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Land for Death

Israel may face a wrenching choice between its democracy and Jewishness. And that’s normal.

Lee Smith
November 19, 2014
Palestinian protesters hold a poster and wave a national flag in front of the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit, on Sept. 5, 2014.(Musa Al-Shaer/AFP/Getty Images)
Palestinian protesters hold a poster and wave a national flag in front of the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit, on Sept. 5, 2014.(Musa Al-Shaer/AFP/Getty Images)

Maybe all of Europe will soon follow the Swedes in recognizing a Palestinian state. Last week the E.U.’s new foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini expressed Europe’s general impatience and called for the prompt creation of a Palestinian state. The world, she said, “cannot afford” another war in Gaza. And to make good on her word, the E.U. is now threatening to sanction Israel if it continues to avoid taking the steps toward a two-state solution.

It’s worth noting that the E.U.’s threats to sanction Israel come on the eve of a likely nuclear deal with Iran that will relieve sanctions on the Islamic Republic. For Iran, sanctions relief will entail a virtual gold rush with European businesses investing billions in Tehran’s energy and auto sectors. In other words, the way Europe sees it, Israel’s partial military occupation of 2.2 million Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank is far more dangerous to world peace than the rise of a nuclear-armed pariah state that wages terrorist operations on every continent in the world except Antarctica.

And it’s not just Europeans who see the world from this particular angle. The president of the United States argues that a Palestinian state is good for America, and especially for Israel. Without the creation of a Palestinian state—and soon—Obama fears, Israel is in grave danger. As he told Jeffrey Goldberg, he hadn’t yet heard “a persuasive vision of how Israel survives as a democracy and a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors in the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution. Nobody has presented me a credible scenario.”

According to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the most likely scenario is that there’s going to be a third intifada if Israel doesn’t get out of the West Bank. The status quo, says the secretary of state, is simply unacceptable. In saying so, Kerry added his name to a long line of policymakers who have stated that if Israel doesn’t make compromises for peace (U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki Moon), or take risks for peace (Obama), it’s in big, big trouble.

And, guess what: They’re right about the problems that Israel faces. After all, you don’t get to be president, or secretary of state, if you’re no more attuned to reality than the seedy, desperate guys who walk around Times Square with placards prophesying the end of the world. The good news is that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is clear to any moderate, rational person. If the Israelis withdraw from Palestinian land, then their conflict with the Palestinians will be over. No occupation, nothing more to fight about. Sometimes life is just that simple.

But weirdly, experience shows that withdrawing from the West Bank isn’t likely to bring about peace. Rather, it seems virtually certain that if Israel withdraws from the West Bank the result will be another major, bloody war—this one directly adjacent to Israel’s heavily populated and vulnerable heartland.

In fact, the real wonder isn’t that Israel doesn’t withdraw from the West Bank tomorrow, but that otherwise rational people still seem to take the land-for-peace formula seriously, given the fact that Israel’s last two attempts to dutifully implement the world’s preferred easy solution—southern Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005—were the cause of the bloody wars that the world can “no longer afford.”

The great virtue of the land-for-peace formula is that it holds out the promise that Israel’s problems with its neighbors—like the West’s larger problems with Islamic radicalism—are susceptible to some kind of rational solution, involving painful sacrifices by both sides to further the cause of peace. While that would be nice, believing it to be true requires constructing one of two alternate realities: the first, in which Israel hasn’t tried withdrawing from land yet; and the second, in which Israeli withdrawals brought about any of the results their proponents promised.

In fact, contrary to the belief that Hezbollah would lay down its weapons after the May 24, 2000, withdrawal and become part of the Lebanese political system, it waged war against Israel in the summer of 2006—a war that killed far, far more Israelis (163) and far, far more Lebanese (approx. 1,200) in six weeks than died during Israel’s 1985-2000 occupation of southern Lebanon (256 Israeli combat deaths). If only Ariel Sharon’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza had led to the peace and co-existence between Israel and Gazans that the international community’s peace advocates promised! If only the greenhouses left by Israeli settlers had became the foundation for Gazan agriculture, producing world famous oranges and tomatoes, prized by Brooklyn’s top chefs! But that’s not what happened. Palestinians laid waste to the greenhouses. And Israel didn’t get peace but war after Hamas ran Fatah out of Gaza—war in 2009 (13 Israelis dead; 1417 Palestinians), 2012 (2 israeli military dead, 120 Palestinian fighters and 57 civilians killed, according to Israeli estimates) and this summer (72 Israelis, and 2,192 Palestinians killed). That’s four wars in eight years, after withdrawing from every inch of Lebanon, and every inch of Gaza. Yes, bookies and professional gamblers are able to make a decent living because the world is flush with suckers who think they are going to beat the odds. But risking the lives of millions of people on hitting “00” on the roulette wheel every time you stroll through the casino lobby is no way to run a country.

It’s true of course that Israel really did get peace in exchange for its withdrawal from the Sinai. However, there are lots of differences between that withdrawal and its last two. First, in giving the Sinai back to Egypt, Jerusalem signed a peace treaty with a sovereign state run by a powerful army that no longer wished to wage unsuccessful wars against a much more powerful army backed by the United States. In contrast, the foreign policy of the government of Lebanon is handled by a terrorist organization, Hezbollah, while another Iranian-backed terrorist organization, Hamas, came to power after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. There are few security experts who do not assume that Hamas would overrun Mahmoud Abbas’ U.S.-trained and U.S.-funded security forces very quickly if Israel left the West Bank. Claims that the United States or some other national or international body would train and support a new Palestinian security force that would in turn secure the territories against Hamas or other jihadist groups lost whatever credibility they might have had somewhere between Obama’s red line in Syria and the appearance of black ISIS banners on long columns of U.S. tanks and armored vehicles given to the Iraqi army.

But the most important difference is that the Sinai is a demilitarized zone. A similar-sized demilitarized zone in the West Bank would push Palestinian arms back to somewhere around the Jordanian-Saudi border. In reality, an Israeli withdrawal would leave Palestinian rejectionists, Sunni jihadists from ISIS or al-Qaida, IRGC-Qods Force officers, and any other motley anti-Israel forces kilometers from the center of Israel, including its one international airport and the heart of its information technology hub. In other words, when the world insists that “Israel should take risks for peace,” it is placing big bets on long odds with someone else’s money.

But it’s not that Obama, Kerry, Moon, the E.U., columnists, analysts, and masses of right-thinking people all want to see Israel brought to its knees. Some of them love Israel, or would at least like to think well of it. And some of them are honestly worried that the continued occupation of the West Bank will diminish either its Jewish or democratic character.

And the truth is that they are right. Israel cannot go on subjugating 2.2 million Palestinian Arabs under continuing military rule in the West Bank and call itself a democracy on a par with the United States or Great Britain or France. Nor can it extend full citizenship to the Arab population of the West Bank and remain a Jewish state, to the extent that it is one today. In that sense, Obama and Kerry and their helpful pundit friends and the good men and women who run the E.U. policy shops in Brussels are all 100 percent correct. The Israelis have plenty of real dilemmas to worry about.

However, it is also true that wrenching choices between Israel’s democratic character and its Jewish character are hardly the worst threats that Israel now faces—or has faced. In fact, such choices are par for the course for most nation-states. America chose much worse early on—the mass slaughter and dislocation of indigenous people, slavery—but those awful choices, and the attempts to undo them, which lasted for centuries, and that preceded America’s subsequent imperial ventures on other continents, hardly vitiate our national project. Nor do our national crimes make us worse people than the English or the French, who between them managed to occupy not merely the same sliver of land on the West Bank that Israelis and Palestinians argue over today, but also most of the rest of the world as well. While some English and Frenchmen may mourn their lost empires, very few other peoples mourn along with them. The crimes of the Germans and the Russians fall into an even worse category, which is met in polite quarters with somber memorials that struggle to find a language to explain how human beings could be so bestial. By some measures, the Belgians, who now play host to the E.U., were the worst of all, torturing and massacring millions of Africans without even the shadow of any imagined higher purpose.

Israel’s crimes are real, but they are less bad than those of their neighbors, let alone their critics. The dilemmas that Israel faces are real, too. The fact that Israel at this stage of its existence has to prioritize the safety of its citizens—who are threatened daily by genocidal racists and fundamentalist religious supremacists who howl for their blood and try to kill them—does not irredeemably stain its national project. It just means that the Jewish state, as its founders had dreamed, is a normal country, with some big problems. What would be abnormal would be to expect its leaders to play roulette with the lives of its citizens, based on the fantasy that after two land-for-peace disasters in Lebanon and Gaza, the third and by far the riskiest withdrawal will be the charm.


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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.