The last place one expects to find common sense about the Middle East conflict is Roger Cohen’s column in the New York Times. A reflexive critic of the Jewish state, Cohen has been rightly criticized for sloppy writing and threadbare clichés, and he earned lasting infamy in 2009 for a series of columns he wrote seeking to whitewash the Iranian regime of the charge of anti-Semitism. That was an endeavor so transparently false and despicable that it was rightly compared to the Times’s Walter Duranty who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for seeking to depict Josef Stalin as innocent of the crime of genocide in Ukraine. But Cohen has his occasional moments of clarity and today’s piece is one of them. In it, he rightly takes on the oft-repeated charge that the current standoff between Israel and the Palestinians is “unsustainable.”
The notion that Israel must seize any opportunity to make peace on any terms is rooted in a belief that the economic and military strength of the Jewish state is a house of cards that will, sooner or later, come tumbling down as the Palestinians and their supporters undermine both its prosperity and its political legitimacy. But as Cohen writes today, this piece of conventional wisdom that has been embraced by the president of the United States as well as the Jewish left is utter rubbish. As Cohen notes:
Behind its barriers and wall, backed by military might, certain of more or less unswerving American support, technologically innovative and democratically stable, Israel has the power to prolong indefinitely its occupation of the West Bank and its dominion over several million Palestinians. The Jewish state has grown steadily stronger in relation to the Palestinians since 1948. There is no reason to believe this trend will ever be reversed. Holding onto all the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, while continuing to prosper, is feasible. This, after all, is what Israel has already done for almost a half-century. …
Throughout this year the Obama administration has pushed the unsustainability argument to make its case for peace. “Today’s status quo, absolutely to a certainty, I promise you 100 percent, cannot be maintained,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in February. “It is not sustainable. It is illusionary. There’s a momentary prosperity, there’s a momentary peace.”…
But that “point” of unmanageability is a vanishing one. Permanent occupation is what several ministers in Netanyahu’s coalition government advocate. Backed by the evidence, they are certain it can be managed. They are right.
Cohen believes this “permanent occupation” is not desirable and the majority of Israelis probably agree with him about that. But the problem is that in the absence of a credible Palestinian peace partner, the idea of retreating from the West Bank as Israel did with Gaza in 2005 is rightly seen as an act of utter folly.
Cohen and others believe Israel’s presence in the West Bank and the corrosive nature of its anomalous relationship with the Palestinians undermines its democratic ethos. But as problematic as that situation may be, as Cohen acknowledges, the vast majority of Israelis prefer to go on living with that conundrum rather than endanger their future by repeating the mistakes of Oslo and Ariel Sharon’s Gaza retreat.
Cohen concludes his largely sensible piece by foolishly claiming that Israel must embrace the new Palestinian unity coalition in which Fatah and Hamas have come together as the best path to peace. He even compares the myth that Israel can be destroyed with the idea that the Palestinian Authority “represents the Palestinian national movement” by itself. That latter point may be true, but that is exactly why it is necessary for Israel to refrain from empowering the Islamists of Hamas as it did for the nationalists of Fatah under the Oslo Accords. Given the choice of making peace with Israel or with Hamas, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas chose Hamas. The idea that Hamas or even most of Fatah is willing to accept peace with Israel is a myth that is every bit as baseless as the one about Israel’s impending doom.
But Cohen’s broader point about sustainability is one the doomsayers about Israel on the left need to come to terms with. By feeding the Palestinian fantasy about Israel running out of time to make peace, President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and their cheerleaders on the Jewish left are actually undermining the chances for peace. The notion that Israel is living on borrowed time has been a staple of Middle East commentary since its victory in 1967 and it is just as much of a fallacy today as it was then. Indeed, despite numerous problems, both domestic and foreign, Israel has become an economic and military powerhouse that cannot be wished away. While some toy with unrealistic notions about a one-state solution, most Israelis would prefer a two-state answer to their current predicament but sensibly understand that must be deferred until the Palestinians come to their senses and reject a concept of national identity that is not inextricably tied to a quest for Israel’s destruction. If and when they do, they will find that Israel is ready to deal with them. But until then, they will remain mired in their current dilemma while the Jewish state continues to wax stronger.