Why Israel Can't Make Peace

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

For years I have written that there will be no peace in the Middle East until there is a fairly delineated Palestinian state coexisting with Israel. I believed that the Oslo accords brought us very close, and that Ariel Sharon made his provocative gesture of entering the grounds of the Al Aqsa Mosque in order to cause a Palestinian reaction which would cause the two state solution to fail. It was a basic but un-examined, or more precisely, under-examined, premise of my arguments that Yaser Arafat 1. was ready to make peace with Israel and 2. had the means and the will to slap down violent breakaway groups when the moment came.

Now everything has changed. While it continues to be true that a two state solution is the only way that Jews and Palestinians will ever find to coexist, the conditions no longer exist that would make such a solution possible. They are unlikely to exist again for a generation and possibly for a century.

Arafat never proved he was strong enough to put down the holders of the "violence veto". The old, bizarre, custom, or pretense, among terrorist groups, invented decades ago by the IRA, of a complete separation between "military" and "political" wings, which has enabled them at times to work at complete cross-purposes with each other, reached a level of absurdity in Arafat's last years, when Fatah the political party sought an independent state via negotiation, while Fatah's military component began branching out into suicide bombing to keep up with Hamas. (I sometimes think that the attitude of Arab politicians towards the West, even in Saudi Arabia, is to negotiate a little, trade a little, kill a little.) I always wanted to believe that Arafat had the sharp knives put away in his drawer, waiting for Israel to give him a solid enough commitment for him to take them out and use them against Hamas, the Fatah Hawks and anyone else who stood in the way of a lasting peace. Israel certainly never gave him a basis.

No-one has risen in Arafat's stead who has anywhere near the power to do the necessary. Even before Hamas won the elections (putting a cork in U.S. plans to spread liberal democracy through-out the region) there was little evidence that Fatah could ever stand up to the armed men, its own or others.

Now, the most powerful people in Palestine, as in Lebanon, are the men with guns. They believe that Israel must be destroyed, and beyond that, they believe that America should be taught such a decisive lesson that it should retire permanently within its own borders. While we have made grotesque and bloody errors in the Middle East, of which the Iraq war is only the most notorious--and I am talking strategic errors here, forget the morality a moment--we must find ways to correct them without accepting the chastisement these fundamentalists are offering.

The real moral issue here is whether a nation (or a person) that finds itself in a false position is obliged to accept its own physical obliteration or that of any of its people. While under international law and certain imaginable moral rules, a nation may become "obliged" to withdraw or surrender, it is a corrolary of this principle that the nation would expect in return the treatment of its people according to rules of law. Surrendering combatants expect to be fed, housed, free of torture and otherwise treated fairly under the Geneva conventions. Surrendering criminals expect to receive a fair trial. Noone, no matter how badly or violently they themselves have behaved, will ever feel obliged, practically or morally, to surrender or make any concessions to people who will torture and kill them the moment the opportunity presents itself.

At a time when the adversary has become the murderous ideologues of Hamas and Hezbollah, the fact that Israel has been in a largely false position since 1948 becomes close to irrelevant. Israel's obligation will never be to allow its people to die; it has always been only to return to its senses, as Soviet, Eastern European and South African governments have, and then to seek to redress the wrongs of the past. Since mutual amnesties and life together have never been possible, as they were in South Africa and much of the Soviet sphere, the Israeli variation on a return to sense has always been the fostering of a peaceful, independent, neighboring Palestinian state.

Israel has always complained that it lacked a partner for peace. It may sometimes have made this complaint even when it really had one. It is certain that no such partner exists anywhere today. All Israel can do is dig in, avoid the temptation to become murderous and torturous itself (something which has always happened in Israel, but not recently at the highest levels of policy), and keep its military response proportional to the provocation. I believe that the Israeli military response in Lebanon, despite ingenuous U.N. and European criticism, was exactly proportional to the character and scope of the threat. The civilian areas harmed by Israel were honeycombed with Hezbollah military forces which the Lebanese government is unwilling or unable to control. No-one, certainly not the U.S. or any European country, has yet invented a way of countering a military threat that is so precise that it harms no civilians. Hamas and the Lebanese government are morally responsible for the harm to civilians caused by an adversary carrying out a proportional response to a deliberate military provocation. Sheik Nasrallah's remarkable statement a couple of weeks ago, that he would never have approved the incursion into Israel which led to the current war if he had imagined how Israel would respond, indicates that he knows he is responsible for the suffering of the Lebanese people.

As for the United States, we should never forget (as the Europeans so obviously have) that Hezbollah was responsible for the suicide bombings that took the lives of 241 Marines and about 80 French peacekeepers a quarter century ago. At the time, President Reagan's sole response (and he has somehow, mystifyingly, lingered in popular perception as a strong leader) was to pull out of Lebanon, confirming to Hezbollah the powerful effectiveness of suicide bombing as a tool of political policy.

Even if we did exactly what the fundamentalists want--pulled back within our own borders and went back to watching television, drinking beer and diddling one another--I have little doubt that they will kill some of us from time to time, probably within our borders too, just to remind us to stay there. Because they can, really. This is intolerable. The problem--and it is one of the most difficult in the world, I wouldn't want to be the next President--is to undo dreadfully stupid (also grossly immoral) moves without making ourselves weak and vulnerable.