An Exchange

Omer Messinger/Sipa USA

A Note from TPM Reader JS and my response …

I am by my nature an optimist. But what in the past few years in the region has given you any basis to believe in the rosy outcome for the West Bank were Israel to withdraw its forces?

If you haven’t already, I would strongly recommend that you read Ari Shavit’s (editor of Haaretz) My Promised Land, perhaps the best book on Israel and Israelis ever written. In one chapter, Ari Shavit discusses the fatal flaw of the Israeli peace movement in the 80s and 90s – namely, that the conflict could be solved by resolving the problem of the occupation and settlements created as a result of the 1967 war. The root cause of the conflict is not in 1967, as your email to me suggests, but in the expulsion and suffering that the Palestinian people experienced in 1948. 1948 was why Arafat rejected peace when it had a willing partner in Ehud Barak, and why the Palestinians again rejected peace when Ehud Olmert was prime minister. Each Israeli prime minister, as you say, “put a map on the table.” Each time the answer was no.

Now, maybe third time’s a charm and Abbas says yes, but there is a very strong likelihood that it does not end there, at least for a significant portion of the Palestinian population, who still cling to the dream of going back to the villages their grandfather or great grandfathers were born into in the first half of the last century. With this understanding, the security requirements that Israel will require in order to ensure that it does not create a new, much larger Gaza on its eastern border, will likely include, at least in the medium term, control over the Jordan River Valley and Israeli searches of all planes landing in the West Bank. The stringent security requirements that Israel will require are likely, based on Abbas’ own public statements, to be non-starters for him.

This all is not to say that it is not worth continuing to try to push for peace (as, I agree, permanent occupation of the West Bank is an existential threat to a Jewish, democratic state of Israel), nor does it excuse continued settlement of the West Bank which is simply wrong. However, it does suggest that peace is not nearly as simple as Israel snapping its fingers and saying, let’s have peace. It will require two to tango and it is not at all clear that the current leadership on each side is willing to make the necessary sacrifices.

And here is my reply, with slight edits …

With respect, I think you’re being too complacent and easy with yourself with ‘the third time is the charm’. The Palestinians problem may not be with 1967; but Israel’s problem very much is. Your premise seems to be that the West Bank is some sort of security asset for Israel. It’s not. Virtually no one in the Israeli security establishment believes this. It’s certainly not a security asset in the sense that was once argued – as a buffer against an invading army. And it’s really not in Gaza terms either. Holding on to the territory and the population of the West Bank is strangling and isolating Israel. What do you imagine the end game is with the West Bank?

You seem to think the premise is that you go back to the 67 borders and everybody’s friends. No, you take the settlements back behind the ’67 borders because the settlements are damaging Israel internally (in terms of massive expenditures and moral and readiness deterioration of the IDF) and externally (in terms of increasing geopolitical isolation). If someone has a knife in your belly, you don’t bargain with them about what they’ll give you if you take out the knife, you just take it out.

You’re painting yourself as a hardnosed realist when really you have your head in the sand about the fact that the real danger facing Israel is the continuation of the occupation. Those who do not see this have no strategic end game for how this plays out. Continued settlement isn’t simply wrong. It tells you that the struggle over the West Bank is not about security since by definition more settlements amidst of a hostile population heightens the security burden with the aim of preventing the creation of a Palestinian state forever – which you yourself say is untenable.

What’s the trajectory of Israel’s international position over the last decade? Plus or minus? Does the internal political-demographic transformation of the US point toward a more pro-Israel or less pro-Israel future? And do you envision a world where the US remains the sole great power forever, able to shield Israel on its own more or less effortlessly?

As for maps, what you leave out of the equation was that both Barak and Olmert, by the time they had these negotiations were months away from being thrown out of office – a fact that both served as the basis of their negotiations and made it empty in the eyes of their Palestinian interlocutors. So to see this as a precedent doesn’t square with the facts of the situation.

But again, if the Palestinians are hung up on 1948, that’s their problem. Israel’s problem is 1967. And what I care about is Israel’s future. So even if you believe that most of the Palestinians are rejectionists, frankly, it doesn’t matter. If all of that is really true, as Ami Ayalon once argued, Israel should withdraw the settlements and announce it is ready to remove its military presence when it is satisfied that there is a Palestinian leadership who can maintain law and order. I’m not as pessimistic about the Palestinians as you clearly are. But as I argued a couple weeks ago, it doesn’t matter. Israel’s pure self-interest is enough to answer the question.

Remember, Israel is infinitely stronger than her local adversaries. She could easily dictate a peace. But you’re fooling yourself if you believe that time is on Israel’s side the longer the occupation continues.