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Back in 1993, when the “peace process” began, President Bill Clinton told a press conference that Israel was ready to take risks for peace and he told Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, “If you do that, my role is to minimize those risks.”
One of the most important elements in contemporary Israeli thinking is the irony of those words. Clinton, of course, meant them and his intentions were good. But looking back from 2009, the risks taken by Israel and the concessions it has made have repeatedly plagued the country and cost the lives of thousands of its citizens.
Not only has the United States—and the Europeans who made similar pledges—failed to minimize the costs of this process but in most cases they have not even acknowledged it. Israeli concessions have not, as was expected, led to increasing support and public respect, quite the opposite.
Anyone who wants to deal with the conflict today must acknowledge and deal with this experience but we find that it is not happening. In the statements of Western leaders and in the media, what we usually discover is that such matters are either not mentioned at all or only passed over in ritualistic fashion. There is much talk about Israeli concessions and responsibilities, virtually none about Palestinian ones.
Thus, the two-state solution (TSS) or stopping settlement construction or removing roadblocks are spoken about as if these things alone will bring peace. There is little about a Palestinian Authority (PA) end to incitement to murder Israelis and denial of Israel’s right to exist (which goes on daily) or better security efforts, or agreement to end the conflict or to resettle refugees within a Palestinian state. There is little acknowledgement that Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip is not just an inconvenience but an almost total roadblock for any hope of peace.
Note well, these are not “hawkish” or “anti-peace” arguments. Anyone who wants to make progress must deal with them very seriously. If these issues are ignored, failure is inevitable.
Israelis remember, though others may not, that the country withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula in 1957 in exchange for U.S. promises that the Straits of Tiran, the entrance to the Red Sea, would always be open to Israel’s port of Eilat. When Egypt blockaded them in 1967, however, the State Department couldn’t seem to find the necessary documentation. There are many later examples.
When Yasir Arafat destroyed the peace process in 2000, the conclusion as to his behavior was only briefly drawn until amnesia set in. As evidence mounted for the Palestinian leader’s continuing support for terrorism, this, too, was not factored into a conclusion about the positions of Fatah and the PA. Years of attacks on Israelis with official PA sanction; thousands of inciting speeches, articles, and sermons matched with a failure to make changes toward accepting a compromise; the continuing PA demand that all Palestinians who wish can go to live in Israel, none of these foul fruits of risk brought any revision in Western thinking or—in most cases—behavior.
Israel took the risk of withdrawing from southern Lebanon and the result was Hizballah. During the 2006 war the great sign of U.S. support was merely in letting the fighting continue a little longer when Hizballah was losing. The UN resolution and arrangements ending that war have not been enforced. These are all actions which failed to minimize Israeli risks after a concession.
Similar points can be made about the Gaza Strip. True, as in the southern Lebanon case, the decision to withdraw was an Israeli one. Yet such withdrawals were in line with the policies urged by the United States and Europe. It was the United States that pushed for the elections won by Hamas, and which then did nothing when Hamas violated that process and seized control of the Gaza Strip by violence.
When Israel was struck repeatedly by rockets, mortars, and attempted cross-border terrorist attacks for years, the United States took no strong action. And when finally Hamas publicly and unilaterally ended the “ceasefire” and Israel launched a defensive military operation, support and understanding were there but only barely.
Given all this history, Israel is now asked to trust Western and American promises once again and plunge forward to a state controlled by those who have fulfilled hardly any of their commitments. It is pressed, albeit lightly so far, to do this or do that as if not allowing a settler to build on property which is already part of an existing settlement is the main threat to the success of peace hopes.
Such promises, in light of past performance and present one-sidedness about who must make concessions and fulfill commitments, are simply not credible.
Pay attention please: the problem is not a “hard-line” or “hawkish” Netanyahu but a naive (or cynical), one-sided, and unreliable Western policy.
Israelis are not frightened or angry about President Barack Obama because the great majority are confident that he will at least basically learn these lessons over time. The Iranian and Syrian regimes, Hamas and Hizballah, and the PA itself will be his teachers. They also believe that much of the emphasis on solving the conflict as the key to all regional issues is purely for show as has been so often true before.
This is what the overwhelming majority of Israelis think about when they hear the words of Obama and Western media coverage on such matters.
But anyone who claims to be serious about advancing any peace process better consider these factors also and prove their seriousness on giving Israel strong support, pushing the PA into fulfilling commitments, and helping bring down Hamas’s rule in the Gaza Strip.
Otherwise they are only fooling themselves and will surely fail.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org. His blog, Rubin Reports is at http://rubinreports.blogspot.com/.