Commentary Magazine


Topic: Rand Corporation

The Prospect of Profits Won’t Buy Middle East Peace

There are some things that are so obvious that perhaps it takes an intellectual to think that stating them constitutes penetrating insight. Perhaps that’s why some are treating the release of a new report on the costs of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the potential benefits of a stable two-state solution by the Rand Corporation as a profound contribution to the discussion about peace. The report is being extolled by some on the left as yet another sign of the Israeli government’s poor judgment since it has supposedly chosen investment in West Bank settlements and the military over decisions that could lead to a deal that would bring the country greater prosperity. But the problem with this formulation is that the history of the last hundred years, and even of the opening years of the 21st century, shows that while Israelis have always hoped that peace could be built around economic cooperation, Palestinian Arabs have always viewed the standoff with the Jews as a zero-sum conflict into which financial considerations have never been allowed to intrude.

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There are some things that are so obvious that perhaps it takes an intellectual to think that stating them constitutes penetrating insight. Perhaps that’s why some are treating the release of a new report on the costs of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the potential benefits of a stable two-state solution by the Rand Corporation as a profound contribution to the discussion about peace. The report is being extolled by some on the left as yet another sign of the Israeli government’s poor judgment since it has supposedly chosen investment in West Bank settlements and the military over decisions that could lead to a deal that would bring the country greater prosperity. But the problem with this formulation is that the history of the last hundred years, and even of the opening years of the 21st century, shows that while Israelis have always hoped that peace could be built around economic cooperation, Palestinian Arabs have always viewed the standoff with the Jews as a zero-sum conflict into which financial considerations have never been allowed to intrude.

We need to start any discussion about this report or a two-state solution that the economic benefits of such an idea require more than merely the establishment of a Palestinian state along with the withdrawal of some or all of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank or even a re-partition of Jerusalem. The economic benefits of peace are real but they require more than merely a piece of paper. Just as Israel must be willing to cede territory and allow the Palestinians sovereignty over it, the Palestinians are going to have to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where the border between the two countries is drawn. To date, that is something that not even the supposed moderates of Fatah who run the West Bank are willing to do. The Hamas rulers of the independent Palestinian state in all but name in Gaza may be willing to temporarily observe cease-fires with Israel, but actual peace that would lead to cooperation and prosperity is nothing they care to contemplate.

Still, something so sensible as a peace that would increase the average per capita income of each Palestinian by $1,000 (a rise of 36 percent over current levels) and boost the average Israeli income by $2,200 (up by 5 percent) seems worth a try. That’s especially true when Rand tells us that another intifada that would put the Palestinians into a state of armed conflict with Israel would decrease Palestinian incomes by an average $1,130 and Israelis by $4,330.00.

Why then won’t they do it? The answer is simple. The Palestinians have always viewed this discussion as one in which they were being asked to sell their homes and national honor for money. And that is something that a majority of them have never been willing to do.

The Rand Report is brand new but this topic is not.

From the very beginnings of modern Zionism, optimists have always asserted that the building up required for the movement’s success would be an economic bonanza for the country and benefit their Arab neighbors as much as that of the returning Jews. They were right about that. Zionism transformed a backwater region into an economic powerhouse creating jobs and wealth that brought an influx of immigrants from neighboring Arab countries into Ottoman and then British-ruled Palestine. Each new instance of development, from the creation of an electricity grid to the building up of the cities was thought to provide advantages for both sides so great that it would be impossible for Arab leaders to continue to whip up hatred for the Zionists. But on that score, those optimists were dead wrong. Right-wing Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky warned his fellow Jews that Arabs would not be bought off by economics but instead must be fought until they ceased resisting the new reality. Labor Zionists, who commanded the support of more Jews up until Menachem Begin’s election as Israeli prime minister in 1977, disagreed. They thought Palestinian workers and peasants would unite with them to shake off the influence of Arab elites who were thought to be whipping up nationalist and religious outrage about the influx of so many Jews.

That hoped-for economic revolution never happened. But hopes that finance would prevail over hate never died. Support among Israelis and their foreign friends for the 1993 Oslo Accords was driven in no small measure by a belief that the economic benefits of peace would prevail over ancient hates. It would take years of terrorism that culminated in the second intifada for most Israelis to finally shake off their delusions about the Palestinians embracing peace and prosperity. That intifada was, after all, preceded by an Israeli peace offer that would have given them an independent state in almost all of the West Bank, a share of Jerusalem and Gaza.

That intifada not only cost the lives of more than a thousand Jews and many more Arabs but also nearly destroyed a Palestinian economy that seemed on the rise after Oslo. By choosing a terrorist war of attrition over peace with Israel and statehood, the Palestinian leadership didn’t merely set off a bloodbath, it set back the living standards of their people by decades. But rather than rise up against such a leadership, Palestinians instead began to turn more to Hamas, which offered an even more uncompromising view of the conflict. Since then American-trained economist Salam Fayyad tried to offer the Palestinian Authority more cooperation and a vision of good government, he soon realized that he was virtually a party of one.

Seen from that perspective, it’s no good telling Israelis that they’ll be better off with two states and Middle East peace. They know that but have already tried it and learned their potential peace partners have other ideas. We can hope that eventually the Palestinians will create a political culture that doesn’t regard violence against the Jews as praiseworthy and will embrace ideas like those Rand is offering them. Until then, this report, like so many others will remain moldering on the shelf as the Palestinians continue to pursue their dream of eliminating Israel.

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Iran Has No Territorial Ambitions? Tell It to Lebanon and Syria

As I noted yesterday, many world leaders seem to be stuck in a time warp, in which any new information that contradicts paradigms conceived decades ago is simply filtered out. But in their defense, the same is often true of two of the main sources they rely on for information: think tanks and the media.

A salient example is a study recently published the Rand Corporation, one of America’s most prestigious think tanks and a frequent consultant to U.S. governments. In it, author Alireza Nader concludes that containing a nuclear Iran is feasible, because Iran’s nukes wouldn’t threaten either America or its Middle Eastern allies; Tehran wants them mainly for defensive purposes. “Iran does not have territorial ambitions and does not seek to invade, conquer, or occupy other nations,” Nader asserted.

That might have been a tenable theory 25 years ago, when Iran was still licking its wounds from an eight-year war with Iraq that the latter started. Since then, however, Iran has effectively taken over Lebanon and is now seeking to do the same with Syria. And it isn’t using peaceful suasion, but force of arms.

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As I noted yesterday, many world leaders seem to be stuck in a time warp, in which any new information that contradicts paradigms conceived decades ago is simply filtered out. But in their defense, the same is often true of two of the main sources they rely on for information: think tanks and the media.

A salient example is a study recently published the Rand Corporation, one of America’s most prestigious think tanks and a frequent consultant to U.S. governments. In it, author Alireza Nader concludes that containing a nuclear Iran is feasible, because Iran’s nukes wouldn’t threaten either America or its Middle Eastern allies; Tehran wants them mainly for defensive purposes. “Iran does not have territorial ambitions and does not seek to invade, conquer, or occupy other nations,” Nader asserted.

That might have been a tenable theory 25 years ago, when Iran was still licking its wounds from an eight-year war with Iraq that the latter started. Since then, however, Iran has effectively taken over Lebanon and is now seeking to do the same with Syria. And it isn’t using peaceful suasion, but force of arms.

The takeover of Lebanon was completed in 2008, when Iran’s wholly-owned Lebanese subsidiary, Hezbollah, staged an armed occupation of Beirut to reverse two government decisions (the government had planned to dismantle Hezbollah’s independent telecommunications network and dismiss an airport security official who facilitated Iranian arms shipments to the organization). Hezbollah removed its troops only after the government signed a power-sharing deal that effectively gave the organization a veto over all government decisions.

Now, Iran is trying to annex Syria. As Lee Smith noted in the Weekly Standard, not only is it arming and training President Bashar Assad’s forces, both regular and irregular, but it has also sent Hezbollah, Iranian-backed Iraqi militias and units of its own Revolutionary Guards Corps to join his fight against the Sunni rebels. Add in the billions of dollars it has given Assad to prop up his regime, and it’s clear that if he survives, Syria will be another wholly-owned Iranian subsidiary.

Nor does Iran hide that this is its goal. As one senior Iranian cleric helpfully explained in February, “Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us. If the enemy attacks us and wants to take either Syria or Khuzestan [in western Iran], the priority for us is to keep Syria….If we keep Syria, we can get Khuzestan back too, but if we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran.”

Yet Rand’s analyst simply ignored all these developments, blithely asserting that Iran “does not seek to invade, conquer, or occupy other nations” even as it has already effected an armed conquest of Lebanon and is pouring in troops in an effort to do the same in Syria.

The Rand paper is a particularly egregious example of an all-too-common phenomenon. Media reports, for instance, still frequently assert that Hezbollah’s main mission is fighting Israel, making its role in the Syrian civil war a surprising departure. Fifteen years ago, that was a reasonable theory. Yet by now, it should be obvious that Hezbollah’s main mission is furthering its Iranian master’s interests–which often means fighting Israel, but currently means fighting Syrian Sunnis. Seen from that perspective, Hezbollah’s role in Syria isn’t the least surprising.

Scholars and journalists are supposed to help leaders understand world events. But by clinging to outdated paradigms, they often end up obfuscating events instead. 

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