February 9, 2021 — New York
This piece originally appeared in The Times of Israel.
“If Only Israel (IOI) syndrome,” a term I began using several years ago, is the misguided notion, peddled in the name of Israel's “best interests” by some in the diplomatic, academic, and media worlds, that if only Israel did this or that, peace with the Palestinians would be at hand.
Poor Israel. If only it had the visual acuity of these “enlightened” souls, everything would be hunky-dory. After all, according to them, Israel holds all the cards, yet refuses to play them.
The thinking goes: Why can't those shortsighted Israelis figure out what needs to be done — it's so obvious to us in Brussels, Paris, Dublin, and Stockholm, in our ivory towers from Cambridge to Berkeley, and as commentators on BBC and CNN — so the conflict can at long last be brought to a screeching halt?
Thus, if only Israel stopped any settlement building. If only Israel understood that Gaza’s tunnel-diggers and rocket-builders don’t really mean it when calling for the Jewish state’s extinction. If only Israel restrained itself rather than responding to terrorist attacks against Israeli targets. If only Israel stopped assuming the worst about Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. If only Israel went the extra mile with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. If only Israel got beyond its Holocaust trauma. If only Israel...
The point is, for the IOI crowd, it always seems to boil down to Israel.
And the syndrome has only been strengthened by its adherents’ assessment of the current Israeli government, of course.
Many media outlets, from the Associated Press to CBS News to Der Spiegel, branded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “hardline,” or some variation thereof, from the get-go. Their word choice simply reinforces the notion that the conflict is all about alleged Israeli intransigence, while avoiding any descriptive judgment of a seemingly unassailable Abbas, other, perhaps, than “aging.”
It’s important to underscore a few basic points too often lost in the din.
First, the current Israeli government follows on the heels of previous governments that sought to achieve peace based on a two-state settlement with the Palestinians — and failed. Each of those governments went far in attempting to strike a deal, but, ultimately, to no avail.
Prime Minister Ehud Barak, joined by President Bill Clinton, tried mightily to reach a pathbreaking agreement with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. As confirmed by Clinton in his autobiography My Life, the answer was, in effect, a thunderous rejection, including denying any historical Jewish connection with Jerusalem, accompanied by the launching against Israel of a deadly wave of terror attacks, which came to be known as the second intifada.
And, not to be forgotten, a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon also took place during the Barak era. It was met by the entrenchment of Hezbollah, committed to Israel's destruction, in the vacated space.
Then, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had also earned the media’s label of “hardline,” defied his own Likud Party — indeed, he left it to create a new political bloc — and uprooted thousands of settlers to leave Gaza entirely. It was the first chance ever for Gaza's Arab residents to govern themselves. Neither the occupying Egyptians or Ottoman Turks had ever done this for Gaza.
Had Gazans seized the opportunity in a constructive manner, they might have created unstoppable momentum for a second phase of significant Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Instead, Gaza quickly turned into a terrorist redoubt, realizing Israelis' (and Egyptians’) worst fears.
Then, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, urged on by Washington, pressed hard for a deal with the Palestinians on the West Bank. According to the late Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, the Israeli offer “talked about Jerusalem and almost 100 percent of the West Bank.” Not only was it not accepted, but no counter-proposal from the Palestinian side was ever forthcoming.
Prime Minister Netanyahu inherited a situation in which: (a) Hamas holds the reins of power in Gaza since 2007, spends precious funds on digging tunnels and amassing missiles to attack Israel, and teaches children to aspire to “martyrdom”; (b) Hezbollah continues to gain strength in Lebanon, thanks to Iranian largesse, and has an estimated 100,000+ missiles and rockets in its arsenal, which its leaders claim can reach any point in Israel; (c) the Palestinian Authority has been AWOL for years from the negotiating table; and (d) Iran continues to call for Israel’s destruction, while enhancing its own military capability, entrenching itself in Syria, and supporting Hamas.
So, before Israel gets further lectures on what needs to be done, perhaps we should take stock of what’s transpired — and why.
There have been several bold Israeli efforts since 2000 to create a breakthrough — and repeated failures. And that doesn’t include Netanyahu’s unprecedented ten-month settlement freeze, at the urging of the Obama administration, and the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to seize this opportunity to break the stalemate.
The vast majority of Israelis yearn for peace and understand the price the country will have to pay in territory and, presumably, displaced population. Poll after poll proves their readiness, but only if they are assured that lasting peace, not new phases in the conflict, will be the outcome. Tellingly, few see that possibility on the horizon anytime soon, though when an opportunity came from the United Arab Emirates, linked to Israel dropping any plans for annexation in parts of the West Bank, Israel quickly chose the UAE deal.
Israelis don't have to be pushed, prodded, nudged, cajoled, or pressured to seek a comprehensive peace beyond the current treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and now, notably, normalization agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. More than any other nation, they have lived with the absence of true, lasting peace for nearly 73 years, and know full well the physical, psychological, and economic toll it has inflicted on the country.
Rather, they must be convinced the tangible rewards justify the risks for a small state in a tough area. Those rewards begin with acceptance of Israel's rightful place in the region as a Jewish-majority state living in secure and internationally recognized borders. And that, more than settlements, checkpoints, or any of the other items on the IOI bill of particulars, gets to the essence of the conflict.
The 2005 Gaza disengagement, not to mention the earlier withdrawal from the vast Sinai Peninsula, demonstrated that settlements (and checkpoints) can be removed if needed.
But until the Palestinian side recognizes Israel’s legitimacy, and stops viewing the Jewish state as an “interloper” that can be defeated militarily or swamped by “refugees”— who are in most cases third- and fourth-generation descendants of the original refugees from a war started in 1948 by the Arab world — then whatever the IOI folks call for will be a secondary issue in the real world.
Until this recognition is reflected in Palestinian textbooks, where children have been taught for generations that Israelis are modern-day “Crusaders” to be driven out, the hope for a brighter future, alas, is dim.
Until the Palestinian Authority succeeds in building a serious and accountable governing structure, including enhanced capacity (and will) to combat extremism and incitement, Israel will have no choice but to operate in the West Bank to prevent attacks against its civilian population.
And until the forces seeking Israel’s annihilation — from Iran's current regime to Hamas to Hezbollah — can be contained, there will be a long shadow cast over the road to peace. Some would argue this view gives the spoilers too much power over the process. Rather, it simply acknowledges the inescapable realities faced by Israel, a country 1.3 percent the size of Iran, 11 percent the size of neighboring Syria, and, in American terms, the size of New Jersey.
Israel doesn't need still more lectures on the importance of peace. Rather, it needs genuine partners, starting in Ramallah. Without them, peace remains elusive. With them, it becomes inevitable.
David Harris is the CEO of American Jewish Committee.