Modernization and democracy, not land giveaways, will bring peace to the Middle East.
No one who knew Yitzhak Rabin, the late Prime Minister of Israel, could possibly imagine that he would fall for the vision his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, had developed of a "New Middle East"—that materialist utopia to which the end of the cold war and the dissolution of the Soviet Union were supposedly giving birth and in which everyone would seek to make money instead of war.
Rabin did not live to see the dancing and cheering in 1998 when a renewed war between the U.S. and Iraq seemed imminent and the prospect of Israeli cities being gassed and poisoned delighted the hearts of the Palestinians—this, even after they had been involved in the "peace process" for nearly five years and even when nearly all of them were living under the PLO. But if he never lived to see this especially disgusting and disabusing spectacle, Rabin did live to see the humiliating sight of his people forced to wear gas masks and cower in sealed rooms during the Gulf War, when the U.S. prevented them from retaliating against attack for the first time in their history. And he saw the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza climb to the tops of their houses and dance and cheer as Iraqi Scuds headed toward Tel Aviv. And he saw the terrorist bombings that occurred after his forced handshake with Yasir Arafat on the White House lawn, attacks that took more Israeli lives than had been lost in the previous ten years put together.
By then, however, it was too late for him to admit error or change course. He had already pledged his political fortunes and sacred honor—and even, as it would horribly turn out, his life as well—to the Oslo "peace process," and he therefore took refuge in rationalizations and willfully blinded himself to the abundant contrary evidence. So, and to an even greater extent, did Peres, who succeeded him as Prime Minister after Rabin was assassinated.
Still, it did not sit well with the more commonsensical Israeli public when Peres kept describing the terrorist bombings that followed in the wake of Oslo as blows against peace and the terrorists themselves as "enemies of peace." To most Israelis, these terrorists were enemies not of peace but of the Jews; and the Jews who were being slaughtered by them were not "martyrs for peace" but victims of just the kind of terrorism that Oslo was supposed to have brought to an end. Which was why they voted against Peres and for Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister in 1995.
The Clinton administration did what it could to prevent this outcome, all but openly electioneering for Peres, who had smoothly moved into Rabin’s old place in Bill Clinton’s effusive affections. Clinton and his people also feared that Netanyahu—a critic of Oslo on both ideological and practical grounds—would try to sabotage the "peace process." That is, he would find excuses for refusing to move with all deliberate speed toward the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank and Gaza and the establishment of a Palestinian state there with east Jerusalem as its capital.
Considering Netanyahu’s background, and especially the writings he had published on terrorism and on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, this was not an unreasonable expectation. Rabin and Peres and their followers might have bought into the world’s view of Israel as the main cause of this conflict, but Netanyahu most certainly had not. He still knew what they had all once known and then chosen to forget: that there could be no peace agreement between Israel and the Arab world until the Arabs made their own peace with the existence of a Jewish state and reconciled themselves to living alongside it.
Netanyahu also knew that Rabin had been wrong in thinking that the Palestinians were too weak to pose an "existential threat" to Israel. As Netanyahu saw it, a Palestinian state would not exist in isolation. Rather than marking the end of the conflict, it would signal the beginning of a new stage in the war against Israel, a new jihad, into which all the other Arab states, and Iran along with them, would be drawn in a last desperate effort to rectify the political injustice against the Arabs and to undo the offense against Islam that the existence of Israel still represented in their eyes. There were various ways in which such a war might break out. But whichever of the possible scenarios were to be enacted, one large fact would remain constant among all the many variables: with a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria, the enemy lines would begin just east of the suburbs of Tel Aviv and stretch in one continuous swath all the way to Baghdad.
Yet reasonable though it seemed to expect an effort by Netanyahu to reverse Oslo, he did nothing of the kind. All he did was try to slow down the momentum a bit, and even for this minuscule shift he was treated by the whole world, very much including the Clinton administration, as though he were throwing the "peace process" entirely out the window. But his supporters on the Right, who had hoped for him to do just that, furiously assailed his performance as a betrayal of them and everything he had seemed to stand for in the past.
Placating the U.S.
Both accusations were off the mark. My own interpretation, again based in part on direct knowledge and in part on inferences from that knowledge, was that Netanyahu was no less convinced than Rabin had been that Israel could not afford to alienate the U.S. and thereby jeopardize its access to the advanced military technology it would need to stave off or fight a war against Iraq and Iran. He therefore felt it necessary to keep the U.S. on board by committing himself to the fulfillment of Oslo.
But at the same time he also felt it necessary to show his core constituencies—and perhaps himself as well—that he could accomplish this feat without compromising Israel’s security and without accepting a fully sovereign Palestinian state that would have its capital in Jerusalem. In trying to square this circle, he threw his old supporters an occasional bone, usually not very meaty and not much more than symbolic (such as opening a new exit to an archeological tunnel in west Jerusalem, or announcing the construction of a new Jewish housing development in east Jerusalem), either immediately before or immediately after taking another real step on the road mapped out by Oslo (such as withdrawing from Hebron).
Netanyahu’s reward was the anger of all sides. His erstwhile backers on the Right denounced him for taking those steps and refused to be reassured by the gestures that were intended as a show (again both to them and himself) of his determination to block a Palestinian state and the redivision of Jerusalem. Conversely, the Clinton administration, following the lead of the Palestinians and their Arab brothers, fell on his head like a ton of bricks whenever he made one of his symbolic gestures, while giving him hardly any credit at all for moving as far as he was doing in the very direction it wanted him to go.
So much, then, for the endlessly repeated claim that Bill Clinton was friendlier to Israel than any American president before him. There was no denying that this seemed true when Rabin and Peres had been in office. But in accepting the American view that the Arab-Israeli conflict could now be resolved by trading "land for peace" and by the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state, and then going further in implementing its implications than even the least friendly of American presidents had ever thought it prudent to insist on, Rabin and Peres had given Clinton a free ride. There was no need for him to exert unpleasant American pressures on Israel, and there was no cause for friction. But with Netanyahu in office, a reversion to the pattern of the past took place in Washington—even though Netanyahu’s policies, as opposed to some of his words, did not constitute a corresponding reversion to the realistic appraisal of Arab intentions that had always guided the Israelis in the past.
And so, with the arrival of Israel’s 50th birthday, its relations with the United States are marked, as they have been from the beginning, by complexity and ambiguity. America is still, and perhaps more than ever, the Jewish state’s best friend among the nations. This has not consistently been the case—especially not in the 1950s—but it is close to a certainty that if not for U.S. help, Israel would not have survived to celebrate a half-century of national existence.
On the other hand, no more than the rest of the world has the American government yet been willing to face the truth about the Arab-Israeli conflict or to act upon it. Admittedly that truth became harder to grasp when, after 1967, the Arabs gave up saying in languages other than Arabic that their objective had never deviated from what it had always been: to wipe the Jewish state off the map. Realizing that such honesty was politically counterproductive, they now claimed, when addressing the West in English or French or German, that all they wanted was the return of the territories seized by Israeli "aggression" in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian state that would live in peace alongside its Jewish counterpart (precisely the solution they had violently rejected in 1948 after the Jews of mandatory Palestine had accepted it).
Yet Fouad Ajami of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, one of the few Arab scholars who has tried to tell the truth that the American government still cannot bring itself to face, informs us that "There has been no discernible change in the Arab attitudes toward Israel." On the contrary, he writes,
The great refusal persists . . . in that "Arab street" of ordinary men and women, among the intellectuals and writers, and in the professional syndicates. The force of this refusal can be seen in the press of the governments and of the oppositionists, among the secularists and the Islamists alike, in countries that have concluded diplomatic agreements with Israel and those that haven’t.
According to Ajami, indeed, the great refusal "remains fiercest in Egypt," where, in spite of its peace treaty with Israel, opposition to the Jewish state "has become part of the ethos and the ideology of the state" as well as of "the gatekeepers of Egyptian culture [who] remain unalterably opposed to normal traffic with Israel."
This assessment has been seconded by no less fervent a believer in the conventional wisdom about the sources of the Arab-Israeli conflict and no less passionate a supporter of Palestinian statehood than the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In a report written about a year ago from Casablanca, Friedman acknowledged that "Up to now the Arab intellectual Left, as well as the unions of Arab doctors, lawyers, and writers, have refused to reconcile themselves to Israel, even though their regimes have." Even in Morocco, the supposedly least anti-Israel of those regimes, Friedman "heard attacks on Israel that were so bitter I finally said to them, ‘I feel as if I’ve entered a time warp and woken up at an Arab League meeting in 1960.’"
But there is no longer any need to rely on second-hand accounts, even from courageous and trustworthy scholars like Ajami, to find out what the Arabs say when they are speaking to one another in Arabic. For some months now, an organization called MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute) has been translating articles from the Arabic press and sending them by e-mail (MEMRI@erols.com) or fax—free of charge and without editorial comment—to anyone who asks to be put on the list. These articles, with rare exceptions, are so filled with hate of Israel and of Jews, and so deeply cemented into the "great refusal," that no reader who is exposed to even a few days’ worth of selections could come away believing that the change of heart in the Arab world toward Israel that is the necessary precondition of peace has as yet even remotely begun to manifest itself.
What the U.S. Should Do
No Middle East policy can succeed if it refuses to accept this reality. On the contrary, by dismissing it from sight and acting as though the preconditions for a peaceful settlement were already present, the U.S.—in tandem with the other nations of the world who are not friends of Israel—has done unwitting harm. Because the U.S. is so great a friend, and because Israel does depend on Washington for the weapons it needs to deter and/or defend itself from attack, Israeli leaders have felt obliged to accept, or talk themselves into accepting, the American view that they virtually have it in their unilateral power to end the war the Arabs have been waging against their state for the past fifty years.
In yielding to that view, Israel has been forced onto a path that has hardly any chance of leading to peace but is likely to wind its cruelly devious way into another major military outbreak. And if that should happen, the conventional weapons of the past—tanks and planes and infantry—might well be supplemented by the unconventional weapons of the present and the future—missiles armed with biological and chemical warheads coming from Iraq and Iran and answered by missiles armed with nuclear warheads coming from the Israelis.
Is there anything the American government can do to avert this apocalyptic eventuality that it has unwittingly been helping to bring about? There is. The first step is to stop fooling itself about the readiness of the Palestinians in particular and the Arab world in general to make peace with Israel. If the U.S. were to take this step, it would immediately perceive the futility of its present policy of pressing the Israelis to make more and more unilateral concessions to the Palestinians.
Most of all, the U.S. would be ready to understand that the only true hope of peace lies in the modernization and democratization of the Arab world. I for one do not doubt that this will happen some day: Why should the Arabs be forever exempt from the forces affecting everyone else on this earth? I also have no doubt that when it finally does happen, a peaceful settlement with Israel will be as easy for the Arabs to achieve as it is impossible for them to contemplate in their present political and social position.
It follows that what the United States should do is everything it can to encourage the introduction, where still necessary, and the spread, where it has become possible, of those modernizing and democratizing forces in the Middle East. This is a policy entirely consistent with and congenial to the American spirit, and one that we have been trying to pursue in other parts of the world. Yet we have on the whole excepted the Middle East from such benign ministrations. Rarely if ever do we talk about human rights in Saudi Arabia or complain about the suppression of political liberty everywhere else in the region, including even countries like Syria where there is no oil to worry about.
In any event, having learned from our experience of the 1970s that the "oil weapon" is not so easy for the Arabs to use or so effective as we had once feared it would be, why should we not begin doing in the Middle East what we have been attempting to do in Eastern Europe? If we did, we would be giving Israel the most appropriate fiftieth-birthday present imaginable. And we would also be helping the Arab peoples of the region to live better lives, instead of traveling by their side on a course that is bound to end with untold numbers of them, along with many thousands of Israelis, dying horrible deaths in another and even bloodier war than the five that have already been fought.