We’re defining “here” in the headline above as the hard realities that exist on the ground, as well as some of the apparent conditions laid down by President Obama last Thursday during his speech on the Middle East. We hasten to add that there were strong and welcome elements in the President’s remarks that should have appealed to serious peace seekers on both sides of this seemingly intractable dispute. The President declared that the Palestinians must accept and recognize Israel as a Jewish state with which they must peacefully live side by side in their own demilitarized state, and that Israel, to have peace, must end its occupation of what he referred to as Palestinian land and cease all settlement activity.
Nonetheless, Henry Kissinger’s warning in his 2001 book, “Does America Need a Foreign Policy?: Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century” seems more relevant today than ever. Kissinger wrote that the time was fast approaching when leaders would emerge who had no historical memory of the issues with which they would have to deal, and that such a time could result in great instability in the world.
The historical memory that this White House (and a succession of prior White Houses) seems to lack is that the Middle East has been plagued by war and violence ever since the Arab side rejected a two-state solution sixty-five years ago, and that the reasons they rejected such a solution then still motivates their leadership today. Until that changes there can be no fruitful peace negotiations.
Many have praised the President’s speech because of his reaffirmation of our commitment to the security of Israel. While that may, indeed, be reassuring to some Israelis, we think that that reaffirmation qualifies as a rather minimum statement of support from one ally to another. And, yes, many in the United States have cheered the President’s assertion that Israel must be recognized and accepted as a Jewish state along side a new Palestinian state, but isn’t that the arrangement the United Nations established (and the Arabs rejected) 64 years ago. What is noteworthy is that these affirmations are hailed as a great show of support for Israel rather than as the simple statements of fact that they really are.
Sadly, the Arab Khartoum Declaration of 1967 (the infamous three no’s, — no peace, no recognition and no negotiation) is still effectively operative even though the Arab charade of tactically dropping one of the no’s (no negotiation) has, from time to time, been suspended. As lawyers might appreciate, the Khartoum Declaration is jointly and severally operative. That is, if all of the Khartoum no’s aren’t dropped then the Declaration’s objective of preventing peace still prevails. And therein lies the Gordian Knot of the Middle East conflict. There has never been a Palestinian leader who has stated unambiguously, that the objective of peace talks will be to produce two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, each recognizing the legitimacy of the other, living side by side, and with all issues between them having been resolved. That remains true of the leadership of Fatah headed by Mahmoud Abbas and all of the Hamas leadership. If that isn’t the mutual objective of both sides then what is the reason to convene yet another peace conference? Such a conference so convened cannot produce peace. It is ironic that two Arab nations, Egypt and Jordan, did conclude just such a peace agreement when they recognized that it was in their self-interest to do so. The Palestinians, particularly Hamas, harbor no such objective.
Twenty years of peace conferences to which the parties were dragged by a succession of American Presidents, beginning with the Madrid Conference of 1991, have failed because real peace was not, (and is not) the real objective of both parties. Both Yassir Arafat and Mr. Abbas were offered what, in its essential elements, was the Obama formulation and both turned it down.
President Obama’s pronouncement that Israel must withdraw to the pre six-day war borders was, in our judgment, a significant tactical error. Those are the borders that would provide Israel with nine miles of land, at its center, between such a new Palestinian state and the sea. Launching mortar and rocket attacks from the back of pick up trucks has become a national pastime among some Palestinian groups that take orders from no one in particular. Today, southern Israeli cities still are routinely subjected to such attacks, as were northern Israeli cities when Hezbollah launched similar attacks from Lebanon. Were new borders established predicated on the 1967 boundaries, every inch of Israel would be within range of such bombardment. While a state jointly controlled by Fatah and Hamas could publically state that it wouldn’t conduct such attacks, no Israeli government could survive if it agreed to an arrangement based on assurances from Fatah and Hamas, nor should it.
Borders should be what negotiations decide. President Obama has, essentially, proclaimed that the distance of less than one half of a marathon race is all the space Israel needs at its waist to assure that it won’t be cut in half in any future war with a former adversary, much of the leadership of which has vowed, as recently as last week, to continue the struggle to destroy Israel. Last year President Obama made a settlement freeze a precondition for peace negotiations, and that became the excuse for the Arabs not to talk. It seems as though the President, by making proclamations in advance of the give and take of the negotiating process, is making the same mistake again.
Some commentators were quick to note that Israel’s Ehud Barak offered, essentially, the same terms at the Camp David talks hosted by President Clinton in 2000. True enough, but let’s look at what has transpired since the former Israeli Prime Minister offered those ill-advised terms which were, by the way, rejected out of hand by the Palestinians. According to the Israeli Defense Forces, between 2001 and the end of 2008, over 8600 rockets were fired into Israel from Gaza following the Palestinian rejection of Israel’s peace proposal at Camp David. Furthermore, according to the Israel Security Agency annual report, Palestinians carried out 569 rocket launches and 289 mortar launches at Israel in 2009 and 150 rocket launches and 215 mortar launches last year.
And from Wikileaks we learn of Israel’s current assessment of the threat from Hezbollah in the North. The reader will recall that under the terms of the cease-fire that ended the 2006 war on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, Hezbollah, which fired an estimated 4000 rockets into Israel during that conflict, was prohibited from resupplying its forces with rockets. According to secret communications, between the Israeli and American defense establishments revealed by Wikileaks, the Israelis said that since the Second Lebanon War Hezbollah has –
“increased its quantity of sophisticated arms with improved range and accuracy.”
Military Intelligence officers presented estimates of Hezbollah’s arsenal in Lebanon. “Hezbollah possesses over 20,000 rockets, hundreds of 220 mm and 302 mm rockets, several hundred Fajr rockets, hundreds of simple anti-tank (AT) launchers with rockets and missiles, and hundreds of advanced anti-tank wire guided missiles (ATGM), dozens of SA-14, SA-7 and QW-1 anti-aircraft guns, several Ababil unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), an unknown quantity of C-802 coastal missiles and up to thousands of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).”
An Israeli officer said “Hezbollah was preparing for a long conflict with Israel in which it hopes to launch a massive number of rockets at Israel per day.”
“In the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Tel Aviv was left untouched − Hezbollah will try to change the equation during the next round and disrupt everyday life in Tel Aviv,” the officer is quoted as saying.
A Mossad official said “Hezbollah will want to ensure it can launch rockets and missiles to the very last day of the conflict … Hezbollah will try to launch 400-600 rockets and missiles at Israel per day − 100 of which will be aimed at Tel Aviv … [and] sustain such launches for at least two months.”
This means Israel expects a war that would last up to two months, during which 24,000 to 36,000 rockets and missiles would be launched into its territory, about 6,000 of them aimed at Tel Aviv.
It is within this context that President Obama has now asserted that Israel, as a pre-condition to peace talks, should accept a Palestinian border nine miles from its Mediterranean coastline. It boggles the mind.
The President called America’s commitment to the security of Israel “unshakeable” and we believe he means it. We suspect, however, that many Israelis feel quite shaken by this new definition of an unshakeable commitment. Words will not protect Israel from truck mounted rockets or mortars or from a surprise nine mile lightning dash to the sea by a Syrian-Iranian supported enemy. Israel is faced with deadly and assertive belligerents on its northern and southern frontiers and America is suggesting that it accept a nine mile waistline at its center. Israel may well decide that it can agree to such borders, but such an arrangement should not be forced upon it by its most important ally, one who proclaims it is unshakably committed to its security.
Israel’s enemies are unambiguous about their intentions. They vocalize their deadly intentions from their schools and mosques and they spell them out plainly and forthrightly in their governing documents (see May 9th essay). Yet the President tells the world “Israel will have to act boldly to advance a lasting peace.” Just how boldly are we to expect Israel to act? They ”boldly” left southern Lebanon only to find Hezbollah on their northern doorstep firing rockets deep into their cities. They “boldly” left Gaza and were shortly thereafter subjected to thousands of rocket attacks from across their southern border. And now, yet again, he says Israel must “act boldly to advance a lasting peace.” Here is a question no one ever seems to ask; just what does “act boldly” mean? Will it also mean allowing millions of refugees and their descendants to return to the homes from which they left or fled when the Arabs invaded the new state of Israel over sixty years ago? Will it mean redividing Jerusalem, the eastern portion of which as well as the old, walled portion of the city including the Western Wall Israelis were barred from prior to the six-day war? Shouldn’t the President also ask the Palestinians to act boldly and state at the beginning of negotiations that they agree that the principle objective is to have two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, recognizing each other’s legitimacy, and at the conclusion of the process they will unambiguously state that they have no further demands?
Perhaps the most important elements of President Obama’s address were that, “the dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation,” and that “Palestinian, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure.” These statements make clear that a concluding settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis must be achieved because it is in their mutual self-interest to bring peace and stability to their respective peoples. His choice of words, perhaps, are President Obama’s subtle way of telling the Palestinians that the right of return of refugees must be to Palestine, lest, there be two states, both Palestinian. If that is the intent, why not just say so? These statements make clear that a concluding settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis must be achieved because it is in their mutual self-interest to bring peace and stability to their people. The Presidents words also seem to presage a likely veto by the United States of a Palestinian attempt to have the United Nations unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state when the world body reconvenes in September.
When both sides recognize that peace is in their mutual best interest, peace will come to that part of the Middle East. Until then, forcing the parties to convene peace talks merely raises expectations, tensions and, sadly, the likelihood of violence when hopes are dashed.