David Harris, the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, is taking some heat from critics on the right for his defense of the Middle East peace process. Writing in the Huffington Post, Harris gives three reasons for optimism, if not about the outcome of negotiations, then for feeling good about the process that is about to unfold. I’m a lot more skeptical than he is about what is happening, but I don’t have a major problem with his main arguments.
I don’t think he’s right about the status quo being unsustainable, yet that’s a complicated point. But he’s right that if peace really were possible, it would be best for Israel to have it negotiated by a tough leader of the right like Netanyahu rather than the left since that will make it easier to support the outcome. Moreover, I believe Netanyahu has the guts to say no to the U.S. if it came down to being forced to accept a deal that would harm Israel’s rights and security. And third, I don’t disagree when he says the Obama administration means well by pushing the process, though I think that’s not particularly germane to the question of whether any good can come of it. The president has demonstrated he’s not quite the enemy of Israel that many people feared him to be, but that doesn’t mean his desire to push a resolution of the conflict when there is no reason to think it can happen won’t have serious negative consequences.
That leads me to my one fundamental point of disagreement with Harris. He writes:
If the Palestinians once again prove they are unwilling partners, as they did in 2000-1 and again in 2008, let the world see who torpedoed a potential deal.
Sure, there’s that enabling pro-Palestinian community — diplomats, journalists, “human rights” activists, entertainers — who are willfully blind, for whom the problem always has been and will be Israel, but others will figure it out.
Unfortunately, history shows us that Israel not only never gets credit for being reasonable and making concessions, it actually suffers from the process.
If we look back honestly on the last 20 years since the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House Lawn, even the most ardent fans of the peace process must admit that Israel’s position in the world has suffered terribly. While there was no shortage of Israel haters in the international community, the United Nations, and Europe, there is simply no comparison between its position then and where things stand today. The level of vituperation against Zionism and virtually every Israeli measure of self-defense is far more extreme than it was in 1993. Far from Israel’s willingness to give up territory and empower the Palestinians leading to its critics viewing it in a better light, doing so has actually emboldened anti-Zionists to treat it as a thief that must be forced to surrender stolen property.
As Harris rightly notes, Israel has made the Palestinians three separate offers of statehood involving a massive withdrawal from the West Bank, the dismantlement of settlements, and even a share of Jerusalem. The Palestinians turned them all down. But not only did that not hurt their standing in the world, they are actually viewed more sympathetically today than they were before saying no.
Similarly, Israel’s retreat from Gaza in which it removed every single soldier, settler, and settlement did nothing to prove to the world either Israel’s good will or the bad will of Palestinians who converted that territory into a giant missile-launching site.
Back in 2000, only months after the Camp David fiasco at which Israel’s government had made its first statehood offer and just after Yasir Arafat replied by launching a terrorist war of attrition, I heard then Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami tell me and a group of reporters that the Palestinians’ actions had changed forever Israel’s foreign image. Never again, he said, could anyone be in doubt as to which side wanted peace and which side wanted war. Looking back on that prediction, I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.
The status quo in the Middle East isn’t good, but sustainable or not (and given that it has persisted for 46 years, waiting for the Palestinians culture of violence and hatred for Israel to change before embarking on another round of negotiations doesn’t seem an unreasonable proposal), the majority of Israelis may feel that it is better than repeating the mistake of Gaza in the far larger and more strategic West Bank. More to the point, they know, even if some in the United States don’t, that no matter how badly the Palestinians behave, Israel won’t get credit for trying to make peace. Indeed, the more it negotiates about giving up land, the more the world thinks it has no rights to bargain away. So when, as is likely, the Palestinians’ unwillingness to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn leads to another outbreak of violence, it will be Israel that gets the blame.
Peace would be great for everyone. But giving this process “a chance” without any reason to believe it could succeed has costs that shouldn’t be ignored.