Saturday, February 05, 2011

Israel's Historic Missed Opportunity

It certainly seemed that the Israelis were in an exceptionally strong position over the last two years compared with the historic average. Israel had waged two wars against its near enemies, Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in 2008. Politics aside, these conflicts were undeniably decisive military victories for Israel. In the meantime, we've seen the international community rally further against Iran, and Syria has been quiet as well after being caught red handed building a nuclear reactor and subsequently bombed by Israel. So strong was the Israeli position that we have seen come to light an assortment of embarrassing leaks about the extent to which the PA was willing to make concessions to Israel to advance the peace process.

Of course, one of the great drivers of wars in the Middle East is religious extremism. To Americans, the biggest culprits here are groups like Hamas, who refuse to renounce violence or recognize Israel. Unfortunately, there are Israeli religious extremists, too. The Israeli government has refused to confront the settler movement, who continue to build in East Jerusalem and in the West Bank. If the Israelis want to continue to advance settlements, that is one decision. The consequence of that decision is that the peace process is stopped in its tracks and the international community almost universally condemns Israel for the provocations, with the exception of America.

This is all very frustrating to me. I had enormous amount of respect for Binyamin Netanyahu when he took power. Then Obama was elected, an American president who clearly demonstrated a superior understanding of the conflicts in the region and also one who had unprecedented support from Arabs and Muslims in general, by virtue of not being George Bush, having opposed the Iraq war, having a Muslim father, and having lived in a Muslim country as a boy. In this context, I was extremely optimistic about the prospects for peace. I figured the Israelis would be ready to make a move, because the the best time to compromise is when one is in a strong position, and the Israelis clearly were.

Alas, instead of compromising, Israel squandered its time. Binyamin Netanyahu, for all of his military courage, didn't have the political courage to stand up to these irrational religious extremists in the settler movement. When Obama took office, his first move in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute was to call for restraint from both sides, and specifically asked the Israelis to simply halt new settlement construction. Netanyahu humiliated Obama by refusing until Obama bribed him sufficiently, and even then only yielded a temporary freeze which expired soon thereafter. The peace process was stopped dead in its tracks because a bunch of religious extremists believe that Allah or Yahweh promised them the same land. From our end, Republicans have been encouraging this bad behavior on the Israelis' part not because it was in the best interest of Israel, but so they could contribute to Obama's failure.

In fact, just the other week, Mike Huckabee gave a speech commemorating the completion of a new settlement built illegally in the West Bank. Expanding these settlements into the West Bank does not contribute to Israel's security, it gravely undermines it. Yet to Christian evangelicals in the United States and to the Israeli settler movement, these settlements are justified and necessary from a Biblical perspective. At this point we might pause and ask ourselves if the Old Testament is a good guide for American foreign policy in the Middle East. If anyone actually needs an answer to this question, I would refer them to Deuteronomy 20:17 for God's recommendation for dealing with the Palestinian question.

Last week an earthquake struck the Middle East with the epicenter in Cairo. The greatest Arab ally of Israel, and one of the few with a peace treaty, is going to be overthrown. What will come in Mubarak's place? If the new Egyptian government is at all democratic, it will certainly be a government that is far less friendly than Mubarak towards Israel: a recent poll showed that 3% of Egyptians have a positive attitude towards Israel while 91% have a negative attitude. Egyptian animosity towards Israelis will only worsen when Egyptians find out that Netanyahu's government had been frantically lobbying the Obama administration to stand by Mubarak when the crisis hit. Incidentally, I was reading about how some American Jews are struck by the irony of the Jewish Israeli government working to stifle the freedom of oppressed peoples in the lands of Egypt.

What happens from here on out? I do not believe we will see a return to the days of Nasser, where Egypt is actively warmongering and planning to attack Israel. I suspect Egypt will go the way of Turkey lately; relations with Israel will cool, perhaps to the point of animosity, but mutual alliances with the United States should provide enough glue to prevent a severing of relations or outright military confrontation. Still, it is very difficult to imagine that the Egyptians over the long term will continue to enforce the blockade of Hamas in Gaza, which causes great hardship for the 1.5 million Palestinians in the strip. There is no doubt that Hamas and Hezbollah will be emboldened that by far the most populous and important Arab country may become less friendly to Israel.

Nietzsche once said that true courage is having the strength for an attack on one's convictions. Any hard-headed fool can stubbornly cling to his beliefs, no matter how enormous the evidence to the contrary. George W. Bush ignored for almost 3 years the disastrous reality of Donald Rumsfeld's handling of the War in Iraq, and thousands of American soldiers died because of it. George W. Bush is a coward precisely because he did not have the strength for an attack on his convictions. Binyamin Netanyahu is similarly guilty and has let his people down. In retrospect, we will all come to realize the enormous opportunity to make peace over the last two years that the Israelis had. The Netanyahu government wasted this opportunity because it didn't have the political courage to stand up to their religious extremists in the settler movement. Again and again in history, we see that the easy thing for politicians to do is to beat on the drum of nationalism and to prove their mettle by refusing to compromise. It is much harder to offend some of your own in the name of compromise and advancing their interests.

When it comes to Israel and war, there are two questions: one is whether Israel has the right to keep pounding its enemies, and the other is whether it should keep doing so. The first question: Israel certainly has the right to defend itself. No doubt, it feels good to see Israel teach a terrorist group like Hamas a lesson, especially after Hamas provoked the Israeli response. The second question is harder to answer. Israel beat Hamas, but hundreds of innocents died in the process. The international community almost universally condemned Israel. Relations with Turkey in particular melted down to almost nothing. The most important thing to remember is that pounding Hamas did not actually accomplish anything for Israel. Hamas is still in Gaza, it is as radical as ever, and it is still arming. Israel cannot continue to engage in these wars with non-state actors who don't care how many of their own people die so long as they hurt Israel; it's like playing chicken with someone who is suicidal. Weapons and war can only make Israel safe in the short term; the only thing that can make it safe in the long term is compromise, negotiation, and peace.

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