Let’s call it a form of progress. After decades of vainly waiting for the Palestinians to accept Israeli peace offers or at least to stop reverting to acts of bloody terrorism, some on the left have given up, at least for the moment, on the idea that a deal ending the conflict between the two peoples can be reached. But that hasn’t stopped many of those sniping at the Israeli government from continuing to attack Prime Minister Netanyahu. They claim that he is forfeiting chances to change the course of history even if the Palestinians don’t give up their century-long war on Zionism. Netanyahu encouraged a revival of this argument during his visit to Washington this week with a response to a question about the threat of Israel becoming a bi-national state without some sort of peace agreement that would divest it of control of the West Bank.
Netanyahu’s somewhat equivocal reply to a question in which he mentioned unilateral action by Israel as a theoretical possibility set off a firestorm in both the United States and Israel, with left-wingers urging him to act and the right demanding he withdraw the suggestion. The prime minister was probably right to claim that he was misinterpreted, but he soon walked back the comment anyway. But it nevertheless rekindled among Israel’s supporters a debate about whether it was possible or even necessary for Netanyahu to consider unilateral moves.
One such advocate was the Forward’s Jane Eisner, who wrote that Netanyahu’s insistence that the Palestinians must first recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state before Israel can withdraw from territory is not only mistaken but also “un-Zionist.”
The Jewish leader has also done a very un-Zionist thing: He has put the future of the state of Israel, the haven for Jews everywhere, in the hands of a largely ineffective Palestinian leader. Until Abbas utters the right words, the status quo remains.
If we ignore her misleading summary of the dispute between Israel and the United States, in which she says President Obama and Netanyahu are equally guilty for the current impasse, there’s a certain perverse logic to her argument. It’s true that until the Palestinians say the right words and can be shown to mean it, Israel will have to wait for the peace its peace so ardently desire. But the notion that Netanyahu can avoid that necessity by either “building confidence” by making unilateral concessions such as ending building in settlements or unilaterally withdrawing from “Palestinian areas” is as much of a fantasy as the old Oslo dream of land for peace.
If Palestinian national identity were not inextricably tied to a century-long war on Zionism, this might make sense. Unfortunately, as Daniel Polisar discussed in an essential Mosaic Magazine essay last week, Palestinian attitudes toward Israel and Jews are fixed in an ideology of hate. That causes them to view any Israeli concessions as a sign of weakness and proof that their struggle to eliminate the Jewish state will ultimately be successful. That’s why Oslo only led to more terrorism, as did Ehud Barak’s first offer of a Palestinian state in almost all the West Bank, a share of Jerusalem, and Gaza. Ariel Sharon’s pulling every settler, soldier, and settlement from Gaza resulted in the creation of an independent Palestinian state in all but name that is nothing but a terrorist launching pad, not an incubator for empowerment or peace.
That’s why, as Netanyahu noted, such a unilateral move in the West Bank would have to be accompanied by security measures, including keeping Israeli forces in place, that would ensure that a bigger, even more deadly Gaza didn’t arise in the larger territory adjacent to Israel’s main population centers. That is, of course, something that Abbas wouldn’t accept. And Israel’s critics abroad, including many left-wing Jews, would denounce it as merely a continuation of the occupation. Palestinians would still claim that any security measures constitute a humiliation, and they would also continue to blame all the problems resulting from their own corrupt and violent political culture on the Jews. As was the case with Oslo, the peace offers from Barak and Ehud Olmert and Sharon’s withdrawal, Israel would get no credit for taking a risk for peace. And when the next intifada or terror campaign arose, writers like Peter Beinart would still be blaming it on Israeli beastliness even as they insisted that they didn’t condone the slaughter of Jews.
Eisner is right that the status quo is awful and is disliked by the vast majority of Israelis. But the reason why there is no surge of support for unilateralism is that they know it has been tried and failed. If they have lost faith in hopes for peace, it is not because they want to hold onto all of the West Bank, but because they know they are locked in a long war with an enemy that views the conflict as a zero-sum game. Unfortunately, as Polisar’s study of 20 years of Palestinian opinion surveys shows, huge majorities of them don’t think the Jews have a right to any part of the country. That’s why Netanyahu is right to insist that they give up that hope of Israel’s destruction before he risks the lives of its people on the sort of gamble that Sharon attempted in Gaza.
Contrary to Netanyahu’s critics, that doesn’t mean that Israel is doomed to be a bi-national nation or be branded as an apartheid state. As it has for the last 48 years, Israel will remain both a Jewish state and a democracy even as it is forced to keep the West Bank in an unsatisfactory limbo. Israel can’t make peace by itself. Nor can it assure its security by handing over territory that will be turned into another Gaza.
Common sense is the antidote to the unilateral delusion. Like it or not, the status quo will end as soon as the Palestinians are finally ready for peace and not before. Rather than pressure Israel’s leader to do something foolish, Israel’s friends that are tired of this awful situation need to put the onus on Abbas, Hamas, and the rest of the Palestinians to give up their fantasies. Until they do, Palestinian leaders will continue to think that they can go on waiting for the West to someday hand Israel over to them on a silver platter.