This month President Obama makes his first visit to Israel since he became president. His first term did not begin auspiciously in this regard, with critical remarks on settlements that pre-empted negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, in the following four years, the prospects of peace have seen only a savage deterioration. In Israel, Obama has been regarded as the least friendly U.S. president ever, and in the region the United States is perceived as having lost both interest and clout. The result has been a power vacuum and, with that, a dangerous escalation of tensions.
It may be that Obama will have an unexpected triumph, comparable to President Nixon's opening to China when he had been the vehement red-baiter. The chances of the Palestinians achieving a state of their own look remote, but the Israelis are in a mood to compromise if guaranteed the political, emotional, and military support of the United States. And the Palestinian people, if not the leadership, are more eager than ever to escape the confines of occupation and rule by leaders who take huge sums of international aid and invest them in bombs rather than books, in fear rather than food, and in elaborate mansions for their own families.
The United States is the only force capable of moving the parties to resolve their differences. But that won't happen, yet again, unless the hard and brutal facts on the ground are recognized. This first of two reports will describe the arena, and next week's report will examine what it is that has so long frustrated the best of plans.
Israel, a state that is less than half the size of San Bernardino County in California, lives in a tough neighborhood, one characterized by violence, instability and hostility and one that allows no second chance for those unable to defend themselves. The political environment has been infected by the Arab Spring, and is now swamped by the rising tide of Islamism. The Egypt of Sadat, Mubarak, and Camp David is no more. Jordan, the other critical border neighbor, is under enormous strain. Israel's once vibrant military relationship with Turkey has disappeared. To the north, Syria continues to be convulsed by armed violence, savagery, and massacres, with more than 70,000 people dead. Despite the Syrian specter of loose weapons of mass destruction and its providing a safe haven for jihadists, the world is doing absolutely nothing.
On yet another front, Hezbollah and Lebanon possess 50,000 rockets and missiles in their arsenal. The Muslim fundamentalists in Iran are hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. All of this focuses the Israeli mind on what might have happened to them in the past and could still if they are not strong enough to defend themselves, especially now that they have to be ready to respond to a crisis on very short notice and be concerned about Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.
That this is an existential threat to Israel was captured by the Iranian president when he remarked that Israel "is so small and vulnerable that it is a 'one-bomb nation.'" Israel knows that confronting Iran before it achieves that bomb, however difficult, will be much less challenging than dealing with an Iran with nuclear capability.
The security environment continues to deteriorate. In 2012, the Israeli security service reports, there were 578 terrorist attacks in the West Bank, up from 320 in 2011. On the Gaza border, where Israel once had a security presence, 281 rockets were fired into Israel its last full year there; by 2006, with Israel having left Gaza, the rocket barrage number rose to 1,777. The world looks the other way. Israel is expected to bear all this with grace and fortitude. But it can't. Is there any society that would sit on its hands when its citizens are routinely exposed to death, injury, and destruction?
Imagine Washington under missile attack from nearby Baltimore as a way to understand what it is to be targeted by thousands of rocket and missile attacks from Hamas and Hezbollah. And this is a region that seems to be moving from the era of personal dictators to an era of dictatorial Islamic fundamentalism. When Israelis witness the slaughter in Syria and the world looks the other way, they understand what would have happened to them had they not been strong in 1948 and again in 1973 when Egypt and the coalition of Arab states took them by surprise in launching the Yom Kippur War. They are not inclined to let their guard down again.
The lawlessness and the chaos that prevail today in Gaza since Israel's withdrawal is a good indicator of what would happen in the West Bank if Israel withdrew entirely. Israel is only nine miles wide at its waist. Were Arab radicals to occupy what little strategic depth Israel has between the Jordan River and its populated coast, they wouldn't even need missiles to make it uninhabitable. Artillery and mortars would suffice.
The security in the whole region is a nightmare. Syria is breaking up, Egypt is now under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinian Authority is weaker than ever, Jordan is frozen in time, and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States operate under the fear of a nuclear Iran. Is it any surprise that the Israeli prime minister is unshakably convinced that any final accord must include an Israeli security presence on the Jordan River? Without that, arms would be smuggled from Jordan into the West Bank on exactly the same lines and with the same ill intentions as the smuggling of weaponry that Israel has endured from Sinai into Gaza and from Syria to Hezbollah and Lebanon.
International forces? Forget it. They have proven ineffective in places where they have to deal with ongoing hostility. The only forces with a consistent record of preventing the smuggling of arms to terrorists have been Israeli.
Nor can Israel forget its history, a history that is perceived differently in the Arab world. There Zionism is portrayed as an alien force, as a hyperaggressive variant of colonialism. It is not seen for what it truly is, the response to hundreds of years of anti-Semitism documented in the book A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism, which traces the history of a persecuted people driven from their homeland and pursued by vicious stereotypes and evil fabrications, culminating in the Holocaust. The historical fact that belies the vengeful Arab stereotypes is that the majority of Jews came to Israel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as the wretched of the earth in search of respite from ceaseless discrimination.
They were young, poor, and desperate. Palestine was then a sparsely populated wild and bleak land. As Winston Churchill, then the British colonial secretary, pointed out, the land was not taken away from the Arabs; the Arabs sold land to Jews only if they chose to do so.
Israelis cannot ever fail to remember, as so many outsiders do, what happened in 1948 after Israel was formally recognized by the United Nations. The local Palestinian militias combined with the armies of Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, and tried but failed to snuff out the Jewish state. It was during that 1948 War of Independence that Jordan seized control of Judea and Samaria (now known as the West Bank) and sections of Jerusalem that had long been a part of Palestine. Jordanian sovereignty over these areas was never legally recognized by the international community. After the Six Day War in 1967, when the Arab nations tried again to wipe Israel off the map, the country achieved a stunning victory and found itself once again back in control of the rest of Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria, as well as Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights.
Jordan had seized the land of the West Bank by blatant and unprovoked aggression against a fledgling state in the war of 1948. Its right to that area was never recognized by the British mandate. In 1988 it ceded its claims to the West Bank to the PLO. The Israelis not only consider the West Bank a critical defensive shield, but also they remember that Samaria and Judea are part of the cradle of Jewish civilization dating back to the biblical era.
The hope that the Arabs would accept Israel as a neighbor died aborning. From the outset, a Jewish presence of any kind in the region was anathema to them. Indeed, their ingrained anti-Semitism was merely expanded into an attack on the idea of Israel and then on the state itself. Much forgotten is the bitter irony that the Arabs now blame Israel for the Palestinians becoming refugees, even though they were rendered homeless in the first place by the Arab decision not to accept partition and to make war, not peace. And after that reckless act, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan did nothing to resettle the refugees in their own lands.
The relentless nature of the public attacks on Israel in all the Arab countries calls to mind the words of W.B. Yeats: "We had fed the heart on fantasies, the heart's grown brutal from the fare." It is difficult for Westerners unmarked by the searing memories of Jewish history to realize how much the survival of Israel remains a core issue for Jews who cannot dismiss the overheated Arab rhetoric that seeks to justify terrorism against innocent civilians by describing Israel's existence as illegitimate. Even the hallways of the United Nations, which itself has adopted an almost reflective anti-Israel stance, provide a regular forum for vicious anti-Israel attacks while conferring a false sense of credibility, reason, and legitimacy on the Arab spokespeople.
The Palestinians are supposed to abolish terror altogether, stop the culture of hate, and accept Israel as a Jewish state. It is a tragedy that the Israelis lack a moderate partner who could have earned their trust for its intention to bring about peace and to settle the conflict and end the bloodshed. Instead, what Israel gets from the Palestinian leadership is rhetoric in support of moving millions of Palestinians claiming refugee status to Israel, which would destroy its identity as a Jewish nation. The Arab states are unwilling to declare the end of the conflict, which so far means that there will be no Palestinian willingness to make the "painful" compromises that are essential if peace is to be made.
In fact, the danger now is that the conflict will intensify through some union between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah on the West Bank that would extend extremist control to the West Bank and give the Islamist movement even more legitimacy among Palestinians. The relatively moderate Palestinian leaders President Mahmoud Abbas, aka Abu Mazen, and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad could well be replaced by other more extreme leaders, ending the chances of a reasonable arrangement. Israelis know it would be suicidal to think they could protect themselves if Hamas or an equally nasty regime were to establish itself on the West Bank. They know from the record that commitments on paper would not be honored in practice. They saw their fellow countrymen running for cover from the hundreds of rockets fired indiscriminately from Gaza. It doesn't take much imagination to picture what would happen if the same terrorists controlled the West Bank.
The answer to Israeli anxieties and Palestinians' sense of oppression has been apparent for many years: Israel pulls out of much of the West Bank to enable the establishment of a pacific unarmed Palestinian state in quick time. This so-called two-state solution is too important to fail, though it seems too complex to succeed.
Why it hasn't happened is the subject of next week's editorial.
- Read Patrick Christy and Evan Moore: Diplomacy With Iran Over Nuclear Weapons Has Hurt More Than Helped
- Read Jason Healey: Obama's Cyberwarfare Strategy Will Backfire
- Read Robert Nolan: The Scars of the U.S. War in Iraq