What Now for Israel?

Common enemies and shared interests have aligned the Saudis, the Egyptians, and other Arabs with the Jewish state. That’s the good news.

<em>IDF paratroopers search for hidden tunnels used by Hamas to attack Israel.</em> Photo by the IDF Spokesman Unit.
IDF paratroopers search for hidden tunnels used by Hamas to attack Israel. Photo by the IDF Spokesman Unit.
Elliott Abrams
Sept. 1 2014
About the author

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he maintains a blog, Pressure Points. He is the author of, most recently, Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

“The status quo is unsustainable,” President Obama said of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict soon after taking office in 2009. “The status quo is unsustainable,” then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told AIPAC in March 2010. “The status quo is unsustainable and unacceptable,” United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon averred in 2013. This year, Secretary of State John Kerry, with his customary light touch, informed the Munich Security Conference: “Today’s status quo absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you 100-percent, cannot be maintained. It’s not sustainable.”

What is usually meant by this assertion is something quite specific: that in the “occupied territories” of Gaza and the West Bank, a Palestinian state must very soon be erected—or else. “It is critical for us to advance a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can live side-by-side in their own states in peace and security,” Obama added in that 2009 statement. He has repeated the line endlessly, and so has every world leader except for Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei (who has a rather different objective in mind).

But 66 years after the founding of the state of Israel, and 47 years after Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza, the status quo has once again confirmed its (relative) merits, while a history of repeated efforts to upend it precipitously has once again exposed an often reckless folly. The status quo has outlasted the cold war, the Oslo-fed dreams of a “new Middle East,” and the hopes for an Arab Spring; it has endured decades of war and intifada, and has proved more durable than many of the leaders and regimes who have insisted that it cannot and must not be sustained. Israelis who spent this past summer dodging Hamas rockets and sending their sons to fight in Gaza must wonder, not for the first time, why it is “critical” to implement Obama’s solution to their problems rather than to defeat terrorism and more broadly the ceaseless Arab and Muslim assaults on the Jewish state. Why are these not the status quo that the whole world agrees is unsustainable?

In truth, of course, much has changed in the Middle East and consequently in Israel’s strategic situation—for which some credit can be assigned to the latter’s ability to sustain the status quo. Consider: Israel fought wars against Arab states in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. Defeat might have meant extinction; and, especially in 1948 and 1973, defeat seemed entirely plausible. After the Israeli victory in June 1967, the Arab League pledged itself to the “Three No’s”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel. Moreover, this universal and implacable Arab hostility was backed by the Soviet Union, one of the world’s two superpowers.

Today the USSR is gone and Israel has both peace treaties and close and cooperative security arrangements with Egypt and Jordan. It is not an exaggeration to say that Egypt’s military ties are more intimate today with Israel than with the U.S. In 2002, 35 years after the “Three No’s,” there came the Saudi Plan, a proposal by then-Crown Prince (now King) Abdallah offering comprehensive peace and the establishment of normal relations in exchange for Israel’s complete withdrawal from Arab lands captured in 1967. Of course, the sweeping terms (including, for example, relinquishment of the Old City of Jerusalem) were unacceptable; but here were the Saudis and then the entire Arab League publicly stating that recognition and even normalization were now thinkable, no longer a crime or a heresy.

Today, several of the most important Arab regimes that have long been closest to the United States (Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia), as well as the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, share with Israel a common view of the major dangers facing them. For each, as Jonathan Rynhold of the Begin-Sadat Center at Bar-Ilan University describes it, “the key threats come from Iran and from radical Sunni Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. They seek to maintain and promote a balance of power against these forces.”

This helps to explain regional reactions to the latest Israel-Hamas conflict. Despite their rhetorical invocations of Palestinian suffering, all of these states and the PA were clearly hoping for an Israeli victory and a real setback for Hamas. ’Twas not always thus. During the second intifada, when I was serving in the George W. Bush White House, we received angry and forceful Saudi demands for American pressure to stop Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from encircling Yasir Arafat; in the summer of 2001, the Saudis even threatened a reappraisal of their entire relationship with the U.S. The same thing happened during “Operation Cast Lead” against Hamas in December 2008 and January 2009.

This summer, by contrast, there were no such threats from Riyadh. The Saudis were now acting as they had in 2006 when Israel went to war with Hizballah: that is, with public statements of humanitarian concern hiding a private hope that the Iranian proxy would be severely damaged. Of course, Hizballah is Shiite, so no one in 2006 really expected the Saudis and other Sunni Arabs to be shedding anything but crocodile tears. In 2014, by contrast, the instigators, Hamas, were themselves Sunni, yet even so, and notwithstanding the ritual statements of concern—the minimum demanded by considerations of domestic politics—Egyptian and Saudi reaction was cold: let Hamas be beaten down.

Here it is necessary to enter a qualification: this being the Middle East, the enemy of my enemy is not always my friend, especially if he is a Jew. (More on this below.) But that there is a realignment of interests and worldviews is unquestionable. The Saudis under King Abdallah, Egypt under General (now President) Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Jordan under King Abdullah, the PA under President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israel under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are essentially status-quo powers fearing and fighting the same enemies—enemies who wish to overturn the regional order and establish either an Iranian hegemony or an Islamist caliphate. All this leaves Israel and many Arab heads of state eyeing each other as potential allies rather than as perpetual foes.

Why not be optimistic, then, about how regional politics will evolve? Might the Saudi Plan of 2002 offer a pathway to reconciliation sooner rather than later? Is Israel perhaps on the verge of an era of peace, with true reconciliation now closer than ever? Is now the right time for the United States to propose an updated version of the “peace process”?

The answer is no—and not only because, in the Middle East, it is always inadvisable to discount the virtues of the status quo compared with what may be coming next. There are at least five additional factors to consider. The most tractable of them, at least in the medium term, may be the new face of American policy. The most unyielding are the rise of Iran, the growth of Sunni extremism, the very old problems of Palestinian politics, and the persisting hatreds of “the Arab street.”


1. American Policy

These days, the United States appears to view neither Iran nor Islamism as the key threat. Instead, the principal American goal has been well summed up by the scholar Michael Doran with the aid of a literary allusion:

[T]he president is dreaming of an historical accommodation with Iran. The pursuit of that accommodation is the great white whale of Obama’s Middle East strategy, and capturing it is all that matters; everything else is insignificant by comparison. The goal looms so large as to influence every other facet of American policy.

In particular, Doran has in mind the longstanding relationship between Iran and the Palestinians, and the way in which Washington’s policy toward the former influences its policy toward the latter. He’s right about that: for many years, Shiite Iran was a key financial and military backer of Sunni Hamas, allowing its own search for regional influence and a shared hatred of the Jews to bridge the Shiite-Sunni gap. Today, Iran is funding Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a Gazan group that makes Hamas seem moderate and responsible by comparison.

Doran is also right that the pursuit of the “great white whale” overshadows almost all else, including the fight against the jihadist forces most recently and barbarously represented by the “Islamic State” (IS, also commonly known as ISIS). True, in the face of IS gains, Washington has moved to conduct air strikes in Iraq and help non-jihadi rebels in Syria, but the former effort has so far been highly limited in scope and the latter, no less limited, is woefully belated and unrealistic.

Many Arab leaders have therefore written off the Obama administration as either unaware of or indifferent to the seismic shifts under way in the region. In July, they were shocked to see Secretary of State Kerry in Paris with the foreign ministers of Qatar and Turkey, which were supporting Hamas, and without Egyptian or PA officials present. Washington’s August campaign to save the Yazidis and deliver a series of blows to IS, however welcome in itself, has struck these leaders as more of a stop-gap substitute for the level of action that is needed (or a political effort to avoid blame for inaction) than as a stalwart promise of tough moves to come against our common enemies. President Obama’s comments after IS beheaded the American journalist James Foley—“People like this ultimately fail. They fail because the future is won by those who build and not destroy. . . . One thing we can all agree on is that a group like IS has no place in the 21st century”—provided no sense of renewed American leadership. As August ended, the American military was studying possible air strikes on IS in Syria, but it remained entirely unclear whether these would ever happen or, if they did, would constitute serious blows.

It is not surprising, therefore, that when Obama or Kerry or Ban Ki-moon or anyone else assures Arab leaders that the status quo in the Middle East is unsustainable, their reaction is to wonder: “whose side are you on?”

As for Israel, the tensions between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration have been bad from the outset and have grown worse this past summer. Communications at the top levels are bitter, and the older pattern of U.S.-Israel relations—whereby there was no love lost at the State Department but close ties and constant communication with the White House—has been replaced by one of barely concealed hostility in both domains. The terms used by Israeli officials in complaining about their American counterparts are sometimes harsh, even in public—though the same terms are heard from the Arabs in private. The point is that all of our allies in the Middle East believe we are way off course and are pursuing policies that cannot succeed and that will damage their security and ours.

In addition, then, to their deep worry about Sunni extremism and about Iran, Israelis and Arabs worry about the United States. They cannot see a way to defeat their enemies without the Americans on their side; they cannot see a better future if the United States is leading toward appeasement and withdrawal instead of striving to maintain its long-term dominance in the region. For Israel in particular, far more isolated in the world than are the Arab states, and facing deep wells of hatred in the Muslim world and Europe, the worry is especially great.

And there is a deeper concern. Israel and the Arab regimes that have long depended on the United States can wait out an administration that has only a couple of years left in power. But they also read the poll data showing that Americans are sick of the Middle East and its wars and want no more of them. Is this, they wonder, a natural reaction to America’s recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, or is it a deeper and more lasting trend toward isolationism—just at the moment when they need robust American help to combat both Iran and the Sunni jihadis?

There is no way to answer that deeper concern until the 2016 election: then we will see who is president and what policies are to be adopted in the Middle East. For the record, though, it is at least worth noting that a weaker or more withdrawn America is a threat of not only regional but global proportions—not only to Jerusalem, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi but also to the South Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Filipinos facing China and to the Georgians, Ukrainians, Poles, and Estonians facing Russia.


2. Iran

Tehran indulges in eliminationist rhetoric toward Israel and, despite endless and transparently ridiculous denials, is steadily moving toward developing nuclear weapons. It is also the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. The main beneficiary of that support is Hizballah, which, at least until IS metastasized in Syria and Iraq, has been the world’s most powerful terrorist group. Sitting on Israel’s northern border, Hizballah showed itself in the 2006 war to be a capable military force. Since then, its capabilities have only grown.

It is largely the growing power of Iran and its bid for regional hegemony that have so spooked Gulf Arabs and changed their attitude toward Israel. Here there really is a common enemy, which is why they hope that Israel will persuade Washington to stop the Iranian nuclear program, or accomplish the task itself. As is well known, the Israelis have said they cannot and will not tolerate Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon and will do anything to prevent it. The United States, under several presidents by now, has said the same thing. But would we actually strike Iran, eliminate its nuclear program, and destroy by this assertion of American dominance the ayatollahs’ dreams of hegemony, solving the problem for Israel and our Arab allies? In 2014, it certainly does not seem so.

What, then, of the ongoing negotiations to halt the Iranian program by diplomatic means? It is increasingly clear that the very best one could hope to gain from a deal between Iran and its P5+1 interlocutors (Russia, China, France, the UK, Germany, and the United States) is a delay of some years in the regime’s achievement of its nuclear ambitions—during which time it is conceivable that the Iranian people would rise up and overthrow the hated theocracy. But a much more likely outcome is that, with sanctions lifted and its economy soaring, the Islamic Republic would grow ever stronger and more capable of using its power to change the region in line with its interests.

That means a stealthily creeping or defiantly robust movement toward possession of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. It means stronger support for Hizballah, now in possession of roughly 50,000 missiles and rockets targeting the Jewish state—five times what Hamas had when conflict began last July. And it means Iranian hegemony in what the king of Jordan once warned us would be a “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran (and perhaps Bahrain) through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.

For Israel, the growing threat from Hizballah is worry enough; a nuclear-armed Iran is a nightmare of a different order. Two nightmares, really. The ultimate one envisions the actual deployment of nuclear weaponry directly against Israel, “a one bomb country,” as the Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani once called it—meaning that one well-placed nuclear bomb would in essence destroy the state. The lesser nightmare would be to live under the daily threat of a nuclear confrontation, with regular launches of missiles or bombers for “tests” and “training” and daily assurances by ayatollahs and Revolutionary Guard generals that Iran is ready to strike, determined to strike, and on the alert. Israelis would know that all this was likely a taunt—but what if not?

Such is the world of “containment.” During the cold war, the United States and the USSR achieved a balance of terror. But the distances between them being much greater, there was more time to ascertain what was happening; and there were also diplomatic relations, negotiations, and a “hot line.” In addition, the U.S., roughly the size of the USSR, would have been able to absorb many blows. Nor were the Soviets motivated by religious zeal to eliminate the United States from the face of the earth.

In brief, the two situations are simply not comparable, and the containment option is an illusion. How can Israel thrive under an unrelieved threat of devastation? How can it live in an entire region dominated by its single largest, most hostile, and most determinedly lethal enemy?


3. Sunni Extremism

The growth of IS in Syria and Iraq came as a shock to most Americans. Almost unknown a year earlier, suddenly this group—an outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq that changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq, then to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and now more simply to the Islamic State—seemed capable of defeating both the American-trained Iraqi army and the redoubtable Kurdish forces known as the peshmerga, and of establishing jihadi rule over a vast stretch of Arab territory.

For now, the first concern of IS is to root out Sunni Muslim infidels and Shiite heretics: the “near enemy.” Accordingly, its targets have been mainly Arab governments in Baghdad and Damascus, and collaterally any “infidels” encountered along its rampaging way. But success is bound to breed further ambitions. Already IS constitutes a threat to every moderate or responsible Arab regime it can reach, and its presence in Syria means that sooner or later it might camp out on the borders of both Jordan and the Golan Heights.

Of course, unlike Hizballah, IS enjoys no Arab or Muslim state support. But so far, that has not been an impediment. Awash in looted arms and money, attracting jihadis and would-be jihadis from the United States, Europe, and all over the Muslim world, IS—a better name for it might be Jihadis Without Borders—seems to have little problem of supply.

The scope of the danger is so great as to have overcome, to at least a small degree, President Obama’s fears of returning to military action in Iraq. And there is always the possibility that IS may yet be beaten back by some combination of the Kurds, Iran, Arab states, and the occasional use of American power. But one cannot rule out the possibility of its forward progress—the group’s size, resources, location, zeal, and ruthlessness have made the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan seem like child’s play by comparison—or of its ultimately setting its sights on Jerusalem.

IS is the product, not the progenitor, of Sunni extremism, and its jihadis therefore swim in the same toxic sea of Islamic and Arab anti-Semitism as do Shiite mullahs in Iran and Hamas commanders in Gaza. This means both that its pool of potential recruits is immense and that the dominant Islamic culture finds it extremely difficult to repudiate or defeat its claims to authenticity. To these Sunni extremists, the Jewish state, built on what they see as Arab lands and controlling the city of Jerusalem, is a monstrous insult to Islam whose time of destruction must come.


4. The Palestinians

Once upon a time, and perhaps ever since 1948, it was difficult to read much of anything about the multiple crises in the Middle East without seeing the word “Palestine” in the first paragraph. Generations of experts, academics, and policymakers assured the world that here, in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, lay the central problem in the Middle East, the problem whose solution would unlock the solutions to all the other problems and was therefore the prerequisite for “peace.” And not just peace in the Middle East. In 2009, James Jones, President Obama’s first national-security adviser, told a J Street audience that the Israeli-Arab conflict was the “epicenter” of world politics and that “finding a solution to this problem has ripples that echo, that would run globally and affect many other problems that we face elsewhere in the globe.”

This view has always been nonsense. Outside the pro-Israel community, however, it remained unchallenged, and was taken to be true on its face. Every so often, it would impel an administration to set its hopes on a “comprehensive peace,” to be achieved by transforming the supposedly unsustainable status quo through sweeping acts of high-level diplomacy.

Today, at least, the “epicenter” argument is so visibly ludicrous that it is heard less frequently. The future of the Middle East is not coterminous with the future of the Palestinian territories, and Arab leaders know it. Even some European leaders know it, though they cannot say so. (In my meetings with Arab and European officials these last few years, we can go for an hour before I interrupt to observe that the word “Palestine” has yet to be spoken. It invariably elicits awkward smiles.) Even in the State Department, there is some understanding that the rise of Iran, the challenge of IS, and the collapse of the Arab Spring cannot be linked to whether or not “the occupation” ends.

But for Israelis, what to do about the Palestinians is inevitably a major political and national-security issue. What indeed is to be done? In recent years (as we have seen), the Middle East has changed in important ways, not all of them negative. Is this major problem immune to improvement?

Yes and no. For decades, the single Palestinian leader, first Haj Amin al-Husseini and then Yasir Arafat, was someone who sought the murder of Jews. Today Mahmoud Abbas is the one-man head of the Fatah party, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the Palestinian Authority (PA), and he, though no democrat and no democratizer, uses his security forces to prevent terrorism and violence. In addition, the West Bank Palestinian leadership as a whole remains secular and resistant to the Islamist trends elsewhere in the region.

For a brief moment, a decade ago, there seemed to be the possibility of progress. Arafat died in late 2004—an event that, along with Ariel Sharon’s quelling of the second intifada and accelerated construction of Israel’s security fence, was a prerequisite to any real forward movement. In early 2005, Abbas was elected president as a proponent of statehood but an opponent of achieving it by violence. In the summer of the same year, Sharon removed Israeli settlements and military bases from Gaza; his then-colleagues say he was contemplating a similar move in the West Bank by pulling settlements back to the security fence.

On the Israeli side, the idea was to establish the country’s de-facto borders for a generation or two, retaining Jerusalem and the major settlement blocks and waiting for the Palestinians to develop a decent civic culture and an effective system of governance. How long would that take? It had been 38 years since the 1967 war, and Sharon presumably thought another such period was likely. He would be gone, but for the foreseeable future Israel would be secure and could afford to be patient.

On the Palestinian side, there appeared to be the makings of a fresh beginning. Under the brief premiership of Salam Fayyad, a political independent not subordinate to Fatah, the PA became less corrupt, and the institutions of government—courts, ministries, police—improved. At both the practical and the ideological level, Fayyad had to contend at once with the Israelis and with Hamas. To the Israelis he wanted to prove that Palestinians were indeed building a trustworthy set of institutions and therefore merited more self-rule and sovereign authority. A key element in this project was the security forces, which were being trained in Jordan by the United States not only to police the Palestinian territory but also to work with Israel against terror. And Fayyad also had a theory of how to defeat Hamas: namely, by seizing from it the idea of “resistance” and arguing that true resistance lay not in counterproductive violence against Israel’s “occupation” but in the hard, patient work of state-building.

For that brief moment, many Israelis bought in. Israelis in general do not want four million Palestinians as their fellow citizens (any more than do the neighboring Arab states); nor do they want to rule them forever, police them, or fight them. So the idea of a separate Palestinian state ultimately won the grudging endorsement of even such hard-liners as Sharon and Netanyahu. Or perhaps one should rephrase that: both Sharon and Netanyahu came to believe that, among the available options, the best was to have a Palestinian state if and when it was safe to do so. Security came first; Palestinian self-rule in a sort-of-sovereign state would come afterward. If Fayyad and the PA could deliver, peace might be possible.

The project failed. There’s enough blame to go around: Israel could have done more to help achieve prosperity in the Palestinian territories; America should have backed Fayyad’s incrementalism instead of always searching for a comprehensive peace deal with handshakes and prizes on the White House lawn; the Arab states were stingy and late in their support of the Palestinian government.

But the main problem wasn’t outside, it was inside. In 2006, Abbas held a parliamentary election, and Hamas won. In the Bush administration, the agreed explanation was that Hamas’s narrow victory (44 percent of the vote to Fatah’s 41 percent) was attributable to popular discontent with Fatah’s endemic corruption. Maybe. Or maybe Hamas won because people wanted more Hamas-style Islamism than Fatah-style secularism. Or maybe Hamas won because Palestinians preferred shooting Israelis to negotiating with them.

The next year, in Gaza, Hamas overwhelmed the far larger Fatah/PA military forces and seized control. Since then, the two-state solution has been a declining stock. How could it be brought about, with Hamas in control of Gaza? How could you hold a free election? How could Hamas be defeated if Fatah remained as corrupt as ever? And how could Hamas terrorists be prevented from eventually controlling the PA in Ramallah?

In a “normal” Arab country (especially one without a king), when a civilian government is as incompetent and unpopular as the PA, the army intervenes. There’s a coup, and some general emerges to rule. We’ve just seen that happen again in Egypt. In a way, it’s what Hamas attempted to do within the PA and succeeded in doing in Gaza, where, after Israel permitted it to take over, Hamas promptly proceeded to build up its military forces and to initiate wars in 2008, 2012, and this past summer. If unstopped, it might well succeed in the West Bank, too, overwhelming the PA’s forces unless, presumably, Israel and possibly Jordan intervened to block it.

Hamas has had a series of victories—not against the IDF but against Israel’s “peace camp,” which it has largely killed off. There are still Israelis who talk about implementing the two-state solution right now, but they are fewer and fewer in number. The practical impossibility of doing this was proved each day in July and August as people grabbed their children and ran to their bomb shelters. “A republic, if you can keep it,” Benjamin Franklin famously said about the fledgling United States. How many Israelis believe Mahmoud Abbas—now seventy-nine, the man who led Fatah to electoral defeat and then lost Gaza to Hamas—can keep it?


So what is Netanyahu’s strategy for dealing with the Palestinian question now, in the Middle East of 2014? He is making neither the Right nor the Left happy because he is straddling their traditional positions: he angers Likud and those farther Right by asserting his support for Palestinian independence and the two-state solution, and he frustrates the Left because in practice he appears ready to sustain the “unsustainable” status quo for as long as it takes. The latest polls show that he is still about 30-percent ahead of any other potential candidate for prime minister, so his straddle, however unfortunate or frustrating it may appear to some, must strike most as realistic and necessary. He might not have a magical solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, but the “solutions” on offer (for example, from John Kerry) are dead in the water. After this summer’s war, there is little taste for taking chances with national security.

In truth, no one has a solution. If, in private, you were to ask a Gulf Arab or Egyptian or Jordanian official whether Israel should just pull out and risk Hamas rule in all of the West Bank and Gaza, he would just laugh. If you asked an Israeli officer who had served in the West Bank whether one could rely on Fatah to defeat Hamas at the polls and on the PA forces to defeat Hamas in the streets and alleys, he would smile ruefully. The only practical advice offered recently came from Giora Eiland, Israel’s former National Security Adviser:

We should have declared war against the state of Gaza (rather than against the Hamas organization), and in a war [acted] as in a war. The moment it begins, the right thing to do is to shut down the crossings, prevent the entry of any goods, including food, and definitely prevent the supply of gas and electricity. . . . The fact that we are fighting with one hand and supplying food and energy to the enemy state with the other hand is absurd. This generosity strengthens and extends the ability of the enemy state of Gaza to fight us.

That’s not the kind of advice that Israel’s official interlocutors in Washington, or Europeans who buy Israeli goods, like to hear.

There will no doubt be efforts now to improve conditions in Gaza and in the West Bank, and Israel will no doubt cooperate with them. Palestinian misery is not an Israeli goal, and in fact Netanyahu has taken numerous steps to help the West Bank economy. The idea of increasing the PA role in Gaza—of, for example, having it run the Palestinian side of the passages between Israel and Gaza and between Egypt and Gaza—sounds good in theory, but making it work in practice will be exceedingly difficult.

Under far better circumstances, the United States discovered this for itself. In 2005, when the PA still ruled all of Gaza, we drafted and received PA and Israeli approval of an “Agreement on Movement and Access,” which provided detailed rules for how people and goods could pass into and out of Gaza. The lack of trust between the sides, combined with deliberate Hamas efforts to render implementation impossible, destroyed the agreement before the ink was dry. It’s easy to say today that, for instance, the cement now needed for reconstruction would be closely monitored for proper use and not diverted to building more Hamas tunnels. But who exactly would be the monitors, working inside Gaza and in the face of Hamas intimidation? Scandinavian aid officers? UNRWA, whose facilities have been Hamas assets for years and whose staff is riddled with Hamas terrorists and sympathizers?

What’s more, even if reconstruction aid could be delivered and real humanitarian benefits could accrue to Palestinian families, the PA would reap little political gain. Fatah is the heart of the PA and the PLO, and Fatah, completely incompetent at governance, has long since forfeited the trust of the Palestinian public. Those who would use Arafat’s old party to defeat Hamas are employing a weapon that will not fire. Even worse, as Fayyad’s removal in 2013 reminds us, more constructive Palestinian voices are woefully missing.

The lack of a strong and persuasive democratic voice in the Palestinian polity should come as no surprise; such a voice is also absent in Egypt and throughout most of the Arab world. The well-organized forces, and the ones with persuasive arguments to make, are the Islamists and the army: of the two, one is for jihad and the Koran, the other for order and stability. The liberal and secular forces, dedicated to effective governance, tolerance, and individual freedom—the forces we would so love to see triumphant—are few and weak. We should support them, to be sure, as we should have supported Fayyad, and from time to time they will have a victory. But national-security policy cannot be based on hope, especially for Israel, a country of seven million surrounded by many more well-armed and hate-fueled enemies.


5. The “Street”

Which brings us to what may be the most potent and intransigent factor of all. Egypt’s General Sisi and the Saudi king have, like several other Arab leaders, shown themselves to be versatile when it comes to Israel. There is a time for war and a time for peace, a time for hate and a time for love (well, wary coexistence). Israel is today the enemy of their enemies. But their publics remain mired in hatred of Jews, and no wonder: their media and their education systems continue to preach it, teach it, and encourage it. For 30 years, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who scrupulously upheld the peace treaty with Israel, broadcast the most vicious anti-Semitic programming imaginable, including Syrian-made shows dramatizing and updating the medieval blood libel. In Saudi Arabia, although textbooks have been improving over the last decade, they continue to instruct students in the wily and devious ways of the Jews, sworn enemies of the Prophet and the nemeses of every good Muslim today.

Realpolitik may lead a king or sheik or general to ally with the Jews for a while, or even to admit to himself that age-old prejudices must be abandoned. But until this new attitude replaces decades if not centuries devoted to the inculcation of hatred, Israel will continue to face millions of neighbors who see Jews as accursed by God and the Jewish state as an alien and, it is hoped, temporary usurper of Arab lands.

On the surface, the problem is political: under what circumstances do rulers decide that Israel must be recognized or offered peace? When are diplomats, or intelligence or military officers, allowed to meet the Jews, and with how much secrecy? But underneath the politics lie Islam’s pernicious teachings. The Roman Catholic Church wrestled with a history of anti-Semitic teachings and finally eliminated them. In Arab lands, such an effort is not even embryonic. And the disease is contagious. The upsurge of anti-Semitism in Europe this past summer, in what were billed as “pro-Palestinian rallies” but were often displays of naked hatred and violence, offers a cautionary lesson. It would be bad enough if the anti-Semitism were coming exclusively from Muslim immigrants to Europe and their descendants; in its non-Muslim variant, it has awakened dormant bigotries and inflamed the otherwise contrasting agendas of the anti-democratic Left and the anti-democratic Right, where it remains volatile and highly poisonous.

It is clear that, whatever calculations of national interest may be made by rulers, hatred of Jews is and will remain a powerful phenomenon in the Arab and Muslim Middle East. The depth of the problem is especially visible today in Turkey, once considered Israel’s close ally. Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected president last month in part by playing on those same deep reserves of popular anti-Semitism. He did not create them, but neither did decades of close diplomatic and military relations between Israel and Turkey reduce their potency.

While the Arab Spring failed to produce democracy (except perhaps in Tunisia), it has reminded rulers that the street, whose passions they have opportunistically inflamed, is unpredictable and dangerous. Reconciliation with the Jews would be immensely controversial and would elicit violent opposition, so why risk it—especially now, with the region in turmoil and the Americans so shaky? Even the teaching of elementary civil tolerance appears to be beyond the ability or the will of most Arab states—not to mention the Palestinian Authority, whose official and unofficial media are founts of anti-Semitism and glorify terrorists as heroes.

This bedrock fact of facts tells us one thing with unmistakable clarity. The “new Middle East” that Shimon Peres saw aborning in the early 1990s will remain a mirage for many years to come, if not for the lifetime of most readers of these words.


6. Israel and the Status Quo

So, again, what is to be done?

Netanyahu may actually have a strategy for the Palestinian conflict—or so the research analyst Jonathan Spyer argued recently in explaining why the prime minister resisted domestic voices urging him to conquer and overthrow Hamas and reoccupy Gaza. Netanyahu’s caution, Spyer wrote, derives from

his perception that what Israel calls “wars” or “operations” are really only episodes in a long war in which the country is engaged against those who seek its destruction. . . . In such a conflict, what matters is not a quick and crushing perception of victory. Indeed, the search for a knockout, a final decision in this or that operation, given the underlying realities, is likely to end in overstretch, error, and non-achievement. What matters is the ability to endure, conserve one’s forces—military and societal—and to work away on wearing down the enemy’s will.

“This view,” Spyer adds, is sensitive to “the essentially implacable nature of the core Arab and Muslim hostility to Israel. So it includes an inbuilt skepticism toward the possibility of historic reconciliation and final-status peace accords. At the same time, [it] does not rule out alliances of convenience with regional powers.” Because Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel—and, I would add, the Emirates—are status-quo powers, their national policies are dedicated to preventing the success of revolutionary regimes or movements like IS or Hamas or Iran: that is, the forces dedicated to destroying the regional status quo and replacing it with something far worse. In this, Israel and those Arab states find common ground, as well as a shared sense of shock and horror that their close ally in Washington seems not to understand the threat and the means they have adopted to fight it.

If Spyer is right about Netanyahu’s vision of the world, as I suspect he is, nothing the prime minister has seen this year—from war in Gaza, to IS gains in Syria and Iraq, to anti-Israel and anti-Semitic demonstrations in Europe—would have shaken it. But is this vision, for Israel, a counsel of doom and despair? That depends on your expectations of the world and the place of the Jews in it.

The only democratic nationalist movement of the 20th century that succeeded was Zionism; the state created by the Jews is thriving today as an economic, scientific, military, and technological juggernaut, as the center of a vibrant intellectual and religious culture, and as the homeland of an extraordinarily resilient and happy people. While America’s “pivot to Asia” is a joke among foreign-policy experts, Israeli trade with India and China is growing fast—and India’s traditional knee-jerk support for the Palestinian cause was notably absent in this past summer’s war. Israel’s economic strength is being vastly reinforced by the discovery of energy resources previously thought to be a dream, a discovery that will not only enrich it but bring energy independence and a role as a regional supplier.

On the political and diplomatic front, Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan endure, and relations with the Gulf Arabs, however cold and pragmatic, are no less significant for that. In the new struggle between the Sunnis on one side and Shiite Iran with its allies and proxies on the other, Israel is not, for now, the main target. And every year, opinion polls confirm the remarkable support that Israel enjoys among the people of the United States. Decades pass, administrations come and go, but this popular American support remains quite steady, based as it is both in faith and in an appreciation that there’s one ally in the Middle East the United States can count on.

That’s the positive side, and it suggests that the Jewish state enjoys many resources and advantages. But, as Spyer observes, Israel’s “inbuilt skepticism toward the possibility of historic reconciliation” rests on a rather different set of facts: namely, that Israel has many strong enemies, and many military cemeteries. Even if some of those enemies are currently preoccupied, they aren’t going away. The Arab and Muslim street remains awash in vicious and violent attitudes toward Jews, and the bacillus of anti-Semitism festers equally beneath many a well-cut suit. No one has yet stopped Iran from closing in on a nuclear weapon. The alliances Israel has struck, some formally and some on the basis of currently shared interests, could disappear like smoke if the balance of forces were to change.

That, in sum, is why Israel’s national story still remains “a long war . . . against those who seek its destruction,” and what makes Israel as unique among nations today as it was in 1948. For what other country on the face of the earth confronts unceasing attempts to bring its national life to an end? And yet, where Israel is concerned, for hundreds of millions of people around the globe, the very existence of the Jewish state is the unsustainable status quo.

Of course, as Jewish history shows, it is difficult to know what is sustainable and what is not. Charles Krauthammer once reminded us that Israel “is the only nation on earth that inhabits the same land, bears the same name, speaks the same language, and worships the same God that it did 3,000 years ago.” Surely, had one been betting in 1948 on whether the Jewish state would outlast the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, one would have bet on the Soviets. And, as it turned out, one would have lost. As for the next 66 years, one can only hope they will prove to be more relaxing than the previous 66. At the moment, once again, the odds have darkened. Israel’s national existence is the product of the one dream that came gloriously true, but its history since 1948 has rightly taught its leaders to be realists rather than utopians.


  1. Keeping the Status Quo, and Improving It by Elliott Abrams
    Trapped between certain chaos in the West Bank if it withdraws and loss of international legitimacy if it doesn’t, can Israel still act affirmatively? Can we?
  2. What Now for the United States by Michael Doran
    How America can help the new Arab-Israel alliance to resist IS and stabilize the Middle East.
  3. The Case for Unilateral Action by Amos Yadlin
    Why Israel needs to move now toward a division of the land—even in the absence of a peace deal.
  4. Can the Unsustainable Be Sustained? by Haviv Rettig Gur
    Israel’s prime minister has indicated it might shelve the two-state solution. How would the world react, and how much would it matter?
  5. Israel’s Situation, in One Word by Robert Satloff
    Good. In two words: not good. But despite the murkiness, there are things it can do.

More about: Foreign Policy, Hamas, Israel, Middle East, Palestinians


Israel's Situation, in One Word

Good. In two words: not good. But despite the murkiness, there are things it can do.

<em>U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on July 23, 2014, before the two sat down to discuss a possible cease-fire to stop Israel's fight with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.</em> Photo by the U.S. Department of State.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on July 23, 2014, before the two sat down to discuss a possible cease-fire to stop Israel's fight with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Photo by the U.S. Department of State.
Robert Satloff
Sept. 7 2014

Years ago, when I was teaching, I regularly subjected my students to a lecture titled “The Four I’s.” Confronted with an essay using the words “impossible,” “inconceivable,” “inevitable,” or “irreversible,” I suggested, one was best advised to stop right there and do something more constructive. This was because the modern history of the Middle East—with its shape-shifting alliances and roller-coaster politics—offered no justification for the use of any such words.

In his sober and sobering essay in Mosaic, Elliott Abrams adds a new word to be banished from the Middle East political lexicon: “unsustainable.” (For good measure, we might also add its first cousin, “unacceptable.”) As he quite correctly observes, the most allegedly unsustainable aspect of the contemporary Middle East—Israel’s “occupation” of Arab lands since 1967—has proved itself quite sustainable. Indeed, he points out, Israel’s control of territories acquired in the 1967 war has outlived not just every leader in the region but some of the regimes they led. Along the way, what was once viewed universally as “unacceptable”—defined variously as Israel’s long-term control of the territories, Israel’s settlement project in the territories, and the denial of Palestinian sovereign claims in the territories—has achieved a certain, however partial, level of grudging, de-facto acceptance.

This is one attribute of what Abrams—whose book, Tested by Zion, is that rare thing, a dispassionate and refreshingly candid reflection on his service as a key American policy maker—appropriately terms Israel’s “long war.” To paraphrase, this is the idea that Israel, despite all the remarkable successes in its young life, remains shackled with a series of profound threats and daunting challenges that will likely define its strategic predicament far into the future.

The uncertainty of American leadership; the ambitions of Iranian ayatollahs; the barbarism of Sunni jihadists; the decadence of Palestinian politics; the base populism of the “Arab street”—these, Abrams shows in Mosaic, are regrettably potent features of the contemporary Middle East. Perhaps they aren’t immutable (another “i word”), as Israel’s peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan suggest, but they have displayed depressingly powerful staying power. In such a Hobbesian world, where Israel is a tiny entity surrounded by circles of aggressive antagonists, the Jewish state can win battles, but real, ultimate, final victory—in the form of full acceptance as a legitimate, even welcome partner in the region—remains a distant dream. Until then, winning the battles, while building the state, must suffice.


As with much of what Abrams writes, I find myself agreeing with almost every word. I may quibble about certain points, like the potential for non-Islamist forces to prevail in their contest with the Islamists (I am more optimistic than he), or the size of the Arab population that is blessedly indifferent to Jews and Israel (I probably peg it at a higher number than he does). And there is one paragraph, in the section on the deep-rooted hatred of Jews in “the Arab street,” to which I would offer a friendly amendment. There Abrams writes that only when “Islam’s pernicious teachings” on Jews are eliminated, as the Roman Catholic Church finally did with respect to its own teaching of contempt, can the problem be solved. But Islam, as such, is not the problem, any more than Christianity, as such, was the problem. Rather, just as the problem lay with certain Christians and their institutions, today the problem is with certain Muslims and their religious, educational, political, and intellectual leaders and institutions. Put differently, if the “pernicious teachings” ceased to be taught, they would also cease to exercise an impact.

But these are differences on the margin. In terms of Abrams’ core proposition, I agree: the grim reality for Israel is, of necessity, “the long war.” There is no wishing away either the mullahs’ dream of evicting the Zionist “cancer” from the Middle East or their practical efforts to bring that about. There is no contesting the visceral hatred of Jews that passes for reasonable political discourse in many corners of the region. (In this regard, I was shocked to see, courtesy of MEMRI, a recent clip of a mosque preacher explaining the Jews’ historic blood lust for Christian children—shocked because it aired on the official television channel of Jordan, one of the only two Arab states at peace with Israel.) There is also no disputing that Palestinians have been cursed too often and too long with leaders who look benignly at corruption (Fatah) and murder (Hamas). And there is, sadly, no dispelling the common view among Arabs, Israelis, Turks, and Iranians—to the chagrin of some, the glee of others—that America is, well, preoccupied.


And yet, despite my agreement with so much in this compelling essay, I still find something missing.

In my view, what’s missing is the element of Israel’s agency—that is, the degree to which Israel is not just acted upon but an actor capable of determining its fate. In an essay that justly celebrates Zionism as “the only democratic nationalist movement of the 20th century that succeeded,” curiously absent is the fundamentally Zionist idea that Israel plays a role in shaping its destiny beyond merely fending off enemies until they tire or move on. (The one significant exception is Abrams’ reference to Israel’s half-hearted support of Salaam Fayyad’s state-building enterprise during his brief tenure as prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.)

Before going farther, let me hasten to stipulate that mine is emphatically not the view of those who maintain that “if only” Israel were to withdraw from the West Bank, or divide Jerusalem, or give up its nuclear deterrent, or—the list goes on, just fill in the blanks—then the long war would end and peace would reign in the Holy Land. On this point, Abrams is right: to many of its antagonists, the problem with Israel is not what it does but what it is, namely, a sovereign Jewish state. Short of a “one-state solution”—as perverse a term as Middle East politics has ever produced—there is precious little Israel can do about that.

But to recognize that there is nothing Israel can or even should do to change the views of the annihilationists of Iran, the beheaders of IS, or the Holocaust deniers, quenelle-flashers, and blood-libelers lurking in the dark corners of Western democracies and Middle Eastern despotisms alike does not lead to the conclusion that Israel’s actions have no impact on its strategic position. To the contrary, they can have a substantial impact: on the political class in democratic countries that shapes critical decisions about economic ties, diplomatic relations, and defense cooperation; on the truly “undecideds,” including the many highly educated, highly sophisticated people whose lives don’t revolve around the granular complexities of the Israel-Palestinian dispute; on the changing demographic components of the American voting public, which no Israeli strategist should take for granted; and even on the vanguard of pro-Israel support among American and world Jewry, one of Israel’s most undervalued strategic assets.

In the military realm, it is axiomatic that actions have consequences; in Israel’s case, military victory enhances deterrence while battlefield stalemate invites continued adventurism by adversaries. Similarly in the political realm: Israel’s actions have repercussions, often of more than one kind. Certain policies may be worth pursuing, or even necessary to pursue, despite the price to be paid for the gains accrued; it is the task of leaders to make such assessments and decide what to do. But, as I’m sure Abrams would agree, to suggest that there are no repercussions is delusional.

Just as war planners limit vulnerabilities and shorten lines of communications to make them more defensible, Israel might consider applying the same approach to the political side of the long war. This would entail stressing, for example, the strategic significance to Israel of its liberal culture and values (a line championed, for example, by Benny Begin, no security slouch); the long-term importance of the higher standards of ethical behavior that Israel demands of its warriors (a theme associated with Natan Sharansky, also no shrinking violet on security matters); and the immense value to Israel of projecting itself as ever ready for partnership in pursuit of real, secure peace, no matter how bleak the political horizon may be.

In this connection, one serious national discussion might focus on disentangling the issue of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank from the issue of the Jewish settlement project there. In terms of a traditional military occupation, Israel has the advantage of both the moral and practical high ground. Military occupation was thrust upon it by the aggression of its neighbors and remains legitimate until a state of peace obtains throughout the area. Indeed, as Abrams points out, most Arab leaders today don’t even urge Israel to consider terminating its military role until it is confident that a successor arrangement leaves it more secure than it is now. 

Certain aspects of the settlement project, however, are on shakier ground. Ideology aside, it is not so simple, for example, to reconcile Israel’s stated support for the “two-state solution” with settlement expansion or territorial aggrandizement outside the security fence. Reiterating that Israel is prepared to withdraw from certain settlements as part of a secure peace deal doesn’t really explain the logic of building in areas that in any reasonable two-state solution would likely be included within the borders of a potential Palestinian state. After all, it strains common sense to propose paying twice: once to build and then a second time to vacate.

Note that I’m speaking here only about the politics of building “east of the fence.” In fact, despite what you read in many if not most media sources, the majority of new settlement units in the Netanyahu era have been built in territory even the Palestinians recognize will eventually be part of Israel. Nor do I imagine that a government statement forswearing new construction east of the fence will end condemnation of Israeli building policies altogether—not by a long shot. But in addition to the benefit of needed clarity, such a policy would contribute to delinking the hot-button issue of settlements from what should be the much less controversial issue of Israel’s military/security presence in the territories. Given the prospect of a long war as far as the eye can see, any reasonable step that can enhance support for the legitimacy of IDF operations in Israel’s “near-abroad” should merit serious consideration. 

Let me conclude on the broader point. As the old joke goes: Israel’s situation is, in one word, good; in two words, not good. The humbling reality is that Israel is likely to live for a long time in the gray netherworld between those two conditions. Many factors, including the five negative trends to which Abrams wisely draws our attention, will affect how light or dark the shade of gray will be at any given time. A strong, creative, activist, and confident Israel has a role to play in this, too.


Robert Satloff is executive director of the Washington Institute and host of Dakhil Washington (“Inside Washington”), a weekly news-analysis show on al-Hurra, the U.S. government’s Arabic satellite channel.


Can the Unsustainable Be Sustained?

Israel's prime minister has indicated it might shelve the two-state solution. How would the world react, and how much would it matter?

<em>Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens to Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon during a cabinet meeting on August 24, 2014.</em> Photo by GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens to Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon during a cabinet meeting on August 24, 2014. Photo by GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images.
Haviv Rettig Gur
Sept. 10 2014

Why do people cling so passionately to political opinions, even when a preponderance of facts suggests their views might be wrong or incomplete? To the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind (2012), the arguments and narratives we present in defense of our positions are, in fact, “mostly post-hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.” As such, those constructions are often impervious to new information or alternative narratives. “Intuitions come first,” Haidt writes; “strategic reasoning second.”

So far as I know, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon do not have any special training in the fields of psychology or social theory. Yet these two politicians, who stand at the apex of Israel’s foreign and defense establishment, seem to have internalized Haidt’s conclusions years ago. Having done so, both have regarded with equanimity—some would say with disdain—the cacophony of righteous indignation and overweening certainty with which many pundits at home and abroad pronounce the coming fall of the Jewish state, the irreversible alienation of American Jewry, and the steady collapse of Israeli democracy.

In conversations with diplomats and journalists from abroad, someone in my business quickly learns how unassailable these narratives have become. It isn’t just that they are accepted universally and completely; they are accepted by many who lack the means or the will to summon the knowledge necessary to support such sweeping assurances.

How, then, are we to assess these prevailing theologies, which drive so much of the world’s perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? According to researchers like Haidt who study the human mind, all of us are at least partly lying our way through our politics. Should we then treat these warnings, however unexamined, with at least enough humility to consider whether they might be at least partly true?


Enter Elliott Abrams. In his essay in Mosaic, Abrams tackles one of the key unexamined truths upheld by the Israeli-Palestinian commentariat: the vague, dire warning that the current state of the conflict is “unsustainable.”

Abrams does two things very well. First, he lays out a comprehensive, reasoned case, founded on well-known facts and recent events, that the current Israeli-Palestinian status quo might be the least dangerous of the many bad outcomes currently available to Israeli and Western policy makers. Second, in making this case he effectively invites us to weigh a startling question: given the woeful results of Israel’s withdrawals from southern Lebanon and Gaza, the dysfunction and instability that characterize Palestinian politics even at its most moderate, the looming dangers from IS and Iran, which together inspire, fund, train, and/or direct most of the terror organizations already operating under Palestinian authority, why do people still cling so thoughtlessly to the “unsustainability” argument?

One example. We often hear that Israel is running out of time demographically; that West Bank Palestinians will soon demand Israeli citizenship; and that, if it grants citizenship, Israel will quickly lose its Jewish majority, and thus its raison d’être as the nation-state of the Jews, while if it denies citizenship it will transform itself once and for all into a thoroughly apartheid state.

But is it reasonable to expect events to develop like that, and so rapidly? One of the few things about which most Israelis and Palestinians seem to agree is that neither party wants to live with the other; nor have West Bank Palestinians shown any desire for Israeli citizenship. If, at some future time, a large enough number of Palestinians were to make such a demand, Israel would indeed be faced with choices: grant citizenship, withdraw from the West Bank and recognize a full-fledged Palestinian state, or reject the request pending some other resolution. But where is the evidence that any such moment of decision is nigh, or that if events do reach this point Israel will have lost the option of unilateral withdrawal, or, more pointedly, that it would be safer or wiser to make the decision now, before the necessity arises?

Whether, on moral grounds, one supports or opposes a speedy Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank is not the issue; what fails to withstand scrutiny is the demographic justification for such a withdrawal.

Meanwhile, the dangers of withdrawal are harder to brush away. The dysfunctional political elite of the Palestinian Authority shows no signs of being able to reciprocate Israel’s surrender of control in the West Bank with any guarantees, or even reasonable expectations, of becoming a stable, peaceful polity next door to the Israeli heartland. What is more, after the outcomes of the withdrawals from southern Lebanon (2000) and Gaza (2005), simply arguing that the status quo is unsafe without explaining why it is more unsafe than staying put seems, well, not serious.

Pundits who actually want to see a withdrawal implemented in their lifetime cannot afford to ignore the clear-cut, precedent-rich threats that Israelis worry about in favor of unconvincing tropes that transparently fail to take into account the most basic facts of the conflict. Israelis need to be convinced not that disengaging from the Palestinians is a good idea, but simply that it is a safe one. This is a harder case to make, but it would have the considerable merit of addressing the actual obstacles to withdrawal.


All of which brings us back to Netanyahu and Yaalon’s resistance to the prevailing narratives about “the conflict,” and to Elliott Abrams’ essay.

Quietly, unhurriedly, the two Israeli leaders are putting in place a profound change in policy toward the Palestinians. In a little-noticed comment at a press conference in mid-July, Netanyahu delivered, almost off-hand, the outlines of that new policy. The first Israeli journalist to notice or grasp the significance of these comments was David Horovitz, the editor of the Times of Israel (and my boss), who wrote:

The prime minister spoke his mind as rarely, if ever, before. . . . He made explicitly clear that he could never, ever, countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank. . . . Why? Because, given the march of Islamic extremism across the Middle East, he said, Israel simply cannot afford to give up control over the territory immediately to its east, including the eastern border—that is, the border between Israel and Jordan, and the West Bank and Jordan. . . . Amid the current conflict, he said, “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”

What will all of this mean? As Horovitz notes:

Not relinquishing security control west of the Jordan . . . means not giving a Palestinian entity full sovereignty there. It means not acceding to Mahmoud Abbas’s demands, to Barack Obama’s demands, to the international community’s demands. This is not merely demanding a demilitarized Palestine; it is insisting upon ongoing Israeli security oversight inside and at the borders of the West Bank. That sentence, quite simply, spells the end to the notion of Netanyahu consenting to the establishment of a Palestinian state. . . . He wasn’t saying that he doesn’t support a two-state solution. He was saying that it’s impossible.

Separately, about a month after Netanyahu’s comments, one thoughtful observer of the conflict put it to me this way (I’m paraphrasing): Israel still has a two-state policy, but in practice it’s a “let’s not let the West Bank turn into Gaza” policy. The two may not be mutually exclusive in theory, but they are almost certainly mutually exclusive in practice.

And the reason is clear. The version of statehood suggested by Netanyahu does not address fundamental Palestinian aspirations. For the Palestinians, the aim of statehood is not about institution-building, as Europeans and Americans tend to see it, but about the need to address the indignities and dispossession of the Palestinian past, the paramountcy of the naqba in Palestinian cultural identity. To be sure, it is not clear that this need can ever be satisfied; Palestinian demands in the past do not bode well in that regard. But Netanyahu’s new maximum will certainly not end the conflict, and lies far below even the American and European minimum.

Abrams, in short, has zeroed in on the question that is driving the most significant change in Israeli security policy in a generation. Netanyahu, too, is asking precisely the same question, and has reached conclusions not dissimilar to Abrams’.


And there’s the rub. If much of the punditry on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict suffers from a distressing lack of intellectual seriousness, there is a profound reason for that. These interminably repeated truisms are not really meant to be heard as policy prescriptions, but rather as moral assertions.

In debates in which I’ve participated over the years, more than a few critics of Israel, pushed to the wall by facts like those presented by Abrams, have switched effortlessly from arguing that Israel cannot allow the continuation of the status quo to insisting that it must not: a moral imperative that justifies accepting whatever manifest dangers are inherent in an IDF withdrawal from the West Bank. Since the moral balance so overwhelmingly favors withdrawal, there is hardly any need to explain how it might be carried out safely. Those advocating it are acting as Israel’s moral conscience—whereas I, in challenging their assertions, can have no other motive but the perpetuation of a monstrous immorality.

One can decline to take this discourse seriously, as Netanyahu, Yaalon, Abrams, and others do. It is indeed shrill, ignorant, and unresponsive to evidence or events. But it is no less politically potent for that. For many in the troubled Arab world, the Palestinians’ weakness is a stand-in for their own sense of civilizational vulnerability and failure, while Israeli power highlights their galling helplessness in a world that is quickly leaving them behind. For many millions of others, including Europeans and North Americans, the simple sense of a vast disparity in power and economic wellbeing between Israelis and Palestinians tilts the moral scales definitively. The strong, they feel, can afford to lose far more than the weak.

Over the past two decades, Israel’s supporters around the world have been able to counter such assertions with a powerful rejoinder, which goes something like this: “You’re right. The moral calculus favors Palestinian independence. But Israel, in fact, agrees with you. Israel wants peace. It has withdrawn from territory in the past in exchange for peace, and is negotiating to do so again in the future. The problem comes from the other side. As soon as the Palestinians show their willingness for real peace, they’ll find Israel only too ready to accommodate.”

But now it may be growing harder to say this. In the words of an influential Israeli speaking recently in a closed forum, “the work that the aspiration for a two-state solution does for Israel’s capacity to conduct itself internationally is huge. That activity enables us to function internationally. If hope is gone, if we cannot show this aspiration, it will be much harder to function. Israel will essentially be asking its liberal allies to come to terms with indefinite occupation.”

Ironically, such a change is likely to go over more easily in the Middle East than in Europe or America. Considering the looming threat of IS, the bloodbaths in Syria and Libya, or the political turmoil in Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, and the Gulf, Israel’s desire to cling to the status quo seems perfectly intelligible to its near neighbors. Even some Palestinians, observing al-Nusra’s approach to the Golan border and the Islamic State’s flirtation with the Jordanian frontier, whisper their assent. In terms of concrete regional alternatives, there is an important upside to the idea that the full might of the IDF will continue to stand between Palestinian cities and the ravaging Islamist hordes without.

Internationally, however, these considerations do not appear to factor into the moral sensibilities or political narratives of diplomats, journalists, activists and leaders. And so, here is a danger to counterbalance Abrams’ carefully constructed policy equation. It is not Israel’s enemies who will be repelled by a de-facto decision to cease seeking a two-state solution, but its most important friends. For these friends, it is one thing to struggle and fail to achieve peace, quite another to renounce the struggle altogether.

Of course, Netanyahu’s own statements, and the positions he took in the last round of peace talks, are far more nuanced than this. He has essentially mapped out what he is willing to offer the Palestinian national movement now, under current circumstances, while tacitly acknowledging that circumstances can change, and new governments will react to those new circumstances. In the meantime, the Palestinians would enjoy far greater independence and autonomy than they do now, in addition to the security benefits of being behind the Israeli defensive line. And they would gain formal recognition from Israel of their statehood, a dramatic move forward in diplomatic terms.

But such nuances do not really mitigate the troubling possibility that the tacit shelving of the two-state solution, however temporary, would be widely seen as proving Israel’s worst detractors correct. Netanyahu cannot be trusted, Barack Obama once said, a little too close to a microphone. That was when Netanyahu was on record in support of the two-state solution. “What Now for Israel?” Abrams’ title asks. What now indeed, when Israel’s supporters won’t even be able to point to an Israeli declaration of intent?


Haviv Rettig Gur is the political correspondent of the Times of Israel.


The Case for Unilateral Action

Why Israel needs to move now toward a division of the land—even in the absence of a peace deal.

<em>A settlement in the West Bank.</em> Photo by libertinus/Flickr, made available by Creative Commons.
A settlement in the West Bank. Photo by libertinus/Flickr, made available by Creative Commons.
Amos Yadlin
Sept. 14 2014

Elliott Abrams’ analysis of Israel’s strategic environment is almost entirely on point. He is right that Israel’s status quo is much more sustainable than is commonly argued, and right again on the absurdity of claims that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict constitutes the “epicenter of global politics.” Indeed, it would be equally farfetched to claim that Germany’s 500,000 Jews were the epicenter of World War II. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, itself a subset of the Israeli-Arab conflict, is but one in a long list of the Middle East’s entrenched rivalries and fault lines. Even on Israel’s own national-security agenda, the Palestinian threat no longer figures as high as the much more severe and urgent challenges presented by Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Hizballah’s ever-growing arsenals.

Still, sustainable as the status quo may be, sustainable is not coterminous with desirable. Yes, the warnings of alarmists at home and abroad are misguided if not hysterical; and yes, Israel should not forget the price of failures brought upon it by hastily concluded schemes for “comprehensive” peace agreements. But that is not the end of the matter. Since its inception, modern Zionism has been centered more on creating new realities than on enduring imperfect ones, however sustainable they may turn out to be.

“A republic, if you can keep it,” Abrams quotes Benjamin Franklin saying about the fledgling United States in 18th-century Philadelphia. But modern-day Israel does not have the luxury of standing by as a mere spectator to the Palestinian leadership’s misgovernance. Even if the Palestinian Authority, for its part, persists in refusing any reasonable peace proposal, practical and moral reasons argue against the resigned acceptance of any such reality. Practical—because of the risk of yet another failed state on Israel’s doorstep. And moral—because, even while defending itself from recurrent violence and aggression, and even while conscious of the limits of its own power, Israeli society has always taken upon itself the obligation to relieve human suffering where it can. If skeptical, one need only have observed the many truckers shuttling food and medical supplies to Gaza’s civilians during the recent campaign there, or the doctors at Israel’s top-tier hospitals who deliver medical care to Syrian and West Bank Arabs.

More pointedly, even if, from the security perspective, a continued Israeli presence in areas populated by Palestinians is for now a positive, sustainable necessity, one cannot ignore the fact that the lion’s share of Israelis no longer want to be involved in those areas. As Abrams observes, one of Hamas’s only victories in 2014 consisted in putting paid to what remained of Israel’s old “peace camp.” Many prominent figures of the Israeli left, including politicians, journalists, and novelists, came out strongly against Hamas’s brutality and decried the intentional targeting of civilians whether Israeli, Israeli-Arab, or Gazan. But even though Gaza presented Israelis with a sharp reminder of the perils involved in ceding control of land to Palestinians—perils that may recur in the West Bank if Israel were to relinquish its security role there—the vast majority remain opposed to a re-occupation of Gaza and would likewise want to see a reduced Israeli involvement in the governance of other Palestinian populations.


As an American, Elliott Abrams exercises admirable restraint when it comes to advising Israelis what he thinks they ought to do. But I like to think he would agree with me that a positive Israeli agenda vis-à-vis the Palestinians is a pressing desideratum—an agenda undertaken not out of necessity, but out of activism and aspiration. The core of such an agenda is easily stated: an Israeli-driven partition of the land. When I say “Israeli-driven,” I mean simply this. A generous offer should be made to Palestinians, the outlines of which are by now quite familiar, having been repeatedly put on the table by successive Israeli prime ministers. If, once again, the offer is rejected out of hand or meets with impossible and non-negotiable demands like the wholesale return of Palestinian refugees and their descendants, or sovereignty over the Temple Mount, Israel on its own should continue to pursue a two-state reality.

In that latter scenario, acting on principles formulated in consultation with its global allies and friends, Israel would shape its own borders, maintaining full control over Jerusalem, the settlement blocks, and the Jordan River. As for other areas under Israeli control, they would include for the time being all territories west of the security fence; the eventual disposition of these territories would be decided when the Palestinians are ready to negotiate seriously. Meanwhile, Israel would renounce its formal claims to political sovereignty in areas where very few Israelis reside—areas that happen to constitute some 85 percent of the West Bank. By taking such a unilateral initiative, Israel would wrest from the current Palestinian leadership its crippling veto power over partition, while simultaneously acting to secure its own future as a Jewish, democratic, secure, and just state.

The current Israeli government has proved itself to be risk-averse both in making war and in seeking peace. But modern Zionism, again from its inception, has always represented a high-risk strategy—one that, over the long run, has not only proved to be well founded but has paid off magnificently. Creating an old-new Jewish commonwealth in the violent Middle East was an immense challenge; and yet, decade after decade, even while managing to sustain the “unsustainable,” Israel has also striven with remarkable success to fulfill its founders’ dream of a society that would lead, thrive, and act as a light unto the nations. With the support of the United States, another city on a hill, as both John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan defined it, Israel can continue to forge its own future in the same spirit, not out of fear but out of will and determination.


Amos Yadlin is the director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. He formerly served as chief of military intelligence for the Israel Defense Forces.


What Now for the United States?

How America can help the new Arab-Israel alliance to resist IS and stabilize the Middle East.

<em>Islamic State fighters in Aleppo, Syria on July 4, 2013.</em> Photo by Daniel Leal-Olivas/Corbis
Islamic State fighters in Aleppo, Syria on July 4, 2013. Photo by Daniel Leal-Olivas/Corbis
Sept. 17 2014
About the author

Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He is finishing a book on President Eisenhower and the Middle East. He tweets @doranimated.

No one explains the durability of the status quo in Israeli-Palestinian relations as well as Elliott Abrams. “What Now for Israel?” demonstrates why, despite the strong will of the United States and Europe to broker a two-state solution, a formal peace remains out of reach. Forty-seven years after the Six-Day war, it’s time to conclude that, in the Middle East, there is nothing more permanent than a temporary arrangement. 

While Abrams focuses almost exclusively on Israeli perceptions, including Israeli perceptions of the American role, his analysis demands that we also ask and try to answer the question, “What Now for the United States?” 

Before anything else, American leaders need to repudiate, once and for all, what Abrams calls the “epicenter” theory: that is, the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the central strategic question in the Middle East. While no American president has embraced this theory in any formal sense, almost every president since Jimmy Carter—and every secretary of state since Cyrus Vance—has taken it as axiomatic that to formulate a Middle East policy means initiating and presiding over a “peace process.” We can now see that peace in this sense—that is, an allegedly final agreement, however tenuous, sealed with a handshake on the White House lawn—will be unattainable for the remainder of the Obama administration and probably much, much longer.

More to the point, even if such an agreement were possible, its benefits to the United States would be much less significant than American leaders have tended to assume. 


What explains the grip of the epicenter theory on the American imagination? There are many reasons for it, but one of the most important is also one of the simplest: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stirs up passions worldwide and attracts unparalleled attention from the global media. Presidents have unconsciously conflated this political heat with strategic significance. If a conflict generates this much electricity, it must have an explosive influence on the most profound questions of national and international order.

But it is not so. The core threats to American national security in the Middle East today are the rise of the Islamic State (IS), the advance of the Iranian nuclear program, and the spread of Iranian influence throughout the region. They are almost entirely disconnected from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If a peace agreement were signed today, the political landscape of the Middle East would remain more or less the same, and so would the most consequential challenges it poses to the United States.

In addressing those core threats, a fundamental contradiction has bedeviled the policy of the Obama administration. On the one hand, the president has adopted the ambitious goals of convincing Iran to abandon its nuclear program and stabilizing Iraq and Syria. On the other hand, he has displayed a persistent reluctance to commit the level of resources, especially the military resources, necessary to achieve these aims—and an equally deep reluctance to accept the traditional post-World War II leadership role of the American presidency in global affairs.

On the face of it, Obama overcame that reluctance when he announced his strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” IS. But the new military campaign flies in the face of the president’s previous actions and policies toward Iraq and Syria, and his ambivalence is still palpable. Despite its billing, the speech outlined an air campaign that will only degrade IS, not destroy it. As a result, Obama still stands before the Iranians and IS like a shaky policeman, his eyes searching for the exit even as his gun is drawn from its holster.

As Abrams explains, this study in self-contradiction has only added to Israel’s reluctance to gamble on a two-state solution. In order to manage the risks of peace, Israel needs the backing of the United States, yet the current administration’s long-term commitment to the region is unpredictable. And it is not only Benjamin Netanyahu who questions American reliability. The Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, and Emiratis are equally unnerved, especially because now, when it comes to dealing with IS, Obama’s mixed messages have coincided with an ever-deepening American coordination with Iran itself, the bitter rival of America’s closest Arab allies.


The week before Obama’s speech, these same Arab allies riveted their attention on the military coalition that liberated Amerli, the Turkmen city in Iraq that was under siege by IS. While American planes attacked IS from the air, Shiite militiamen, Iraqi soldiers, and Kurdish peshmerga fighters attacked on the ground. Of them all, it was the Shiite militiamen—trained in Iran—who actually took physical control of the city, and who reportedly did so, moreover, under the watchful eye of Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Tehran’s Quds Force (“Jerusalem Brigade”). 

Has the United States become the air arm of Iranian proxies? Will the convergence of Iranian and American interests with respect to IS lessen Washington’s (already questionable) inclination to force concessions from Tehran on its nuclear program? Will Washington now scant the advice and concerns of its traditional allies in favor of closer attentiveness to Iran and its subsidiaries and stand-ins?

Plagued by such doubts, America’s Arab allies have banded together into a bloc designed to protect the status quo—a bloc that now coordinates closely with, of all countries, Israel. Pointing to this unprecedented regional turnabout, Netanyahu speaks of “a new political horizon.” Whether the new alignment will satisfy Israeli expectations remains to be seen. But it could and should definitely serve as the foundation for a new and comprehensive American strategy.

The creation of the broad anti-IS front offers an opportunity to welcome this bloc into the inner circle of a coalition, which the U.S. should use not only to subdue IS but simultaneously to sideline Iran and Syria. At the same time, it could serve to help stabilize the status quo in Israeli-Palestinian relations. As Abrams points out, most Israelis, even many on the political Right, do not relish the idea of ruling over four million Palestinians. Thus, even as the immediate prospects of a peace accord recede, the two-state solution still remains the only game in town. 

In the Israeli-Palestinian arena, instead of brokering meetings between Netanyahu and Abbas to achieve the impossible—a settlement of the entire conflict—the U.S.-led coalition could adopt a more modest and more productive approach. Desirable now is diplomacy aimed at forming a stable, autonomous entity on the West Bank. Of course, such an entity could not be established formally, because the Palestinians would likely regard signing off on it as a renunciation of their national rights. But it may be within reach to craft a set of unofficial rules of the game that will strengthen the status quo and conduce to further mutual accommodations in the interest of all parties.  Call it a code of conduct. 

For example: the construction of new Israeli settlements east of the separation barrier, imperiling the status quo, would be considered a violation of the code of conduct and grounds for significant protest not just by the United States but also by Israel’s new Arab partners. By contrast, the code would hardly regard the growth of Israeli settlements within the major settlement blocks—towns and cities that, everyone agrees, will eventually be absorbed into Israel proper—as cause for alarm.  

Another example would be a plan to expand what is known as Area A, namely, that part of the West Bank in which, according to the Oslo accords, the Palestinian Authority enjoys full control. While, again, full-blown peace is impossible, the gradual expansion of Area A until it incorporates all of what is now Area B, where security control is mixed between Israelis and Palestinians, is within the realm of the achievable. At the same time, Area B could expand to include parts of Area C, in which, currently, Israelis wield complete control.

In return for supporting such a movement toward Palestinian autonomy, the Israelis would rightfully expect, especially in the all-important field of security, reciprocal gestures by the Palestinian Authority as well as by the PA’s Arab supporters.  

Presiding over the development of a code of conduct is not the stuff of which Nobel peace prizes are made. But it is important work. What is more, it will not divert American attention from the task that matters most: countering IS and, especially, Iran.


Michael Doran, a senior fellow of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. His book on Eisenhower and the Middle East is forthcoming. He tweets @doranimated.


Keeping the Status Quo, and Improving It

Trapped between certain chaos in the West Bank if it withdraws and loss of international legitimacy if it doesn’t, can Israel still act affirmatively? Can we?

<em>An IDF soldier peers into a Hamas tunnel in the Gaza Strip in July 2014.</em> Photo by the IDF Spokesman Unit.
An IDF soldier peers into a Hamas tunnel in the Gaza Strip in July 2014. Photo by the IDF Spokesman Unit.
Elliott Abrams
Sept. 21 2014
About the author

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he maintains a blog, Pressure Points. He is the author of, most recently, Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

I’m grateful for the insightful responses to “What Now for Israel?” by Robert Satloff, Amos Yadlin, Haviv Rettig Gur, and Michael Doran. I have a few general points to make, and I trust they will emerge as I reply to each of them in turn.

With Robert Satloff I have but one disagreement. It concerns my reference to Islam’s “pernicious teachings” about Jews. Satloff objects. “Islam, as such,” he writes, “is not the problem. . . . [T]he problem is with certain Muslims” and their leaders, who propagate them; if those teachings “ceased to be taught, they would also cease to exercise an impact.” But the anti-Jewish passages in the Quran are not imaginary, and they do constitute a problem. It would be a very good thing if Muslim leaders were to repudiate them; if that day is far off, it is in part because the words in the text are so very strong.

On the issue of Israeli settlement activity, by contrast, Satloff and I are in agreement. As he notes—and he is the rare commentator who does take account of this fact—most new construction is done in areas that “even the Palestinians recognize will eventually be part of Israel.” But some construction is taking place beyond the security fence, in areas that in any two-state solution would be part of a Palestinian state. Like Satloff, I regret this and think it a mistaken policy.


Just as Robert Satloff taxes me with “missing . . . the element of Israel’s agency,” Amos Yadlin urges that even though the status quo with the Palestinians is in fact sustainable, it is nevertheless undesirable and should be changed—by Israel. Well aware of the risks involved, Yadlin observes that modern Zionism itself has “always represented a high-risk strategy,” but one that has paid off. He therefore counsels Israel to “shape its own borders” in the West Bank by claiming control over Jerusalem, the settlement blocks, and the Jordan River while “renouncing its formal claims to political sovereignty in areas where very few Israelis reside.”

In essence, this means setting the security fence as a political border, and the Jordan River as a military border, for an interim period that could last years or decades. This is close to what I believe Ariel Sharon would have pursued had he not become incapacitated in January 2006, and I understand the logic of it. But as Yadlin is aware, even this display of “will and determination” will not work unless it has the support of the United States, which today it does not. So this is a discussion Israel should have with the next American administration.

Yadlin further advises that Israel actively seek to relieve suffering and poor governance among the Palestinians, but he is vague as to how this might be achieved. His idea that Israel “shape its own borders” will not get us there, either. But here’s a suggestion: while waiting for new and friendlier leadership in Washington, Israel might do more to promote economic progress in the West Bank, something Yadlin does not mention but would I believe support. The Netanyahu government has taken a number of steps in this direction, but much more could be done to promote business activities and help alleviate poverty. Moreover, such initiatives can be fostered under Yadlin’s criterion of unilateral, Israeli-driven action and do not depend for their success on the dysfunctional Palestinian Authority.


Would these and other actions improve Israel’s own position, as Amos Yadlin believes? Haviv Rettig Gur is more pessimistic. Given the parlous security situation in the region, Israel is understandably not about to relinquish military control of the West Bank and the Jordan River; and this, Gur states plainly, means that a fully sovereign Palestinian state is not possible. Under these circumstances, which could last a long time, Palestinians would enjoy limited home rule, but that would be seen neither by Israel’s enemies nor by its friends as constituting the desired “two-state solution.” Even if many Arabs and even some Palestinians may privately think Israel’s security judgments are reasonable, the country will suffer a great blow internationally if it is understood to be rejecting Palestinian independence. As Gur puts it: “it is one thing to struggle and fail to achieve peace, quite another to renounce the struggle altogether.”

His argument is powerful, especially since, outside the United States and Canada, Israel’s friends are in any event few and beleaguered. Gur reminds us what Israel is up against in the “international community.” In those precincts, Palestinian demands for a fully sovereign state trump any consideration, however correct, of the very real danger that would be posed to both Israelis and Palestinians by an Israeli departure from the West Bank.

Gur is offering a warning to his countrymen, not a solution: either keep control of the West Bank and risk a further loss of international support and legitimacy or relinquish control and risk national security. Since Israelis will not do the latter, they must cope with the former. To me, this conclusion would seem to strengthen Yadlin’s argument that Israel can benefit by acting—within, to be sure, the constraints imposed by security needs. Not because this will solve the issue, but because it provides evidence of the underlying truth: Israel does not wish to rule the Palestinians but, when it can be done safely, to separate from them.

It may seem unfair and even absurd to Israelis and their supporters that Israel has to keep proving this point, but if it can do so without sacrificing safety, it’s a sensible course. To phrase it somewhat differently: if, as I believe, the status quo will be sustained for a long time to come because no alternatives are in fact safe, actions that reaffirm Israel’s continuing desire for a better situation someday, with Palestinian self-government in roughly 90 percent of the West Bank, are wise policy.


Here Michael Doran offers some sound advice. According to his analysis of the overall state of play in today’s Middle East, the United States has an opportunity both to strengthen a new alliance of status-quo powers, an alliance that includes both Israel and our Arab allies (Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states except for Qatar), and to weaken our opponents in the Iranian and Syrian regimes, Hizballah, and the various Sunni terrorist groups including Hamas and Islamic State. The U.S., Doran writes, should seize that chance.

He is equally persuasive when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian situation. A final peace agreement being far away, a “more modest and productive approach” should aim at a more stable and more autonomous entity in the West Bank under what he calls a “code of conduct.” In keeping with that code of conduct, Israel would limit settlement growth to the major blocks—the same advice offered by Robert Satloff—while moving steadily toward more Palestinian control in areas now fully or partially under Israeli control. I’m sure Doran would agree as well on other measures meant to improve life in the West Bank, for example by significantly upgrading the currently poor Internet access there, a move that would enable greater collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian companies and in general help stimulate economic growth.


In sum, and taken together, my essay and the responses to it suggest three conclusions.

First, the status quo between Israel and the Palestinians is likely to be sustained for the foreseeable future, for the simple reason that a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank is safe neither for Palestinians nor for Israelis. That being the case, the demand for a comprehensive final-status agreement is unrealistic and should not be the goal of American policy today.

Second, this situation creates real political vulnerabilities for Israel, leaving it open to inevitable accusations of seeking permanent dominion over the Palestinians. Accordingly, if, without undue security risks, there are steps Israel can take to improve its own political situation and Palestinian welfare at the same time, it should do so.

Third, Israel, most of the Arab states, and the United States have a strong common interest in resisting the advance both of terrorist and jihadi Sunni groups and of the Iranian-led alliance. These threaten us all. Thus, instead of pursuing policies that divide—by, for example, seeking an accommodation with Iran, or pushing for an unattainable Israeli-Palestinian peace—Americans should grasp and run with this opportunity to rebuild our relations with Middle Eastern friends while strengthening relations among themselves. Michael Doran is right to remind us that in addition to asking “What now for Israel?” we should be asking, “What now for the United States?”


Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he maintains a blog, Pressure Points. He is the author of Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America (1997) and, most recently, Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.