Two Views: Dissecting Obamas stance on Israel

Despite his clever intentions, no chance his efforts will pay off

When President Barack Obama announced in June about Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, “I’m confident that if we stick with it, having started early, that we can make some serious progress this year,” he displayed a touching, if naïve optimism.

Daniel Pipes

Indeed, his determination fits a well-established pattern of determination by politicians to “solve” the Arab-Israeli conflict.

There were 14 U.S. government initiatives during the two George W. Bush administrations alone.

Might this time be different? Will trying harder or being more clever end the conflict?

No, there is no chance whatsoever of this effort working.

Without looking at the specifics of the Obama approach — which are in themselves problematic — I contend that past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have failed; that their failure resulted from an Israeli illusion about avoiding war; and that Washington should urge Jerusalem to forego negotiations and return instead to its earlier and more successful policy of fighting for victory.

Wars are won, the historical record shows, when one side feels compelled to give up on its goals. This is only logical, for so long as both sides hope to achieve their war ambitions, fighting either continues or potentially can resume.

For example, although defeated in World War I, the Germans did not give up their goal of dominating Europe, and soon again turned to Hitler to try again. The Korean War ended more than a half century ago, but neither North nor South have given up their aspirations — which means fighting could flare up at any time.

Similarly, through the many rounds of the Arab-Israeli conflict (wars in 1948-49, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982) both sides retained their goals.

Those goals are simple, static and binary. The Arabs fight to eliminate Israel; Israel fights to win the acceptance of its neighbors.

The first is offensive in intent; the second is defensive. The former is barbaric; the latter is civilized.

For nearly 60 years, Arab rejectionists have sought to eliminate Israel via a range of strategies: undermining its legitimacy through propaganda, harming its economy through a trade boycott, demoralizing it through terrorism and threatening its population via WMDs.

While the Arab effort has been patient, intense and purposeful, it has also failed. Israelis have built a modern, affluent and strong country, but one still largely rejected by Arabs.

This mixed record has spawned two political developments: a sense of confidence among politically moderate Israelis, and a sense of guilt and self-criticism among leftists. Very few Israelis still worry about the unfinished business of getting the Arabs to accept the permanence of the Jewish state. Call it Israel’s invisible war goal.

Rather than seek victory, Israelis have developed a lengthy menu of approaches to manage the conflict. These include:

• Unilateralism (building a wall, partial withdrawals): the current policy, as also espoused by Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and the Kadima Party.

• Lease for 99 years the land under Israeli towns on the West Bank: the Labor Party of Amir Peretz.

• Palestinian Arab economic development: Shimon Peres.

• Territorial compromise: The premise of Oslo diplomacy, as initiated by Yitzhak Rabin.

• Outside funding for the Palestinian Arabs (on the Marshall Plan model): Congressman Henry Hyde.

• Retreat to the 1967 borders: Israel’s far left.

• Push the Palestinian Arabs to develop good government: Natan Sharansky (and President George W. Bush).

• Insist that Jordan is Palestine: Israel’s right.

• Transfer the Palestinian Arabs out of the West Bank: Israel’s far right.

These many approaches are very different in spirit and mutually exclusive. But they have a key element in common. All manage the conflict without resolving it. All ignore the need to defeat Palestinian rejectionism. All seek to finesse war rather than win it.

For an outside observer who hopes for Arab acceptance of Israel sooner rather than later, this avoidance of the one winning strategy prompts a certain frustration, one that’s the more profound when recalling how brilliantly the Israelis early on understood their war goals.

Now, however, they experiment with compromise, unilateralism, enriching their enemies and other schemes.

But as Gen. Douglas MacArthur observed, “In war, there is no substitute for victory.”

The Oslo diplomacy ended in dismal failure and so will all the other schemes — including those from Obama — that avoid the hard work of winning.

Israelis eventually must gird themselves to resuming the difficult, bitter, long and expensive effort needed to convince the Palestinians and others that their dream of eliminating Israel is defunct.

Should Israelis fail to achieve this, then Israel itself will be defunct.

Daniel Pipes is publisher of the Middle East Quarterly and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.


For an opposing view on this topic, go to Two Views: Dissecting Obama’s stance on Israel