Outrage reigns as Israel writhes, impaled on the horns of the same old dilemma once again.
It is an old and familiar story. Pursuing its security in a hostile environment, Israel takes a risky and perhaps a radical step. Something goes awry and people are killed. Waves of international outrage flood the globe. In the Arab countries, the Islamic world generally and increasingly in Europe, there are demonstrations, denunciations and protests. The United Nations debates condemnations of Israel. The United States, almost alone, stands aside, negotiating to soften any Security Council resolutions and expressing sympathy if not always full support of Israeli actions.
The indignation machine is in high gear. As Archbishop Cranmer reports, the sacred UN Human Rights Council, with such members as Mauritania (where slavery is widespread) and Libya, has devoted 33 out of 40 resolutions to Israel; number 34 is coming irresistibly down the pike. The entire world is outraged and shocked, shocked at the brutal Israeli regime. Castro in Cuba, Chavez in Venezuela, China, Russia and Iran have joined with their fellow human rights leaders to voice the strongest possible condemnation of this latest affront to global morals. As the solemn conclave of human rights leaders voted to conduct an investigation into the incident, observers worldwide were confident that the inquiry would be conducted with all the scrupulous sense of fair play and even handed diligence that characterizes the judicial systems of countries like Cuba and Iran.
After the shouting dies away and the controversies have run their course, we will find that once again Israel’s political and moral isolation has gotten a little deeper; the Palestinians who believe that their cause is best served by constant and unremitting opposition to Israel’s existence are encouraged and strengthened while those who favor compromise are weakened; and the voices in the United States who call for the US to distance itself from Israel have fresh fodder for their arguments.
That is the basic shape of these crises, and so far the furor over Israel’s attack on the Gaza convoy is following the pattern. There are a few troubling new features, especially the central involvement of Turkey. In the past, Turkey held largely aloof from Israel’s conflicts with its neighbors, and the Turkish and Israeli defense forces quietly developed a relationship that was useful to both countries. The AK government now ruling Turkey wants Turkey to have a more active political role in the Middle East and plays to a public opinion that often sees Israel as a problem not just for Arabs but for the whole Muslim world. According to a very interesting New York Times story by Sabrina Tavernise and Michael Slackman, the money that funded the convoy comes in part from the rich merchant classes in Turkey who also support the AK Party. This latest incident has already done grave damage to an already troubled Israeli-Turkish relationship, further isolating Israel in the region and driving yet another wedge between Turkey and the United States. (For a sobering view of US-Turkish relations, see this extraordinary piece by Robert Pollock in the Wall Street Journal.)
Israelis often argue about tactics when these problems come up: Should the navy have done something else about the aid convoy? Should restrictions on imports to Gaza be lifted or modified? And so on. Often it turns out that other alternatives did exist and they might have been less politically and even morally dangerous. Given the high price that Israel pays for hard-line actions, to say nothing of the humanitarian consequences of some of the decisions it makes, many of Israel’s friends would like to see it find more creative solutions to some of the admittedly difficult challenges it faces. Yet realists understand that Israel is constantly faced with difficult choices and that mistakes are inevitable. Israel’s critics bitterly attack whenever Israel falls short of perfection — with much less concern for the brutal crimes of its enemies. Israel cannot win at this game; nobody gets it all right, least of all a democratic society under virtual siege for most of the last sixty years.
Even some of Israel’s strongest supporters have expressed their concern about this latest fiasco. Max Boot writes in both The Wall Street Journal and his Commentary blog that Israel shot itself in the foot on this one; he’s right. As the international storm over the convoy interception wound up, the head of Mossad warned the Knesset that Israel is gradually becoming less of an asset and more of a hindrance for the United States. If the current Israeli leadership wasn’t already seriously worried about the government’s international isolation, comments like these should serve as a wake up call. Israel is in trouble, big time, and even as the Iranian nuclear program presents Israel with one of the greatest crises in its history, the country’s leaders seem to be better at shedding old allies than acquiring new ones. The smartest, most fair-minded assessment I’ve seen is by Aaron David Miller, former US negotiator on Middle East issues, over at Bloomberg.
All that said, the real problem isn’t Israel’s response to this or that challenge. The real problem is the failure of Israel and its friends to counter the grand strategy of the Palestinian resistance groups that, over and over, manage to put Israel in situations where it has no good choices and where its successes don’t make things better — but the inevitable failures and missteps cost dear. Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians is a strange mix of enduring success and strategic failure. On the one hand, Israel keeps winning wars, defending its borders and, slowly, getting treaties signed with its neighbors. On the other hand, in 62 years of independence the Israelis have never managed to develop a vision for the Palestinian future that can bring an end to the conflict between the two peoples on workable terms. Constantly on the defensive, Israel must simultaneously defend itself against terrorist attacks while fending off global pressure to do something, anything, that will satisfy the Palestinians.
Many of Israel’s critics insist on believing that Israeli acceptance of the two-state solution based on the pre-1967 armistice lines will settle the dispute. Since the Oslo Accords, the Israelis have accepted (and still accept, however reluctantly) the idea of a two state solution. Twice Israeli prime ministers have made serious offers to return virtually all the territory occupied since 1967 to Palestinian control. Yet these concession and offers brought no decrease in the pressure on Israel; neither did unilateral withdrawals from South Lebanon and Gaza.
The Palestinians now ruling Gaza (not to mention many of the ‘peace activists’ seeking to break the Israeli blockade by sending the convoy) resolutely and fiercely oppose the two state solution. The ‘right of return’–the right of the descendants of Palestinians who fled or were expelled from what is now Israel during the War of Independence to return home–remains the key demand of many Palestinians who believe that the violence must continue until they go ‘home.’ Israel cannot satisfy these Palestinians and their allies without committing national suicide. This is the essential point at issue and it has been for sixty years. A critical mass of Palestinians still wants to return to pre-1948 Israel; the Israelis won’t allow it.
The world of the 1940s was full of refugee problems of this kind. Roughly 12 million Germans, most of them women and children who had nothing to do with Hitler’s war, were expelled from Poland and what is now Czechoslovakia; millions of others fled the murdering and raping Red Army as it visited on innocent Germans the same suffering that German forces inflicted on the territories it occupied in the USSR. Huge numbers of Hindus and Muslims fled or were expelled across the partition line between India and Pakistan. Hundreds of thousands of Jews fled or were expelled from the Arab world in response to mob violence and other threats following the establishment of Israel. In no case have the refugees gone home; in every case but the Palestinian situation, the refugees found new homes for themselves and became integrated into new societies and built new lives. (Even among the Palestinians some refugees have done this: in Jordan and Syria many Palestinian refugees and their descendants are living reasonably normal lives today.)
The bleak reality is that the rejectionist wings of the Palestinian national movement — those who reject the idea of two states within boundaries more or less corresponding to the 1948 armistice lines with mutually agreed adjustments — have impaled Israel on the horns of a strategic dilemma. The world thinks Israel has a duty to make the Palestinians happy enough to make peace with concessions, but the concessions that Israel can reasonably make do not and cannot command enough support among Palestinian refugees to bring the conflict to a close.
Israel cannot be defeated by military means, but Israel cannot bring Palestinian resistance to an end and as it seeks to defend itself it cannot avoid actions that much of the world sees as brutal and unwarranted. Sympathy for the Palestinians grows, but Israel still has no path to peace.
Israel and the United States today are working to get a peace agreement with the rulers of the West Bank — historically the home of more moderate Palestinian political forces and a place where a peace agreement just might stick. The hope seems to be that an agreement there might one day be expanded to cover Gaza when Fatah is strong enough, or public opinion in Gaza has changed enough, so that Hamas can either be persuaded to accept the agreement or through elections or some other means be overthrown.
I hope this works, but I have my doubts. The problems of the Palestinians on the West Bank probably could be solved within the framework of a two-state solution. The problems of the Palestinians in Gaza (and also of the Palestinian exiles in Lebanon) almost surely cannot.
In any case, the world’s need to believe that there is a simple solution to this long running dispute works against Israel. As the more powerful of the two antagonists, Israel seems to hold the upper hand, and many people assume without thinking it through that Israeli intransigence is responsible for the continuation of the dispute — and for the suffering of the Palestinians. That Israel continues to expand its settlements in Palestinian land suggests to many people that Israel is failing to offer the Palestinians a solution on purpose — that Israel plans to use the continuing impasse to grab more land. The perception that Israel is humiliating and oppressing the Palestinians as part of a plot to steal their land is the main force that powers the waves of anti-Israel feeling in the west. That Israel’s settlement policy reminds people of past efforts by Europeans to take the lands of native peoples in the colonial period (with South Africa as the latest and most egregious example) only intensifies the rage.
This view is not just paranoia; there are Israelis who think this way, and some of them are represented in the current government. But in my view, even a right wing Israeli government would accept a two-state solution if Israeli public opinion thought the solution would stick and that enough Palestinians would buy it so as to end the violence and the demands of Palestinians to regain lands and homes lost since the 1940s. The offers by former prime ministers Barack and Olmert demonstrate Israel’s willingness to make realistic proposals to end the conflict.
In the past, Fatah’s leadership (including Arafat) wasn’t ready to sign on the dotted line. I think the current Fatah Prime Minister is much closer to signing — though it’s hard to see how the two sides will manage the questions of Jerusalem and the holy sites plus, of course, the right of return. But that will not be the end of the conflict: Gaza will remain what it is, and it is clear that Hamas and its rejectionist allies have significant public support among Palestinians and in world public opinion. With money from Iran and Syria propping this faction up, and propaganda fests (like the effort to ‘break’ the blockade with civilian ships) keeping them on the front page, it’s very hard to see the anti-two state wing of the Palestinian movement changing its ideas anytime soon.
This means that Israel will have to pay virtually the full price for peace — withdrawal from settlements, some kind of solution in Jerusalem and other concessions — without getting full peace. I think that under some circumstances this is a chance worth taking — but then I’m not being asked to make any sacrifices or take any risks. Moreover, what would Israel then do about Gaza? If it opens the blockade Hamas will certainly import weapons including rockets that can and will be used against Israel at Hamas’ discretion. But if it keeps the blockade up, there will be more ships and more incidents and more hate propaganda about how Israeli brutality and intransigence is the only thing preventing Middle East peace.
Until Israel finds a strategy to counter Palestinian rejection, we will see many more incidents like the tragic attack on the ‘aid’ convoy.