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Sunday, April 18, 2010

Who's to blame?

The New Republic has an interesting exchange of letters between James Risen and his childhood friend Yossi Klein HaLevi. Here are some highlights. Klein HaLevi:
Of course a solution to the Palestinian problem would ease tensions in the Middle East. That is as much in my interest as yours: The Palestinian problem threatens Israeli boys far more than American boys. I am ready to make almost any concession that would end this pathological conflict, provided I sensed that Israel would receive security and legitimacy in return. And that of course is the problem. Most Israelis are convinced that, under current conditions, a Palestinian state would only result in greater terrorism and instability. American pressure will not likely force us to take risks we perceive as existential.

The Netanyahu coalition is the first Israeli government to suspend settlement building. Yet instead of demanding reciprocal Arab gestures of goodwill—or even that Palestinian leaders return to the negotiating table—the administration has intensified the pressure on Israel, with an unprecedented ultimatum over Jerusalem.

If the administration were to pressure the Palestinians and their Arab allies as it is pressuring and humiliating Israel, many Israelis might consider a temporary building suspension even in Jerusalem. But not this way, Jim; not as a one-way American diktat.

The more besieged Israel becomes, the more its enemies in the Arab world and Iran will be tempted to attack us. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that, as the American-Israeli crisis deepened, we’ve experienced a renewal of rocket attacks from Gaza and even a mini-intifada in Jerusalem. That was a warning of how the jihadists are reading America’s policy shift. If anyone is endangering lives with an ill-conceived policy, it’s the administration which is endangering Israeli—and Palestinian—lives with its disproportionate pressure on Israel.
While you weren't looking, the rest of the world has changed. What troubles Americans today is that Israelis don't seem to get the fact that the United States has fought two wars and fundamentally altered the dynamics of the Middle East. Yet when it comes to Israel, it might as well still be 1980, not 2010.

And so increasingly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looks to American eyes like Northern Ireland, an endless conflict fought over land and ethnicity and religion and half-forgotten blood feuds, with a strange immunity to influences from the outside world.

The United States has always supported Israel, even as Europe has grown more distant. But will Americans continue to do so if they don't see progress? If it looks—as it does today—like Israeli leaders are ignoring the larger context?

I saw a cartoon a year or two ago that made me laugh, but also wince. It showed headlines from the future. 2020: "Man returns to Moon, Israeli tanks storm into Gaza." 2050: "Man lands on Mars, Israeli tanks storm into Gaza." 2100: "Man lands on Jupiter, Israeli tanks storm into Gaza."

What is perhaps most ominous for Israel is that slowly but surely, Americans are coming to understand the complexities and nuances of the Middle East. For a time after 9/11, ten-foot tall Arabs replaced ten-foot tall Russians in the American imagination. But that is fading. More and more, Arabs, and Muslims generally, are appearing more human, less monstrous, less dangerous. Nearly a decade of involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan—and nearly a decade without a catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil—will do that to a country and its people.

Arabs are also becoming more integrated and assimilated into American society, and now they are neighbors, too.
Klein HaLevi:
In urging Israelis to face reality and accept Palestinian statehood, you're pushing against an open door. That argument was resolved, at least in theory, 20 years ago, during the first intifada, when a majority of Israelis concluded that the occupation would devastate Israel from within and turn us into a pariah from without.

A majority of Israelis agree that ending the occupation is an existential need—to spare us from growing isolation, from the moral attrition of occupation, from the untenable choice between Israel as a Jewish state and a democratic state.

But that's only half the equation. You ignore the other half: that a Palestinian state could turn into an existential threat to Israel. Most Israelis are convinced that, given the current state of the Palestinian national movement, an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would lead to missile attacks against the Israeli heartland, including greater Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion Airport. All it takes is a few "primitive rockets" to be launched every day against Israeli neighborhoods—and for the international community to tie our hands when we try to defend ourselves—for normal life in this country to become impossible.

In order to make your case against Israel, you have to ignore the fact that Israel tried—three times in the last decade—to create a Palestinian state. Palestinian leaders rejected the equivalent of one hundred percent of the West Bank and Gaza, because that deal would have required them to restrict refugee return to a Palestinian state. The Palestinian pre-condition for an Israeli withdrawal is that Israel commit suicide. As a veteran Peace Now activist said to me recently: The Palestinians won't let us end the occupation.

We've tried negotiations and got suicide bombings; we tried unilateral withdrawal without negotiations and got rocket attacks. What would you have us do next?

What's so depressing about your position, Jim, is that it offers proof that Arab intransigence is winning, that with enough time, the combination of terrorism and denial of Israel's legitimacy will wear down even friends of Israel like you. And then the Middle East conflict seems to turn into an endless blood feud. Or that stupid journalistic phrase, a cycle of violence. And then what you once knew about the conflict—that at crucial moments Israel has accepted compromise and the Palestinians have rejected it—gets lost in the general weariness.
Read the whole thing.

Exit question: Do most Americans think like Risen (I hope not)?


At 6:20 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

Israel has tried the "land for peace" formula repeatedly only to discover it has increased Arab hostility and made Israel appear far weaker than before. No amount of concessions Israel could make would change that hostility in the slightest. And pressure on Israel is going to be counterproductive - most Israelis feel the status quo is preferable to any kind of agreement that would put the Palestinians within rocket range of Israel's major population centers. The evils of the occupation then pale in contrast to that scenario.

And for record, it is not Israel that is standing in the way of Palestinian statehood. The Palestinians are doing that all by themselves since they overwhelmingly reject any two state solution that would leave a viable Jewish State intact.

But no one will blame them for being too obdurate to accept what every one knows are the outlines of a "realistic" settlement. And so the conflict persists.


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