Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ami Ayalon

Friedman’s Unilateral Delusion

In today’s New York Times, op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman tries to come to grips with reality when he acknowledges that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vanquished all of his domestic foes and has built a government with an overwhelming majority and the support of the country’s electorate. Friedman can’t help but be snide about what is to him a disheartening turn of events. He notes that “there are Arab dictators who didn’t have majorities that big after rigged elections.” But at least he has the sense to admit “Bibi is prime minister for a reason. He was elected because many Israelis lost faith in the peace process and see chaos all around them.”

The prime minister’s priority will be to keep the country unified in the face of the nuclear threat from Iran. And rather than spend too much time chasing after the fantasy that the Palestinians will agree to make peace, most Israelis hope he will use his huge majority to enact electoral reform, an idea that has the potential to diminish the influence of the ultra-Orthodox and thereby resolve the problem caused by that sector of the population not doing their fair share of military service. However, Friedman and other Netanyahu critics have other ideas. Not surprisingly, they want Netanyahu to use his power not to pursue his own ideas but to implement an unrealistic peace scheme of their devising.

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In today’s New York Times, op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman tries to come to grips with reality when he acknowledges that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vanquished all of his domestic foes and has built a government with an overwhelming majority and the support of the country’s electorate. Friedman can’t help but be snide about what is to him a disheartening turn of events. He notes that “there are Arab dictators who didn’t have majorities that big after rigged elections.” But at least he has the sense to admit “Bibi is prime minister for a reason. He was elected because many Israelis lost faith in the peace process and see chaos all around them.”

The prime minister’s priority will be to keep the country unified in the face of the nuclear threat from Iran. And rather than spend too much time chasing after the fantasy that the Palestinians will agree to make peace, most Israelis hope he will use his huge majority to enact electoral reform, an idea that has the potential to diminish the influence of the ultra-Orthodox and thereby resolve the problem caused by that sector of the population not doing their fair share of military service. However, Friedman and other Netanyahu critics have other ideas. Not surprisingly, they want Netanyahu to use his power not to pursue his own ideas but to implement an unrealistic peace scheme of their devising.

The bait that Friedman wishes to use to catch Netanyahu is the prospect that he will become a historic figure. Friedman backs the idea promoted by Ami Ayalon in a recent Times op-ed that Netanyahu will join Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion as the most significant figures in modern Jewish history. I’m sure Netanyahu wouldn’t mind the comparison, but he’s too smart to be flattered into doing something foolish.

Ayalon’s scheme is a reconfigured version of Ariel Sharon’s unilateralism experiment in which he thought he could bypass a hopelessly stalled peace process by simply withdrawing from territories that Israel didn’t want to keep and thereby ridding the country of the burden of governing the Palestinians against their will. It sounded like a good idea at the time in part because Sharon’s toughness gave him some credibility when he warned that if the land given up were used to attack Israel, he would undo the measure.

But after Israel withdrew every single settlement, soldier and Jew from Gaza, the Palestinians turned the place into one big missile launching pad that pounded southern Israel for years. With Sharon incapacitated by a stroke and replaced by the ineffectual Ehud Olmert, Israel waited years before responding to the attacks. But the problem was not just that the Israelis waited too long before hitting back. It was that, contrary to Sharon’s formulation, not only did the Palestinians not keep the quiet; the international community gave Israel little or no credit for the withdrawal.

Far from the move undermining criticisms of Israel, like the Oslo Accords more than a decade earlier, the withdrawal only seemed to legitimize attacks on the Israelis as the possessors of “stolen property.” Nor did the pullout create more support for Israel’s right to self-defense even after territory they gave up was used for attacks.

That’s why Ayalon’s plan, endorsed by Friedman, to duplicate the Gaza withdrawal in the West Bank has no support among Israelis. Granted, Ayalon says after stating it will not keep any land on the wrong side of the security fence and starting to remove settlers, Israel should keep its army in the West Bank until a peace deal with the Palestinians is signed. Friedman claims this “would radically change Israel’s image in the world” and “dramatically increase Palestinian incentives to negotiate.” But it would do nothing of the kind.

So long as Israeli troops are in the West Bank, the international chorus of critics will continue to assail the “occupation” and declare that Jews have no right to live in the heart of their ancestral homeland. And rather than serve as an incentive for the Palestinians, unilateral withdrawals will merely confirm their opinion that if they wait long enough the Israelis will either lose heart and surrender, or the West will hand them their victory on a silver platter without any effort.

The vast majority of Israelis would gladly trade most of the West Bank for a real peace, but the Netanyahu majority is the product of a widespread realization that until there is a sea change in the political culture of the Palestinians, there isn’t going to be peace. Until that sea change happens, Israelis are prepared to hunker down and wait while continuing to build their own economy and hopefully resolve some other tricky domestic problems. Friedman may deprecate that as merely “doing nothing,” but Netanyahu was elected to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors, not to duplicate them.

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How History Weighs on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

In September 1993, Yasir Arafat told one of recent history’s most significant lies. At the time, Arafat still resided where he certainly belonged: on the State Department’s terrorism list. But the date of the White House ceremony announcing the signing of the declaration of principles was nearing, and the Clinton administration had given up its earlier resistance to asking Yitzhak Rabin to shake the bloodstained hand of the committed murderer on the White House lawn so everyone could have their “historic” moment in the sun.

So Arafat wrote a letter. He would–scout’s honor–end his campaign to annihilate the Jewish people. “Our lawyers judged this written renunciation as sufficient grounds for the president to take Arafat and the PLO off the State Department’s terrorism list,” wrote Martin Indyk in his memoir of the Clinton administration’s Middle East diplomacy. The rest, as they say, is history.

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In September 1993, Yasir Arafat told one of recent history’s most significant lies. At the time, Arafat still resided where he certainly belonged: on the State Department’s terrorism list. But the date of the White House ceremony announcing the signing of the declaration of principles was nearing, and the Clinton administration had given up its earlier resistance to asking Yitzhak Rabin to shake the bloodstained hand of the committed murderer on the White House lawn so everyone could have their “historic” moment in the sun.

So Arafat wrote a letter. He would–scout’s honor–end his campaign to annihilate the Jewish people. “Our lawyers judged this written renunciation as sufficient grounds for the president to take Arafat and the PLO off the State Department’s terrorism list,” wrote Martin Indyk in his memoir of the Clinton administration’s Middle East diplomacy. The rest, as they say, is history.

I recount this story not to take a gratuitous swipe at the naïveté of the Clinton administration nor at the cavalier way Israeli security concerns were put in a box in the White House attic so Clinton could mug for the cameras. The point is that allowing Arafat to hijack and destroy the chances for peace cannot be so easily undone, even if we’ve learned something from these mistakes.

Aaron David Miller, a member of the Clinton team, is now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a regular columnist for Foreign Policy, and has used his perch to attempt to atone for the mistakes of the Clinton administration. It is an honorable and laudable act. And yesterday at the center, Miller moderated an interesting discussion between former Shin Bet director Ami Ayalon and former Obama campaign adviser Robert Malley. The event was ostensibly about how the old negotiations paradigm has become somewhat useless and the value of unilateralism in moving forward.

Malley described a strategy of “parallel unilateral steps.” Ayalon mostly agreed, but insisted “this is a friendly unilateralism, not an antagonistic unilateralism.” Neither, however, went on to describe in any great detail what your friendly neighborhood unilateralism would look like in practice. And Malley restated Miller’s own thesis, suggesting that it was difficult to understand how giving up the fiction of a bilateral peace process could possibly be more damaging than maintaining it, at this point.

But there are two problems here. First, Ayalon readily admitted that “we know the parameters” of a final deal, and those would be “the Clinton parameters… and all that was discussed in the last 20 years.” Because the “last 20 years” have been used by the Palestinian leadership to broadcast as loudly and as often as possible that they utterly reject this idea, it’s hard to imagine why Ayalon still thinks this is a workable plan. But his opening seems to be that Israel should conform to those parameters with or without Palestinian cooperation.

This may or may not be worth exploring–I’ve written about “coordinated unilateralism” before, though I’m not sure changing the tactics while keeping the same parameters of a final-status agreement is practical.

But Ayalon does have one revolutionary idea, and it’s one he has been drawing attention to recently. That idea is: treat Israeli settlers like human beings. As Ayalon wrote in the New York Times in April: “We have learned that we must be candid about our proposed plan, discuss the settlers’ concerns and above all not demonize them. They are the ones who would pay the price of being uprooted from their homes and also from their deeply felt mission of settling the land.”

Ayalon repeated this thesis yesterday. This is important, because among mainstream media outlets and left-of-center journalists you will not find such empathy toward the settlers. Nor will you find nuance or complexity.

For his part, Malley wants the settlers at the table too. This is in part because Malley wants everyone at the table–he’s long been a proponent of negotiating with Hamas. But that just makes those who would exclude the settlers look that much more ridiculous. (Among leftists, the idea that you would talk to Hamas but not Orthodox Jews makes perfect sense–which helps explain the marginalization of the Israeli left.)

But this raises an important question: Are you bringing settlers to the table as props, to display your empathy and humanity and ask them to sit there quietly as you pat them on the head? Or are you bringing them to the table to include them in negotiations? Malley, Ayalon, and Miller are all men of the left, so it’s encouraging to hear them talk like this, but the panel was not exactly balanced. And history is, once again, an obstacle–disrespect of the settlers and the whitewashing of violent Palestinian rejectionism have become ingrained elements of the peace process.

During the presentation, Ayalon said he believes “there is no peace without partners.” If that’s true, then based on the behavior of Israel’s “partner,” there is no peace.

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