As bad as developments on the ground are, the biggest blow delivered lately to prospects for a lasting end to the violence between the Israel and the Palestinians came from Secretary of State John Kerry. The main problem: He’s heading back to the Middle East to negotiate another ceasefire.
The idea evidently was Kerry’s. The Secretary was caught on camera yesterday grousing to an aide about the collateral civilian damage from Israel’s invasion of Gaza, and then concluding, “We’ve got to get over there” to calm the situation. President Obama agreed.
Most pundits and foreign policy establishmentarians will applaud this latest exercise of “American global leadership.” Yet history teaches that whatever short-term gains such diplomacy may produce will be more than offset by further violence over the longer term that makes prospects for an enduring settlement ever bleaker. For this American – and other forms of outside – interventionism can only feed Palestinian delusions that what has been decisively lost on the battlefield can be regained at the negotiating table, via external pressure for Israeli concessions.
As explained in this op-ed of mine published 12 years ago, these Palestinian hopes are delusional, and U.S. and other diplomatic involvement is counter-productive, because both assume that Israel’s position of massive and indeed growing strategic superiority can be negated or defined out of existence. Yet since international paper guarantees – which have a discouraging history of quickly being broken or explained away – can never achieve or protect a strong nation’s security nearly as well as its own devices, foreign peace-making attempts inevitably amount to dressed up efforts to urge Israel to surrender advantages that are not only invaluable, but that it is literally in no danger of losing.
Also inevitable: The greatest victims of ceasefire talks, shuttle diplomacy, peace conferences, and the like will remain the Palestinian people. These exercises not only inevitably convince their leaders that foreign pressure on Israel can negate their massive military inferiority. They just as inevitably lead Palestinian extremists in particular to exploit the only semblance of an effective weapon they (rightly) believe they still possess – the ability to arouse Western indignation through periodic outbursts of violence bound to trigger Israeli reprisals and therefore Palestinian civilian casualties.
Because the United States and other foreign democracies do have consciences, this strategy has periodically succeeded in saving Palestinian paramilitaries from total defeat, and enabling them to fight (ineffectually) another day. But it has no chance of generating enough pressure to achieve the goal most of the leadership (at least from time to time) says it wants – a Palestinian state with full sovereignty, including the unfettered right to field its own armed forces, but which Israel, for the foreseeable future, rightly perceives as unacceptably risky.
In fact, as my 2002 article makes clear, conceivable foreign interference lacks the ability even to generate anything remotely deserving to be called a “negotiation.” For the Israelis’ ability to achieve their own main objectives through their own efforts and capabilities means that the Palestinians can offer them nothing that is worth accepting a significant compromise. Moreover, as implicitly recognized by the Palestinians’ persistent but vain hopes in a Washington savior, they have no chance of mustering the military power to force meaningful Israeli concessions on their own, and no one inside or outside the region will provide the men or materiel to change realities on the ground.
If the Obama administration – and its successors – really wants to foster a lasting Israel-Palestinian peace settlement, they will adopt a hands-off strategy. Such non-interference will at least stop encouraging Palestinian obstinacy and extremism, and could well force a critical mass of Palestinians and their leaders to accept the reality of strategic defeat.
Fortunately for this continually exploited and beleaguered population, in this case, strategic defeat does not doom it to political defeat. For unlike most of history’s victors, Israel, for all its flaws, is a pluralistic democracy, and therefore predictably contains a large voting bloc that’s anxious for genuine peace sooner rather than later. Therefore, the Palestinians have an opportunity – and have always had an opportunity – to strengthen this constituency and start winning significant compromises by conclusively demonstrating peaceful intentions. Not that this approach is sure to work. But unlike sporadic violence, it’s not sure to keep failing.
At the same time, however, the Israeli democracy also contains a large voting bloc that’s eager to expand West Bank settlements further and continue squeezing the Palestinians. So if the Arab residents of the West Bank and Gaza, truly want better and freer lives, they’ll start changing their behavior right away. Contrary to the longstanding conventional wisdom about this conflict, time is anything but their friend.