“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.
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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.