After a few years of benign neglect, Israel is again appearing on the radar screens and itineraries of well-meaning foreign emissaries.
In just the last month, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now the Quartet’s envoy, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Israel and our neighbors; the resulting press conferences, pronouncements and promises of “progress” were all-too-familiar.
Over the years, and particularly during my years as the chief of staff of the IDF, I met and briefed many previous emissaries sent to our region to try to solve the 100-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
While I deeply appreciate the willingness of Blair, Rice and the others to wade into the fray, I am nonetheless left skeptical: Unless Blair, Rice and the others sure to come are able to shake off long-disproven aspects of the conventional wisdom about Israeli-Palestinian conflict, their efforts are doomed to failure. To achieve real progress — and not just press conferences — those seeking to bolster peace must re-examine and reframe many of the primary assumptions that inform their view of the conflict.
Primary among these is the belief that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a prerequisite for stability the Middle East. This view might be common in the West and even in Israel, but it is entirely fallacious.
The Middle East is riven by multiple clashes that have nothing to do with Israel (even though some of the actors in them do exploit the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for their own aims). To name a few examples, the Jewish state plays no role in the conflicts between the Shi’a and the Sunni, between Persians and Arabs, or between Arab nationalists and Arab Islamists.
Dovetailing with this is the assumption that Israeli territorial concessions are the key to progress in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Again: Completely false. The reality is that we are confronting an ascendant jihadist Islam that believes that it is leading the battle against Israel and the West.
In this context, Israeli territorial or other concessions — whether made unilaterally or according to an agreement — simply fill the jihadists’ sails: They reinforce the jihadi belief that Israel and the rest of the West are weak and can be conquered by military means. Not only are Israeli territorial concessions not the key to solving the conflict, they actually make it worse.
It is important, nonetheless, to note that the majority of Israelis supported Israel’s unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005; they (mistakenly) believed that meeting Hizbullah and Palestinian territorial demands would nullify the cause of the conflict. We know now what the result was:
The Hizbullah and Palestinian reactions made clear that the central conflict in our region is not territorial —it’s ideological. And ideology cannot be defeated by concessions. It didn’t work in the lead-up to the Second World War and it won’t work today. Unfortunately, it’s not only the foreign emissaries who haven’t yet internalized this reality: In Israel there remain many, even among our political leadership, who hold onto the cherished, false belief that, if we just surrender enough territory, we can have peace.
Unfortunately, our experience shows that the opposite is true.
Why did they destroy the Erez industrial zone?
The false assumptions are not limited to the conflict between jihadist Islam and the West. Too many in Israel and throughout the West believe that the problem between Israel and the Palestinians is “the Occupation.”
When people in the West use the term, “the Occupation” usually means the territories Israel conquered in the 1967 defensive war known as the Six Day War. But many Palestinians, and some Israeli Arabs, use “Occupation” to refer to all of the land of Israel (“from the sea to the river”).
If the problem between Israel and the Palestinians was just the ‘67 territories, and the solution was dividing the land (as was proposed by the British Mandate in 1937, by the UN in 1947 and by the prime minister of Israel in 2000), then the conflict would have ended long ago. The heart of the problem between Israel and the Palestinians is that a Palestinian leadership willing to recognize Israel as an independent Jewish state has not yet risen.
The problem’s actual heart is that Fatah, Hamas and even some Israeli Arabs do not recognize the Jewish people’s right to an independent state, recognition granted by Blair’s predecessors during the British Mandate through the Balfour Declaration, and affirmed again and again in the international arena.
Another misconception is the belief that the Palestinians want and have the ability to establish a state that will live in peace alongside the state of Israel. The clear-eyed among us understand that this hope has been dashed. Arafat established a gang rule that refused to take responsibility for its people and accept accountability for their welfare.
Mahmoud Abbas did not and does not want to take responsibility and enjoys his “weakness” — and the results are apparent. A society that educates and encourages a culture of death is a society with a built-in mechanism for self-destruction. We need simply to look at the sad case of the Gaza Strip: Palestinian nationalists won, received overwhelming political and economic support from the global community and from Israel, and the miserable outcome is apparent to all.
Many in Israel and the rest of the West, looking through w estern glasses, believe that economic development is an engine capable of neutralizing nationalistic and religious feelings, which will bring peace, which will in turn bring security.
If you still believe this, I recommend that you hearken to David Ben-Gurion at the opening session of the Knesset in 1960: He termed those who believed this “naïve Zionists.” Those still clinging to this misconception ought to demand that the Palestinians explain what they did with the $7 billion they received over the last few years.
Seven billion reasons for economic progress — and yet: Why did they destroy the Erez industrial zone? Why do they attack the passages in the Gaza strip? Why is the Palestinian economy in shambles? Why are they so much worse off under the rule of the Palestinian Authority than they were prior to Arafat and his cronies assuming power in May 1994?
All leaders ought to respect Blair
And so, the well-intentioned emissaries must be asked: Looking to the future in the light of the last decade, do you see a chance for a politically and economically sustainable and viable Palestinian state in the ‘67 territories? Given the Hamas coup in the Gaza Strip and Fatah’s behavior, do you think there is a chance for a political entity that is not hostile to Israel (and to Jordan) in the ‘67 territories? And is it in the best interests of the West to bring such an entity in being?
Once shorn of all these mistaken assumptions, the clear-eyed are left with a disturbing picture (no wonder, then, that so many cling to the misconceptions). So what course of action do I recommend?
Western governments must refrain from pressuring Israel, which leads only to short-term gains (and to longer-term complications). Instead, try to convince the Palestinians to commit to a long-term strategy: One premised upon educational, political and economic reforms that will lead to the establishment of a civil society that cherishes life and not death, that values human rights and freedom, and that develops a middle class and not a corrupt, rich elite.
Don’t waste money propping up Abu Mazen or his security organizations. Direct funds toward educational reform and toward encouraging small businesses in order to facilitate the growth of a middle class, which is the core of civil society.
At the same time, act to solve the Palestinian refugee issue through humanitarian means: Establish an international fund that will offer refugee families an appropriate amount to aid in their resettlement and integration ($100-200,000.00 per family), on the condition that the acceptance of this money represents the resolution of their refugee status.
Don’t be tempted to take the easy route of grabbing short-term — and short-sighted — “gains,” such as demanding that Israel uproot settlements or refrain from military activity in Palestinian towns. As I wrote, Israeli concessions will be viewed as yet another victory for Islamist jihad. Emissaries who press for the cessation of IDF activity in Palestinian areas are asking for a renewal of the terror war Israelis endured following the September 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon.
Blair — who sent the British army to Afghanistan to prevent terror attacks in London, Madrid and New York — particularly understands that the best defense is a good offense. And a good offense includes the freedom to capture and arrest terrorists in their hideouts.
The emissaries must not be tempted to talk to Hamas, even in the face of pressure from home (be it political or economic, such as that from British Gas, which has interests in the Palestinian Authority that apparently outweigh moral considerations). For the sake of Palestinian society, Hamas and its ideology must be defeated.
Emissaries are sent to address with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but they maintain clarity: The Israeli-Palestinian dispute is not the most significant conflict today. That title belongs to the battle between jihadist Islam and the West; Israel is merely one theater where that fight is being waged.
The West cannot overcome jihadist Islam without overpowering the regimes, organizations and ideologies that support and feed it — and the Hamas is one of largest jewels in the crown.
The emissaries must also keep in mind that their actions vis a vis the Palestinians may influence other Arab societies and can play a role in the larger conflict between jhadist Islam and the West. All leaders must act based on long-term visions with no shortcuts — and forgo the hunger for short-term accomplishments.
My advice here is not ideological: I am a kibbutz member who has always cherished life above land, one who was certainly willing to accept territorial compromise — until the failure of the Oslo accords and all that came after it demonstrated the futility and false hopes of such an approach.
As the Quartet’s representative, former Prime Minister Blair is perhaps the most intriguing — and holds out the best hope for letting go of his flawed assumptions. All leaders ought to respect this man, who guided his country and army in a preventative war against jihadist Islam.
Unfortunately, he was unable to persuade the international community and particularly the United Nations to deal with those who threaten the world with violence and chaos.
As long as the international community attacks and condemns Israel — a country defending itself from intentional attacks on civilians waged by their who use their own people as human shields — rather than isolating and punishing states like Iran and Syria and organizations like Hizbullah and Hamas, the West will not win.
Even in his own country, though several legislative changes followed the terror attacks there, there are still Islamic “charities” active in Britain that raise funds to support terrorist groups (the US is better off in this respect).
Those who just sought to attack London and Glasgow had nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (nor did Israel have anything to do with the attacks on New York, Madrid, the London subways or elsewhere).
Though we Israelis are doing our best as a country and an army to win this war while remaining true to our values, we hear the voices blaming Israel and the rest of the West, and more loudly, in Europe. The voices in the media and academia are rising in volume and in conviction — even as they continue to miss the point in the most grandiloquent manner imaginable.
Rice, Blair and the other emissaries must be the countervailing voices, offering vision, clarity and leadership. A war fought on false assumptions cannot be won.
And yet I, the son of a soldier who fought in the British Army’s Jewish Brigade in World War II, a graduate of the British Command and Staff College, and one who dedicated his life to fighting those who threaten Israel and the rest of the West, must refrain from traveling to Britain in order to avoid the embarrassment of arrest in some show-trial on unfounded propagandist charges of “war crimes.”
As long as this is the case, there is no chance for success in our battle against jihadist Islam. This victory is not dependent on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it depends upon moral clarity and sober understanding.
The emissaries who travel here must drawn on their rich experience, free themselves from petty politics — especially from the binds of “political correctness” — to lead us all toward the goals of freedom, security—and true progress toward peace. Anything else is mere meddling.
Lt. Gen. (Res.) Moshe Ya’alon is a fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center. He served as the 17th Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces