By Barry Rubin
Many people are obviously and understandably frustrated that Israel is so badly treated by the Mug-gers (media, university, and government) complex in much of the Western world. One can fume endlessly against their behavior (double standards, unfair, correct falsified history) but that accomplishes nothing.
So the immediate alternative is to say what is needed is creative new ideas, with the assumption that these ideas will solve the problem or at least make things better. This is logical and fits many other situations but it usually doesn’t apply to Israel’s case. Why not?
The assumption is that if good actions are taken then they will be recognized and rewarded. If good things are said, they will be reported and praised in a meaningful way. But while Israel should always do and say the best things this mechanism doesn’t work. The good actions are ignored or reinterpreted; the good statements are just ignored.
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And so the eternal last bastion of those who unintentionally make Israel’s situation harder and the Middle East worse is to say: Why don’t you propose something positive? What’s the alternative? The status quo is unsustainable!
Of course, all status quos are unsustainable in a sense since change is inevitable. But sometimes the status quo deserves to be kept around for a while until something better comes along or can be made to happen. The best alternative of all is not to make things worse than they already are. As for the cliché that the status quo is unsustainable, .that usually followed by a plan that would make for a status quo even more unsustainable and negative.
There is a one-word description for the idea of the unsustainable status quo: defeatism. Mind you, I don’t mean that nothing should change and that one’s policy should be that of mindless reactionary intransigence. But one can also make one’s own strategy better rather than switching to another one.
The implication of an unsustainable status quo is that things are so bad that you better jump off the sinking ship into shark-infested waters before it is too late. It might be better to mobilize the crew, start pumping out the water, and steer a good course.
Consider past examples of the “status quo is unsustainable” nonsense:
- The status quo is unsustainable so we must withdraw immediately from south Lebanon.
- The status quo is unsustainable so we must have the Oslo accords.
- The status quo is unsustainable so we must withdraw from the Gaza Strip.
And what has this done but produce what we are now called an “unsustainable” status quo” as opposed to all of those previous unsustainable situations of the past six decades.
Another thing left out by the unsustainable status quo school is to assume that any change must focus on making more concessions. One could alter the status quo, for example, by showing more strength and by inflicting higher costs on adversaries and sabotaging hostile acts. One can also be creative about defending oneself.
On top of all this, however, Israel has special problems. Here are three examples:
Turkey: In trying to deal with the current friction with Turkey, Israel’s government proposed that it express regrets about defending itself during the Gaza flotilla, not the defense but the resulting loss of life among Turkish jihadists come to create a confrontation. It offered to make donations to a humanitarian fund for the relatives of those killed.
The Turkish government responded that only a full apology, the payment of compensation (an admission of wrong and based on demands rather than the donors judgment), and an immediate end of the Gaza blockade. The Turkish demand was ironic coming immediately after a UN commission declaring the blockade is legal.
So despite trying creative ways to end the conflict, Israeli officials could do nothing. Why? Because for its own reasons the Turkish regime doesn’t want to resolve the conflict. All Israel can do is to show its respect for the Turkish people and nation along with willingness to be flexible if the other side is reasonable.
Egypt: What is going to be determining the Egypt-Israel relationship in future is not Israeli actions or words since radical nationalists and Islamists in Turkey—even relative moderates—are so hostile. Israel’s creative alternative is to try to get along with the military junta and to avoid offending reasonable Egyptian pride and legitimate Egyptian rights. Once an elected government takes over, it isn’t going to be easy.
No verbal formula, no Israeli action will make the country popular among revolutionary Islamists and radical nationalists. This is different from normal international relations, where countries can make alterations in their words or policies to get credit for them and sooth disputes. That’s a point many in the West simply don’t understand.
Palestinians: What’s Israel to do on this issue? How about withdrawing from the Gaza Strip to show its good intentions? No, did that. Letting a couple of hundred thousand Palestinians return and establish their own government? Been there, done that. Letting them have guns and lots of money? Check. Offering, on almost a daily basis, to negotiate without conditions; to accept an independent Palestinian state; to return basically to the 1967 borders with some alterations and swaps? Ooops, done that, too.
And if after all that Western leaders and writers can still say that Israel hasn’t proven that it wants peace will the next change in the status quo change that? Of course, if Israel elected a left-of-center prime minister, the world would say nice things for a while even if they had the same basic policy and said the same words as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does. Yet how long will that last? Don’t believe me? Three words: Rabin, Peres, Barak.
An outside observer who doesn’t understand any of this or who hasn’t been following events would think that obviously Israel can and should do more for peace. Let me put it this way: Why should we risk our lives just because you haven’t been paying attention?
Precisely at this moment I read an op-ed by a well-intentioned law professor who points out a “positive” aspect of Palestinian statehood. If Palestine becomes an internationally recognized state, it will be responsible—he explains—for actions taken by any group on its soil, say for example if a Palestinian group crossed the border and attacked Israel, killing Israeli civilians.
Professor, please note that by that standard Israel has no problem with Lebanon, for example, a country from which terrorists have often attacked Israel. Oh, by the way, the terrorists are now governing that country. Also, once Palestine becomes a country it is more likely that terrorists will attack Israel from its territory, Israel will retaliate, and the state of Palestine will go to the UN, where the General Assembly will then agree that Israel is the aggressor.
And as a sovereign state it is free to go to Egypt or other Arab or Muslim-majority states, import weapons and even ask for military advisors. So when Israel retaliates, it is better-armed and more likely to inflict casualties on Israeli forces. If foreign advisors are killed, that country may declare the death of its citizens to be an act of war by Israel (as Turkey’s prime minister has done regarding the Gaza flotilla clash). Or the government of Palestine can ask other countries to rush in forces and weapons to fight the Israeli “aggression.”
Please, all you professors and “experts” and politicians and journalists out there: Consider the consequences of your schemes on the real world. Before you criticize Israeli leaders as fools who don’t know what’s good for their people or Israelis in general as evil and short-sighted people who don’t know what’s good for themselves, it’s a good idea to understand the situation they face and the experience they have lived through.
So let me say something nice about the status quo. Given the alternatives, Israel is relatively secure and prosperous. When you are the stronger party who is benefiting more, you can afford to wait until the other side makes you an offer so that changing the status quo would benefit you even more. Israel is not the—supposedly—desperate party that—supposedly—suffers from “occupation,” and that groans under the yoke of settlements—though if it makes a peace deal these will be dismantled.
The new idea needed at a time when the regional situation is deteriorating badly because of external factors is how better to defend yourself. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes contacts going on with the Palestinian Authority and others to ease the situation as much as possible, including the promotion of Palestinian prosperity.
Winston Churchill knew something about real-world politics and “unsustainable” status quo situations. He was, after all, prime minister at a time when the Nazis ruled virtually all of Europe and German planes nightly bombed British cities.
Asked once what it was like to be ninety. Terrible, he said, but consider the alternative! What about democracy? The worst of all political systems, Churchill replied, except for all of the others.
So I’m all for creativity and new ideas, as well as flexibility, but anyone who doesn’t understand Israel’s special situation and history in that regard understands nothing. There’s a reason why every concession, risk, and new idea Israel tries out doesn’t create a “sustainable status quo” and that reason is: the fault does not lie with Israel.
Finally, if the status quo is so horrible, say, for the Palestinians then let them make a deal for a stable, two-state solution peace with Israel to change the situation rather than public relations’ campaigns at the UN and patiently waiting another few generations in the hope that violence, martyrs, intransigence, and an Arab or Islamist war against Israel to bring them total victory. .
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com