In the Beltway’s pro-Israel circles, anyone who has commanded forces against the enemies that surround the Jewish state is automatically seen as an heir to Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan. But not all warriors are as wily as Odysseus, and soldiers have the right to be as wrongheaded as the rest of us. Still, even their errors are apt to tell us something important about Israel’s troubled relationship with the rest of the world.
Recently I spoke with two retired Israeli officers, Gen. Natan Sharoni and Col. Shaul Arieli, who represent the Council for Peace and Security, a group of pro-peace former Israeli defense and security officials. Sharoni is a 77-year-old veteran of Israel’s many wars who speaks English with only the slightest trace of accent. Arieli, who looks as though he could be a Tel Aviv tech executive, defers to Sharoni’s experience. They had just arrived from Israel when we met in the lobby of a Washington hotel. We then moved to the bar, where Arieli put a small map of Israel on the table.
“The leadership of the state of Israel has to make a choice,” Sharoni said. “What does it want and where is it leading people? The longer there is no agreement, the more people will believe it’s not achievable.”
Sharoni and Arieli are part of a different Israel lobby—that segment of the military and security establishment aligned with the country’s dwindling left wing which sees itself as having a mission to promote an Arab-Israeli peace. If this lobby is less powerful than AIPAC, that’s because AIPAC represents the will of its American donors, who are broadly supportive of the government that Israelis elect, rather than one particular segment of the Israeli polity. The two ex-officers were in Washington to see members of Congress as well as State Department officials and White House aides.
Their presentation, earthy jokes, can-do optimism, hopefulness, and longing for peace seemed to me designed to reinforce the conviction of any American already convinced that Israel’s right-wing government is the main impediment to finding a solution to a century-old conflict.
Yes, it is likely that as President Barack Obama finds his domestic policy checked by a Republican-majority House of Representatives, he may turn his energies to the international scene. But this commander-in-chief, like his many predecessors, is not going to make peace in the Middle East. No Israeli leader is going to commit political suicide to make the Obama Administration happy.
Recent experience shows that when Israelis make hard choices for peace they get war instead. Both the 2000 withdrawal from southern Lebanon and the 2005 evacuation of Gaza led to battles with Iranian proxies. An IDF withdrawal from the West Bank would tip the balance of power against Mahmoud Abbas, Salam Fayyad, and the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, paving the way for a Hamas takeover—and leaving Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Ben Gurion Airport vulnerable to rocket attacks that would cripple the country’s economy. Nonetheless, Arieli and Sharoni still happily sing the peace movement’s mantra of the 1990s—Israeli leadership must make the difficult decision to withdraw from the West Bank in order to make peace.
Sharoni knows peace is possible, he’s seen it with his own eyes and remembers when Sadat came to Jerusalem. When I asked him which Arab leader could play Sadat’s role today and come to speak in the Knesset he tacitly conceded that there is none. “The Israeli Prime Minister could encourage the Israeli electorate, as Sadat did,” he said.
In effect, Sharoni agrees with his domestic opponents that there is no Arab partner to make peace with. Which means it doesn’t matter how much Israeli officials, or their American patrons, want peace, because the sound of one hand clapping is not a negotiated settlement.
“We won’t allow ourselves to be attacked just because we signed an agreement,” Arieli said. “We have the right to self-defense. And nobody in the international community will blame us.” Unfortunately, recent history shows this to be untrue. The Israeli government allowed its citizens to be attacked for several years after it withdrew from Gaza, and when it returned in the winter of 2008 and 2009 to stop the Hamas rocket fire, it was blamed by virtually everyone in the international community. The lesson is that once Israel withdraws from territory, political exigencies make it very difficult to return. In exchange, Israel wins neither the world’s sympathy nor its approval. What it gets instead is the Goldstone Report, accusing the Jewish state of war crimes.
The real problem, Arieli and Sharoni said, is that Israel left Gaza without a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. Since 2005, this has become the standard explanation rationalizing the rain of rocket fire on Sderot and other Israeli villages. But it is best to see this patch of reasoning as part of the ongoing narrative in which Israel is an extra-historical anomaly. In the annals of world diplomacy, we find two types of agreements between belligerents—the first is a surrender and the second is a settlement imposed by the victor after it has destroyed its enemy’s will to fight. So why do former Israeli soldiers, men who have committed themselves to the security of the Jewish state and its people, advocate what in real-world terms is clearly nonsense?
The first reason is that Arieli and Sharoni and the Council are fighting their domestic political opponents, namely the Israeli right, and Washington is a natural venue for such a conflict. But if the White House had hoped that Israeli officers might turn Jewish fundraisers and some in Congress their way, it’s too late now. Israeli peace processors are likely to find themselves blocked here by a Republican-led House that is largely sympathetic to the current Israeli Prime Minister.
The second reason is that Arieli and Sharoni are in the middle of an argument with their colleagues in Israel’s military and security establishment. In particular, as they told me, they are in disagreement with Major General Uzi Dayan, former national security adviser, and Dore Gold, Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations and currently head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Gold and Dayan were themselves in Washington several months ago speaking about Israel’s need for defensible borders, which in essence boils down to maintaining tight security control over the Jordan River valley and large chunks of the West Bank. Gold and Dayan’s message, in other words, is that everyone who has been saying that we know what a final settlement looks like is wrong.
“The Jordan River is the only defensible border and particularly the only place Israel can defend itself against possible conventional attack coming from the East,” Dayan told me on the phone recently. “Iraq has sent forces in every war since 1948. How do we know what the Iraqi government will be like in two years, five years, 10 years?”
For that matter, how do we know what Jordan will look like in five years if the hills of the West Bank becomes a Hamas-controlled free zone where Islamic militants from around the region can take shots at Israel’s coastal plain? The Hashemites have their hands filled maintaining security inside Jordan without having to keep their borders from being overrun. Israel, Dayan said, cannot afford to base its security planning on hope.
“Some people will never learn the lesson that land for peace doesn’t work,” Dayan said of Arieli and Sharoni. “We tried it for many years. We tried to be flexible. The idea was that if we compromise, then we can achieve peace and this will give us security. That seems rational, but it is really the other way around—only by providing security can we provide a lasting peace.” In Israel, Dayan said, Arieli and Sharoni have almost no support for their positions. “The Israelis understand that they are selling illusions.”
However, in one respect the two ex-IDF officers have fixed on an important fact. Throughout my conversation with them, they emphasized how Israel cannot afford to be isolated from the international community, and that the lack of a lasting peace with the Palestinians was serving Israel’s enemies. That is to say, the reason that veterans of Israel’s military and security establishment are deluding themselves is that the campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state is working. The international community is pushing the country into a corner, where the least of its worries are Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran. Israel’s real security problem is a Western world that has grown tired of a conflict to which, realistically, there is no end in sight.