Commentary Magazine


The Folly of “Symmetrical Negotiation”

Ridiculing Tom Friedman’s famous habit of letting his cab drivers determine his column ideas is a popular pastime for foreign-policy commentators. But the truth is those columns are generally more sensible than the ones he comes up with all on his own. Today’s piece is a case in point, and it’s a convincing answer to those who say Friedman’s columns should just be ignored.

Getting the Middle East conflict wrong can be dangerous for those, unlike Friedman, who actually have to live with the consequences. So the following sentence should be printed and framed in the office of every aspiring Western diplomat, because it is about as wrong as you can get:

That is, has Israel become so much more powerful than its neighbors that a symmetrical negotiation is impossible, especially when the Palestinians do not seem willing or able to mount another intifada that might force Israel to withdraw?

Let’s take the second part of that sentence first. The idea that only another intifada can save Israel from itself, and thus save the peace process, is grotesque. Secretary of State John Kerry flirted with this assault on logic and morality in his tirade on Israeli TV. This is a form of blackmail: Israel must agree to the terms of Kerry’s peace deal or there will be bombs in cafes again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It’s not a surprise Friedman would wade into this territory either; once you’ve accepted the Walt-Mearsheimer conspiracy theories of furtive Jewish domination, as Friedman has, you’ll believe anything. But the first part of the sentence in question should not be overshadowed by the wistful phrasing on the intifada. Because it’s a mistake that warrants correcting.

The plain fact, demonstrated by the history of this conflict in every instance, is that the “symmetrical negotiation” Friedman hopes for would bury the chances for peace. Israel’s neighbors made peace with the Jewish state only when they learned once and for all that they could not destroy her militarily, and they could not isolate her, and thus strangle her economically, from the world.

That’s because Israel was always willing to make peace, as is still the case. The Arab states in the neighborhood were not, because they viewed a peace deal as a strategic defeat, a capitulation to the reality that their dream of annihilating the Jews in their midst was untenable. A peace deal was a consolation prize for them.

What enabled the peace between Israel and her neighbors was precisely the absence of “symmetrical negotiation.” In his remembrance of Ariel Sharon’s dealings with the Arab world, Lee Smith opens with the following story:

During Anwar Sadat’s historic trip to Jerusalem in 1977, he met Ariel Sharon, the Israeli general credited by his countrymen as one of the heroes of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Sharon’s crossing of the Sinai and his encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army had turned the tables on Sadat’s forces, ensuring a victory that had once been uncertain. “I tried to catch you when you were on our side of the canal,” Sadat told Sharon. And now, replied Sharon, “you have the chance to catch me as a friend.”

Once Sadat had failed enough times to destroy Israel, his relationship with the state changed immediately. He didn’t try to “catch [Sharon] as a friend” first; he tried to kill Sharon first. When that couldn’t be done, friendship could be spoken of.

The development of the relationship between the U.S. and Israel was another aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict that offered more hope for peace. Whether or not individual subscribers to the odious boycott-Israel movement would support Israel’s continued existence, the Palestinian leadership doesn’t see strangling Israel economically as a way to bring the Israelis to the negotiating table. Israel is already at the negotiating table, having yet again made concessions just to get the Palestinians to join them there.

The Palestinians would not see an Israel brought to its knees as an ideal state with which to strike a deal. They would see it as a weakened state on its way to the dustbin of history, to be replaced by a Palestinian state. Similarly, military parity between the Israelis and Palestinians is a foolish goal, because it cannot be brought about except through ways that would convince the Palestinian leadership that a peace deal isn’t necessary or in their interest. It should be an obvious point–one Friedman’s cab driver could have explained to him–but nonetheless bears repeating to counteract the dangerous, though predictable, misinformation of the New York Times op-ed page.

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