Think Again: Israel sues for peace

The Mideast is in flames, and the US has become a helpless bystander, with no influence over events in Egypt or Syria.

Israelis, Palestinians meeting for resumption of talks 521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)
Israelis, Palestinians meeting for resumption of talks 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)
We can safely conclude that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not happily agree to release 104 savage Palestinian murderers as the prize for Palestinian agreement to once again sit at the negotiating table. In so doing, he damaged not just his political standing, but whatever remains of his moral authority and reputation for strategic thinking.
Not too many readers outside Israel will be exposed to a full catalogue of the deeds perpetrated by those to be released. But Israelis were, and they were revolted.
Over the years, Netanyahu has often adopted the role of Winston Churchill hectoring the nations of the world about the futility of attempting to appease terrorists or of giving in to their demands. He has now lost whatever standing he might have once possessed to do so.
No concessions were sought or offered by the Palestinians as a price for entering negotiations. Only Israel is expected to cough up pre-negotiation concessions, as it did during US President Barack Obama’s first term by twice agreeing to settlement construction freezes in order to jumpstart negotiations.
The result of this imbalance is to turn Israel into the desperate party, which cannot possibly contemplate a continuation of the status quo and must therefore seek some form of peace at all costs. And it reinforces the Palestinian belief that no matter how bad the present seems, time is on their side.
Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. Israel is today a world leading incubator of new technologies and ideas, and by far the dominant military power in the region. It is poised to become a major energy provider.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians are going nowhere.
Were they not the largest recipient of alms from the international community in history, they could barely survive a day or two. None of the institutions of a viable government have developed under Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is now in the ninth year of his four-year presidential term.
Worse, Netanyahu knows full well that nothing will come from the present negotiations – certainly nothing good for Israel. Without Israeli troops on the high ground overlooking Ben-Gurion Airport and the densely populated coastal plain, the country is indefensible.
The same is true for the Jordan Rift Valley and the mountain range overlooking it, without which Israel’s eastern border would be an open invitation to potential attack. Yet no present Palestinian leader could even contemplate agreeing to such an Israeli permanent presence. Abbas just recently set forth his demand that all territory beyond the 1948 armistice lines be Judenrein.
The first baby steps towards peace have yet to be taken by the Palestinian leadership, in terms of educating the Palestinian people about the benefits of peace or the costs of its attainment. Without an end to the constant incitement against Jews and Israel, the soil for peace remains untilled.
On the eve of renewed talks in Washington, the PA’s religious affairs minister likened any agreements signed by the PA to the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. The reference to the Prophet Muhammad’s unilateral abrogation of a 10-year truce with the Quraish tribe of Mecca and his subsequent conquest of Mecca two years after signing the truce would have been instantly understood by all Arabic-speaking listeners.
Remarkably, that sermon was delivered in the presence of Abbas. In short, even if the PA enters into a peace accord with Israel, it has no intention of permanently ending hostilities.
The time-worn approach of coddling the Palestinians as the weaker party, who must be showered with gifts and concessions just for participating in negotiations – an approach to which Netanyahu has now made himself fully complicit – is counterindicated if the achievement of a permanent peace is the goal. Harold Rhode, a former US Defense Department analyst and fellow at the Gatestone Institute, points out that the concept of win-win negotiations is largely absent in shame-based Arab society. Concessions are always viewed as a loss of face, and only made when forced upon a party by military defeat or overwhelming necessity.
President Shimon Peres’s grandiose vision of a new Middle East, of Jew and Muslim working hand-inhand towards economic prosperity, was greeted with incomprehension or bemusement in the Arab world.
ONE SURMISES that Netanyahu must have either been subjected to unbearable pressure, or else that it does not take much to make him capitulate. Neither conclusion is good for Israel.
Since Netanyahu has made clear that Iran is just about the only thing on his mind, one further assumes that the pressure must have had to do with Iran. But it is hard to understand what it could have been. Obama will order an American attack on Iranian nuclear installations or countenance an Israeli attack if and only if he views such an attack as a strategic necessity for the US, or to revive his flailing presidency. He will not do so to protect Israel – nor refrain to punish her.
The public demonstration of Israel’s vulnerability to American pressure ill-served Israel’s interests. But it did little to bolster America’s plummeting prestige in the Middle East and worldwide. Though many Arab countries may derive some visceral pleasure from watching the screws turned on Israel, in the long run, the American action will do more to reinforce the Arab perception of the US, under Obama, as a country that is pusillanimous towards its enemies and treacherous towards its allies.
Israel appears to be the only country on earth towards with which the US is prepared to play hardball and exercise its still considerable leverage. Only Israel’s prime minister is subjected to 45-minute harangues from the US secretary of state or left to cool his heels in the White House servants’ quarters, while the president sups upstairs.
Repeated and deliberate American leaks about Israel’s covert activities in Iran and Syria needlessly endanger Israel and compromise those activities.
Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot resist tweaking Uncle Sam’s nose and sticking a thumb in his eye at every opportunity – most recently by granting asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden and gaining the hard disks containing a mass of National Security Agency data in the process. He shows no fear of reprisals.
The US never considered using the leverage of its billions of dollars in aid to starving Egypt to convince ousted president Mohamed Morsi to cool his rush to full Islamization. On the eve of the military takeover, American Ambassador Anne Patterson was busy ordering the Christian Copts, who had a long list of legitimate grievances with the Muslim Brotherhood government, not to participate in anti-Morsi demonstrations.
Similarly, Obama has avoided doing anything to damage his special friendship with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan by suggesting, for instance, that he keep promises to Israel – which were the quid pro quo for Israel’s apology for the Mavi Marmara boarding.
The Mideast is in flames, and the US has become a helpless bystander, with no influence over events in Egypt or Syria. Early in his presidency, Obama embarked on a policy of cultivating the Brotherhood, hoping, in Prof. Walter Russell Mead’s words, to detoxify US relations in the Middle East and promote Islamist moderation.
That policy lies in shambles today, in the wake of the Morsi disaster in Egypt and Erdogan’s surging authoritarianism in Turkey – for it fundamentally failed to credit the religious worldview of the Brotherhood.
Nor does the administration appear to have a fallback position. In sum, according to Mead, “it would be difficult to design a line of policy more calculated to undermine American prestige and influence than the one we chose.”
Well, not quite. You could have your secretary of state make six trips to Israel over four months to restart the “peace process,” while Syria President Bashar Assad, with Iranian, Hezbollah and Russian support, predicts victory in Syria; Iraq allows Iran to send weapons to Syria via Iraqi channels; and jailbreaks in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan, and terror threats against American embassies in the Middle East forcing their closure, show al-Qaida to be very much alive and kicking. As Adam Garfinkle writes in The American Interest, “If [US Secretary of State John] Kerry (and by indirection the president) fiddles with Palestine while the rest of the region burns to the ground, the United States will forfeit what’s left of the benefit of the doubt as to whether we know what the hell we’re doing.”
The shuttle diplomacy reflects either Kerry’s vain desire to bask in the limelight shone on more distinguished predecessors, or the Obama administration’s reluctance to entrust him with any serious task. Either way, it does nothing to restore the luster of American prestige in the region. Whatever plausibility – actually, near zero – there might once have been to the claim that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict holds the key to all Middle East tensions, has been refuted by Arab Spring and the reigniting of the 1,000-year-old Sunni-Shi’ite divisions. Even those Arab governments that were once only too happy to foist this myth on State Department Arabists now sing a different tune. Iran, Iran, Iran is their hue and cry.
But apparently Kerry’s fine head of hair (he once offered “we have better hair” as a selling point for the 2004 Kerry-John Edwards ticket) has covered his ears and affected his hearing.
■ The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.