwork for a more realistic victory strategy in the not too distant future. UNLIKE REAGAN'S victory strategy, Israel's either assumed that victory had already been achieved, or saw the Arab world as an immutable enemy against which Jabotinsky's "iron wall" must be built. No one seemed to advocate, let alone envision, the Arab transformation that a more classic victory could produce, such as occurred in Germany and Japan. The Left's "assumed victory" strategy, as embodied in Oslo, proved disastrous; containment is, in comparison, a step in the right direction. But the Right also does not generally think of victory in Reaganesqe, transformative terms. The fact that even the Right has trouble conceiving of a total defeat of the Arab world is understandable. Though militarily and economically strong in regional terms, we are not a superpower of American proportions, and the Arab world we face can seem demographically and diplomatically overwhelming. The world, however, is not the same as it was before September 11, 2001. The Islamist attempt to envelope it in jihad revives, on the one hand, the existential threat against Israel. But on the other it creates a binary situation more like the US versus the Soviet Union, in which one side will ultimately collapse, defeated. Writing about the relative apathy and low turnout in these elections, Yossi Klein Halevi noted that "these are Israel's saddest elections, the first with barely a mention of peace." In past elections, both sides would promise peace; now, as befits the new containment strategy, no one bothers. The truth, however, is that neither a containment strategy nor a more realistic victory strategy makes sense outside the context of the West's global war to defeat the Islamist jihad. If America is losing its war, our containment won't work; if America is winning, containment is not ambitious enough. If there is a sadness to this election, it is because of the sense of impotence that Israel's new strategy brings when stripped of its global context. It is uncomfortable to admit that we are part of a war that is wider than our own, and that our fate is not entirely in our hands; unilateralism may be an attempt to regain a sense of autonomy. Our challenge now is to work to integrate our private containment approach with a global victory strategy that provides a realistic basis for hope and peace. [email protected]