Calling the shots

We shouldn’t obsess too much over events we have no control over beyond trying to minimize the damage to Israeli interests; but when it comes to events we can influence, like the UN recognition of a Palestinian state, we should have grabbed the reins long ago.

netanyahu at yad vashem_311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
netanyahu at yad vashem_311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
No one can appreciate the adrenaline rush Americans felt on Monday when they heard of the successful elimination of Osama bin Laden better than we Israelis. The Holocaust experience led us to vow “never again,” and to a philosophy that says we must strive to be the ones who call the shots. Doing away – by legal means or otherwise – with individuals who we consider indefatigable enemies has been part of this policy, which over the years the world – the same world we claim is always against us – has accepted with surprising equanimity. As a Syrian-American acquaintance recently wrote to me: “You guys really get away with murder.”
The problem is that the situation does not always warrant our calling the shots, and when this happens we are inclined to panic. This is precisely the situation we are in today. Four recent developments emphasize this reality: the possible recognition by the UN General Assembly of a Palestinian state in September, the popular uprising in numerous Arab states in North Africa and the Middle East, the Egyptian intention to enable free passage between the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, and the declared preparedness of Hamas to sign an agreement with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, establishing a joint interim government.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak referred to the first of these events as an approaching tsunami. It is a poor simile. Usually the warning time for a tsunami is a few minutes.
That a Palestinian state would be established some day is a fact that should have been part of Israel’s strategic thinking at least since 1988, when the PLO declared the formal establishment of such a state. It should have been clear that as time went by, more and more states would grant this state at least de facto recognition. Israel’s reaction to the 1988 declaration was a total refusal to deal with the PLO leadership, and assistance to the newly formed Hamas in the Gaza Strip as a counterbalance to the PLO.
INSTEAD OF seriously preparing for the eventuality of a Palestinian state, successive Israeli governments kept finding excuses for why such a state should not be established, or conditioning its establishment on a liberal-democratic leadership gaining control of the Palestinian national movement – “when apples grow on a lilac tree.”
Furthermore, instead of taking the Egyptian position seriously following the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty in 1979 – that further progress in the Middle East peace process would depend on progress on the Palestinian front – we chose to ignore it.
There is little, of course, that Israel can do about developments in the Arab world today, other than trying to minimize the damage to Israeli interests.
Israel can’t really be blamed for having dealt with autocratic Arab regimes – there isn’t any other sort. Despite the democratic motivation of those who initiated the uprisings, the final outcome is more likely to be a new set of autocratic regimes; all Israel can do is pray that they will not be of an Islamic fundamentalist nature. There is also little Israel can do to prevent the de facto lifting of the stringent blockade on the Gaza Strip, or attempts to achieve a Palestinian Authority-Hamas rapprochement, even though the chances that this rapprochement will actually materialize seem slim.
However, at this twelfth hour, despite the fact that Israel cannot call all the shots, it can try to regain some influence with regards to the approaching UN recognition of a Palestinian state. It will not be able to do so with a totally negative approach. In practical terms, Israel simply does not have the option of saying no to a Palestinian state. This has nothing to do with “the world being against us,” but rather with the world’s feeling that the Palestinians deserve a break, and that Israel is not doing anything tangible to enable them to get a real break, beyond occasionally giving in to world pressure and softening its hold (for example, by reducing the number of checkpoints in the West Bank, or enabling more products to enter the Gaza Strip). Past policy speeches by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu were not regarded as tangible steps, but rather as the mincing of words.
Netanyahu now has an opportunity to change course, and prove in the speech he is to deliver in the American capital toward the end of the month that he is capable of salvaging Israel’s ability to call at least some of the shots.

The writer is a former Knesset employee.