By Barry Rubin
It’s amazing how rarely any mainstream Israeli view–excluding the far left, which provides good anti-Israel ammunition, and, rarely, the far right, to make them look stupid–gets into many of the American media’s most elite organs. I’m not referring here to regular news articles but opinion pieces, columnists, and editorials. Often, it is incredibly easy to give a strong, accurate, and persuasive response to claims being made or ideas being promoted by this media. Yet since no one is allowed to do so, these rather silly and ignorant arguments go largely unanswered.
Here, for example, is the always anti-Israel Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times who writes:
“Israel has a point when it argues that relinquishing the West Bank would raise real security concerns. But we must not lose sight of the most basic fact about the occupation: It’s wrong.”
Even his opening sentence acknowledging that Israel has real concerns is a rarity. That’s progress perhaps. But I’m not sure what the sentence “It’s wrong” actually means. I can think of dozens of things in the Middle East, or in the world, that can said to be “wrong,” yet what counts in international affairs is survival and reality, not the highly selective use of one-sided moral judgments.
For example, it’s wrong to ask Israel to take dangerous risks and possibly commit suicide. It’s wrong to take sides with radical movements and dictatorships against democracies. It’s wrong to help establish on the Mediterranean Sea the long-term rule of a repressive revolutionary Islamist, antisemitic, genocidal, terrorist regime that oppresses women and Christians while being a client of Iran. Yet these wrongs for some reason don’t seem to bother the current foreign policy establishment.
Moreover, the most basic claims made about Israel are simply inaccurate: There is no “occupation” (not in the way people in the West generally speak of it, which seems to assume the situation of 1967-1993 still prevails) and Israel’s policy is quite right on this matter.
Despite a minority position within the country (which disappeared in the last 20 years), that Israel should annex that territory, the main basis of Israeli policy has always been a simple one:
Israel should hold onto an overriding control of this land until a peace can be negotiated that is stable, lasting, includes real Palestinian acceptance of Israel’s right to exist, and ends the conflict forever.
If the Palestinian side were willing to do this, peace and a Palestinian state could be achieved within months. If not, no other gimmick will work. This includes the recently touted gimmick that Palestinian prosperity is sufficient to build peace without Palestinian political moderation.
Having said this, let’s consider some details.
First, before 1993 Israel had total control of the West Bank. Since then it has withdrawn from almost all populated areas and a Palestinian Authority has been created which rules the people there, receives massive foreign aid, and has proportionately huge security forces. In a real sense, Israel doesn’t “occupy” the West Bank. Indeed, if there were not terrorist attacks there would be even less presence.
Second, and this might sound strange at first but is quite true, whatever Israel is doing in the West Bank is not a non-consensual occupation but embodies arrangements accepted by the PLO and PA. They have signed numerous agreements which regulate the situation. True, after they sign agreements they often say they were unfair and demand more. But this is hardly a good omen for their abiding by any future agreements. The fact is, however, that the “occupation” ended in 1994-1996.
Third, as noted above, the PA can end the Israeli presence whenever it wants to do so simply by making a peace agreement.
In a sense, then, Kristof’s stance, and that of the many who echo it, is based on a trick. The PA refuses to make a compromise deal, thus forcing the continuation of the “interim” arrangements, then complains that it is suffering. The solution is then to say that Israel’s presences is “wrong” and should be ended even without the PA doing anything.
It is interesting to note that this conception of morality is based on the view, so popular nowadays, that suffering–even if self-induced–trumps every other possible consideration, from common sense, to keeping one’s commitments, to existing law, to historic morality. Even terrorism is justified on the basis of the real or alleged suffering of those committing it, and even if the terrorism being committed makes a major contribution to the continuing of the suffering that supposedly created it in the first place.
Yet in the real world if the presence of Israel–settlements, etc.–is “wrong” the PA’s refusal to make real peace–stop incitement, agree to a permanent end of the conflict, resettle refugees in Palestine, make a real effort to transform its ideology and public opinion in favor of peace with Israel–is equally wrong.
Finally, of course, Kristof deliberately doesn’t mention the Gaza Strip. There the idea that Israel’s occupation was “wrong,” prevailed, Israel withdrew, and found itself with a revolutionary Islamist neighbor seeking to wipe it off the map. Something parallel could well happen if the “wrongness” of Israel’s role on the West Bank were to set the tone of the situation.
Incidentally, if and when Kristof and such people decide that the Hamas coup in Gaza and the construction of a terrorist state there is “wrong” and they advocate the overthrow of Hamas, they might have a bit more credibility.
There is no doubt that the way Kristof presents the situation is widely accepted in the West, but that, too, is quite wrong. Indeed, this picture is so misleading and using it as the basis for policy is so dangerous that Israel only can–and will–ignore such foolish advice.
If I might put it bluntly: Just because you are stupid (having bad judgment) and ignorant (unaware of the facts and history) why should I have to die and see my country destroyed? That is very very wrong.
Note: One might consider a situation in which the Allied occupation of Germany and Japan after World War Two extended over a long period of time because the political movements and ideas that had led those two countries into aggression continued to prevail. If the dominant political forces in those countries refused to accept a peace on terms acceptable to the victors and openly spoke of conquering Europe and Asia, respectively, would the continued controls still be “wrong” merely because of the length of time involved or inconveniences to the Germans and Japanese?
Remember, too, that the Allies would be stronger than the Germans or Japanese who would thus be eligible for consideration as repressed underdogs. And then if a neo-Nazi or aggressive nationalist movement seized control in a large part of Germany or Japan, openly proclaiming that it was going to wipe out neighboring countries, would it be wrong to overthrow those regimes or, if that was not possible, to put embargos on them?
No analogy is perfect including this one. But given the support the Palestinians would enjoy from elsewhere for continuing their war on Israel and other factors, the West Bank case is actually stronger than even the Germany-Japan parallel in justifying Israel’s refusal to unilaterally concede all the cards it holds.
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 latest books are 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 (PalgraveMacmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood.