If I was a gambler, here’s a big bet I’d make: As certain as the continuation of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is, the continuation and worsening of the (often well-meaning) delusions and (often willful) ignorance it’s spawned is even more certain.
I’m not talking about some of the worst absurdities generated by the most recent fighting – like claims that the big excess of Palestinian over Israeli casualties reveals some special degree of ruthlessness on the Israeli side, or an equally special need for Israel to display more restraint responding to rocket attacks on its people. Leave aside for now the precautions Israel clearly has taken to minimize collateral damage or the Hamas fondness for human shields. Israel’s light losses have nothing to do with its enemies’ scruples – not when you’re talking about the firing of literally thousands of projectiles. Instead, this enormous number of rockets took such a meager toll largely because of effective defenses. Put differently, if Hamas didn’t kill many more Israelis, it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Instead, I’m referring to more polished talking points that for decades have dominated the debate over this conflict as conducted inside U.S. administrations, among most elected national officials, and by the mainstream bipartisan globalist foreign policy “Blob” of academics, former officials, think tankers, and journalists. Not that these views are all in perfect lockstep, but the central idea, in its current form, is that the Israelis’ are now so much more powerful than any combination of their enemies that the most sensible course of action to take is cutting the Palestinians a break. In victory, magnanimity, as Winston Churchill famously said. But rather than make entirely affordable concessions, Israel has chosen to rub the Palestinians’ nose in defeat, especially with more aggressive West Bank settlement policies and an ever harsher overall occupation.
In one not-trivial way, this new conventional wisdom improves on its predecessor. That perspective held that, at some point, the power balance between Israel and the Palestinians would start tipping against the former – either because the Palestinians, including Israel’s Arabs, would become so much more numerous than the Jews, or because they’d in tandem with their brethren across the Middle East their power would become irresistible). Therefore, Israel’s only hope or long-term survival would be compromising while it still had any leverage at all.
I’ve written previously on why, from an International Affairs 101 perspective, the earlier version of the conventional wisdom was so wrong-headed. Especially in the wake of the first Persian Gulf War, it was so out of whack with the actual distribution of power in the Middle East, and what by even then was the Arab wotld’s glaringly obvious indifference to the Palestinians, that it could only hope to feed Palestinian pipe dreams that they could gain at the negotiating table through a combination of obstructionism and international pressure what they could not possibly win on the battlefield.
But the uproar over the latest fighting is exposing two intimately related flaws in the new conventional wisdom that are comparably serious – and far more important than childish squabbles over who fired first, or about acceptable and unacceptable levels of force.
The first has to do with Israel’s own alleged obstinacy. However inflexible or high-handed Israel may or may not seem today, there can be no question that the Jewish state has at various times pulled back to varying degrees – including the dismantling of settlements – from various territories taken over after the Six-Day War of 1967. The Palestinian leadership has moved on important issues as well – chiefly on Israel’s right to exist in peace (in the Oslo Accords of 1993). But these two instances of compromise could not be more dramatically different .
Israeli territorial concessions – including withdrawals from the Sinai peninsula (completed in 1982) and Gaza (completed in 2005), from Jericho on the West Bank (1994), and from some West Bank and Gaza settlements freezes and even some teardowns (in the early 2000s) – entailed tangible assets that directly enhanced the security of this geographically tiny state by making it less tiny. Moreover, although Israeli settler groups have periodically violated these Israeli policies, the Jewish state’s decisions have been the product of an international actor that is capable of enforcing its agreements and that has chosen to do so.
The Palestinian concessions on Israel’s right to exist in secure conditions entailed intangibles that had no material affect on the regional strategic situation because the Palestinians have always been powerless to end Israel’s existence. Indeed, they conferred on Israel no benefits that the Israelis could not substantially gain for themselves – and in fact had gained because of their military superiority.
Just as important, Palestinian leadership groups have never effectively eliminated threats to Israeli lives and property emanating from their community for any substantial period of time.
The question of whether these Palestinian groups could not or would not eliminate these threats has been actively debated, but from the Israeli standpoint, the matter is completely academic. What counts have been the results, and they’ve been sorely inadequate, to put it kindly. In other words, until Israel has reasons to believe that further concessions will result in major, lasting payoffs, the case for such flexibility or magnanimity or however you describe it will be an understandably hard sell.
The second fatal flaw in the recent conventional wisdom has to do with the belief that many more significant Palestinian concessions would be in the offing if peace talks began. The Arab-Israeli conflict may fairly be said to have begun in an act of Arab (including Palestinian) rejectionism – of the 1947 United Nations plan partitioning what had been British Palestine, and which led to Israel’s creation in the first place. This rejectionism, moreover, set a revealing precedent: In the ensuing war begun by the Arab states, Israel won some 50 percent more land than the UN plan allotted it.
These two patterns of Israeli flexibility and Palestinian rejectionism seem to have been illustrated most tragically (and especially for the latter) at the Camp David peace talks in 2000. There’s been no definitive account of the last-minute breakdown of these negotiations, and therefore it hasn’t yet been possible to confirm widespread claims that Palestine Liberation Organization leader (PLO) Yasser Arafat bears most of the blame. But I’ve been struck by the following two observations by former U.S. diplomats involved in the Clinton administration mediation efforts and who are by no means pro-Israel hardliners.
The first comes from Aaron David Miller, a 25-year State Department veteran who worked extensively on Middle East issues. Writing on the twentieth anniversary of the Camp David talks, he recalls that then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak “went further than any Israeli prime minister had gone before” – and on core issues “like borders, security, refugees, and of course Jerusalem’s ownership.” Yet Miller continued, his proposals were nowhere close to what Arafat needed….”
As Miller explains, the PLO chief was tightly constrained by the demands of hardliners in his own organization and those even further out on the extremes, and given the brutal nature of Palestinian and wider Arab politics, understandably feared that any departure from the rejectionist line would bring a bullet into his head. And Barak’s own ability to bring Israeli opinion along was doubtful at best, especially since his political future looked doubtful.
So his argument that the U.S. mediation effort was doomed from the start, mainly it seems because the issues dividing the two sides were “mission impossibles” (but also because the American President made serious tactical goofs), and that the blame for failure was shared, appears reasonable at first glance.
But this interpretation would be genuinely constructive only if the Palestinians and Israelis were then or are now somewhat evenly matched. That’s not remotely the case. Most crucially, the Camp David failure shows that, as desperate as the plight of the Palestinian people was not only at that moment, but had been for decades, their designated representative ruled out of hand decisions that could alleviate their present suffering and build a foundation – however fragile and, yes, uncertain, for future progress because they wouldn’t deliver unalloyed, immediate victory. Indeed, as the author notes, Arafat “was in no hurry to reach any kind of agreement” and had even warned his American hosts that “a premature summit might lead to an explosion.”
Arafat’s warning proved prescient, since Palestinian forces retained impressive capabilities to spark what Miller calls “a hellish descent into violence and terror” for the region. But their continuing inability to triumph or meaningfully change the military facts on the ground ensured that their own already immiserated people would pay by far the highest price.
Revealingly, Miller’s account is roughly paralleled by a piece from a former Clinton administration colleague, Robert Malley.
Malley is plainly much more sympathetic to the Palestinians, and their leaders, than Miller. And perhaps the sharp edge in this article reflects its writing practically in the immediate aftermath of the Camp David failure, rather than from two decades into the future.
All the same, it’s significant that he portrays the years of diplomatic near-paralysis that preceded Camp David as ones marked by “more Israeli settlements, less freedom of movement, and worse economic conditions [for the Palestinian people].” Further, Malley implicitly accepts the view that “Barak broke every conceivable taboo and went as far as any Israeli prime minister had gone or could go” – again, unquestionably important given the lopsided balance of power.
And although the author writes that “Strictly speaking, there never was” an actual offer from the hyper-cautious Israelis, he also argues that proposals presented by Clinton several months later – albeit, near the very end of his presidency – “showed that the distance travelled since Camp David was indeed considerable, and almost all in the Palestinians’ direction.” He goes so far as to add that
“Offer or no offer, the negotiations that took place between July 2000 and February 2001 make up an indelible chapter in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Taboos were shattered, the unspoken got spoken, and, during that period, Israelis and Palestinians reached an unprecedented level of understanding of what it will take to end their struggle.”
Yet Arafat still said No, in the evident belief that his most prudent response to an unusually promising opportunity for something better was a veiled threat was rejecting the good in favor of his concept of the perfect. Why was he acting even in the slightest bit picky, however, despite the inevitable result of condemning his people to even more hardship?
As I wrote above, the answer to this paramount question – beside which all the debates surrounding the latest Gaza fighting are harmful distractions – is that Palestinian leaders have been encouraged to assume that any number of (thoroughly irresponsible) international actors (e.g., members of the UN General Assembly and even Security Council) could eventually hand them the clout they have no potential to win through their own devices. The result – which in their eyes evidently has been worth long-term suffering in the West Bank and Gaza – would enable them to deal with Israel at least as equals and possibly, in combination with a near-global consensus, as superiors.
And my confidence in this conclusion has just been borne out upon reading a third piece on failed Middle East diplomacy whose author (an analyst at an entirely mainstream Blob-y think tank) lays the blame overwhelmingly on Israel (while curiously admitting that it holds all the regional power cards and that its preference for a fundamentally secure status quo over a promised rosy future makes perfect self-interested sense).
According to Nathan Thrall, the Palestinians have long hoped that “the support of the majority of the world’s states” will “eventually result” in the kind of two-state agreement that these states have repeatedly make clear they support, but one that is totally unhinged from relative power considerations – that in fact mocks these by pretending that Israel’s pre-1967 borders are adequately secure – and that does nothing to assauge Israeli concerns paper promises that its new Palestinian counterpart will be willing or even able to halt attacks from its own territory.
In a 1974 interview, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger ruefully observed that Americans “believe that every problem is soluble,” are “at ease with redoing the world,” and suggested that his compatriots instinctively rebel “against the pragmatic aspect of foreign policy that is security-oriented, that achieves finite objectives, that seeks to settle for the best attainable, rather than for the best.” He linked this confidence with favored geographic circumstances that obscured the tradeoffs that, for less fortunate countries, are often the inescapable price of simply scraping by.
For all its current advantages, it’s difficult to imagine a country with less in common with the United States in these literally existential senses than Israel. The sooner a critical mass of Americans and their leaders recognize this gulf, and its implications, the more helpful they’ll be able to be not only to the Israelis, but to the Palestinians, who have for so long been the greatest victims of Middle East delusions.