Two More Comments on The Situation

For all those who claim that deep American involvement in Middle East negotiations is crucial: where were the US representatives in the secret Oslo negotiations?

1) The BBC quotes Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon as saying that the goal of the Gaza war is “to topple Hamas.” Ramon should either be fired or reprimanded immediately: setting a goal that high almost guarantees a propaganda loss, because Hamas could use mere survival as a excuse to claim victory. Israel didn’t come anywhere close to destroying Hizbullah in 2006, but when Ehud Olmert set Hizbullah’s destruction as its war goal, it made tactical victories virtually impossible. Maybe the only thing harder than solving the conflict is getting Israeli politicians to shut their mouths for the sake of their country.

2) For all those who claim that deep American involvement in Middle East negotiations is crucial: where were the US representatives in the secret Oslo negotiations?

Not futility; honesty

Matthew Yglesias misunderstands my recent post on “solving” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying that I make a “futility argument” and believe we should “throw up our hands” concerning it. And in my view, it reveals a deeper unwillingness on his and others’ part to look at the implications of what they are saying.

Folks like Steve Clemons and Daniel Levy seem to believe that if we just put more pressure on the Israelis, then we could solve the conflict. Matt himself suggests as much (although he usually hedges at the end.) In my view, this is absurd.

Consider Matt’s suggestion that we “press Israel — hard –to stop expanding settlements in the West Bank and start dismantling them.” I actually think that this suggestion, as vague as it is, is constructive. But this is more because it helps Israel in the long run. If the Palestinians ever accept Israel’s existence, then dismantling settlements will help because it will stabilize the country demographically. And morally, as a believer in a two-state solution, I believe it’s the right thing to do, and since I believe Zionism has moral content, it is required by Zionist principles.

But does anyone really believe that this will go anywhere toward solving matters? If they do, then they just haven’t done their homework.

The settlements are a moral cancer in Israeli society, and a bone in the throat of peace, but they are most assuredly not the cause of the conflict.

How do we know this? Because Bill Clinton offered to get rid of them in December 2000, Barak accepted it, and Arafat rejected it. To this day, as I mentioned in my post, not a single Arab leader of any stripe (outside of Sari Nusseibeh) has accepted the Clinton parameters. Not a single one has endorsed the People’s Voice. Not a single one has said, “we will accept Israel if they withdraw to the 1967 borders.”

Josh Marshall tut-tuts that this is all complex, and that we don’t need “to get into all the nitty-gritty of it.” No it isn’t, and yes we do. These proposals are out there. Thousands of people have signed onto them. Israeli leaders have endorsed them. They have been greeted with stony silence or outright rejection by the Arab side.

And this is why I continue condemn the vapid claims of those such as Clemons and Levy who say that we need to solve the conflict and that it’s Israel’s fault that we haven’t, as well as pressing Matt — hard — about what he actually means.

Because if they believe that the Clinton parameters/People’s Voice is a good solution, they should advocate a UN resolution based upon it (as Shlomo Ben-Ami has and as I do). And when it is rejected by the Palestinians and the entire Arab world, then will they have to admit that, in fact, this is not Israel’s fault, and that more pressure on Israel won’t solve the conflict.

Unless, of course, they want to destroy Israel as a Jewish state (since the basis of the rejection is the right of return). If that happens, Israel will become an Arab state, and thus, like every other Arab state, it will cease to be a liberal democracy, at least for the foreseeable future. If that’s what they believe, then they should say so.

Then we could have an honest debate. I would take the position that it is important enough for the United States to support liberal democratic Zionism even if it hurts us in other aspects of foreign policy, and they would argue that throwing Israel over the side might be regrettable, but it would be worth it. We could even have an honest debate about whether Israel’s existence supports concrete, non-ideological American interests.

But that’s the debate to have, not vaguely suggesting that greater American “involvement” relying on “tenacity and bold ideas” will somehow “solve” the problem.

What Do You Mean, “Solve It”?

Both Israel and Hamas agree that the conflict should be solved–they just don’t agree on what that means. Israel would like to exist; Hamas would like it not to exist. How do you “solve” that?

Steve Clemons today:

America has to get out of the role of “managing” this conflict — and must solve it.

Daniel Levy today:

Today’s events should be ‘exhibit A’ in why the next U.S. Government cannot leave the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fester or try to ‘manage’ it – as long as it remains unresolved, it has a nasty habit of forcing itself onto the agenda. That can happen on terms dictated to the U.S. by the region (bad) or the U.S. can seek to set its own terms (far preferable). . . A consensus of sorts is emerging in the U.S. foreign policy establishment that this conflict needs to be resolved. . . It will require tenacity and bold ideas – in framing the solution, bringing in previously excluded actors, creating mechanisms to implement a deal (such as international forces) and utilizing the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative – but the alternative is far worse, its what we see today and it guarantees ongoing instability in a region of paramount importance to the United States.

I’m detecting a meme here. But it would really be nice if that meme had any substantive content.

Look: no one is against “solving” the conflict. The United States has long had a consensus that it should be solved: there just hasn’t been a way to do that satisfies the foreign policy goals of the relevant actors.

Jeez, both Israel and Hamas agree that the conflict should be solved–they just don’t agree on what that means. Israel would like to exist; Hamas would like it not to exist. How do you “solve” that?

I’ll come clean on how I would solve it: the Nusseibeh-Ayalon agreement, otherwise known as the “People’s Voice,” which says two states for two peoples, 1967 borders with one-to-one adjustments, Jerusalem split according to demographics, right of return to the Palestinian state but not to Israel.

Lots of Israelis, including Israeli leaders, have endorsed this. So have hundreds of American Jews. Not a single Arab leader outside of Nusseibeh himself has backed it. I tried to get an American Friends of the People’s Voice group started a couple of years ago, and could not find a single Arab-American who would work on it.

And if Clemons or Levy thinks that this plan is too tilted toward the Israelis, then they believe that Israel should exist as long as it is an Arab state (because refugee return would make it so). If so, then they should say so.

If they think that the People’s Voice is a good basis for an agreement, then they should make it clear why this would command anything like the political support it would need to do so in order to “solve” the question. Levy is particularly silly on this, claiming with no evidence that Hamas “continue[s] to heavily hint that they will accept the 1967 borders.” That’s pretty thin gruel, especially after Arafat heavily hinted that he would accept Israel, only to reject the Clinton parameters (essentially, the same as the People’s Voice) and launch a terror campaign.

But enough of this. Enough with vague and flatulent notions about “tenacity and bold ideas.” All those who insist that the United States should “solve” the problem should explain how. And if they can’t do that, then maybe they should take some quiet time.

Israel-Palestine, Again

Once more into the breach, the IDF has launched massive air strikes into Gaza, in an attempt to stop Hamas from shooting rockets into Israel. A short blog post cannot do justice to the complexity of the situation, except to say that 1) no other country would be asked to tolerate what the Israelis have been asked to tolerate on their southern border; 2) the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza was bad enough before now having to deal with this violence; 3) domestic politics is shot through all of this (with Kadima, Labour and Hamas all trying to show how tough they are in advance of a domestic political contest); and 4) something happens to Matt Yglesias whenever this issue comes up, and he loses 40 points of IQ. The implication in the first sentence that the Israelis did this out of sadism is really beneath him. (Maybe he’s so sick of Marty Peretz that he endeavors to provide the equal and opposite reaction.).

That said, the latest iteration does point to a strategic dilemma on the Israeli side, which the United States needs to focus on a little more clearly. It centers on the distinction, made famous by Thomas Schelling 40 years ago, between brute force and deterrence.

Deterrence means creating sufficient disincentives for the other side to desist from an activity; brute force is simply preventing them from doing it. Deterrence is, “if you go in that room, I will make your life so miserable you will never want to do it again.” Brute force is putting up a huge wall so that they can’t go in that room.

What Israel has learned over the last 7 years is that with Palestinian terrorists, deterrence only works after effective application of brute force. Creating more pain for the Palestinian people didn’t deter, because its leadership was not affected and because the Palestinian public blames the Israelis. Building a wall, however, was effective: it sufficiently stopped the infiltration of suicide bombers that the Palestinian leadership (in both Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades) decided to call things off. Key in the application of brute force in West Bank was the disruption and incapacitation of the Hamas/Martyrs’ Brigades leadership there. Conceivably, this is also deterrence because these leaders didn’t want to be arrested, but it’s not as if they stopped their activities due to incentives: they did so because they were in jail.

Israel claims that it is doing the same thing with these air strikes, targeting Hamas command and control. That seems to be wishful thinking: you can’t really do disruption and incapacitation from the air. Israel has far better intelligence on Hamas than it has on Hizbullah, and so we might see some sort of commando operations designed to disrupt the Hamas network, but it hard to imagine that working, either: Hamas has enough units that have good enough training that they can launch attacks for quite a while even if the leadership is decapitated.

That means that over the medium term, the only way to get rid of the threat is to start destroying Palestinian villages that are close enough to the border to launch rockets from. I doubt that the Israelis will do that, though, because international opinion will prevent it. The other option is a sustained ground offensive, which on the eve of an election seems even more unlikely.

The Israeli problem points to a difficulty in America’s force posture as well: it is extremely well designed for deterrence, and poorly designed for brute force. We have lots of weapons systems that can wreak all kinds of damage on sedentary populations, but we have poor intelligence capabilities to infiltrate terrorist networks, and our defensive capacities against domestic terrorism are pathetic. Look at Israel now: regardless of your views of the equities of that conflict, it is America’s canary in the coalmine.

Admiring the Israeli Political Class

Now that Tzipi Livni has decided to hold elections in Israel, I suppose that it will be time for observers from across the spectrum to bemoan the current state of, well, the State. Israelis, too, like to complain about their politicians, especially their integrity–or lack thereof. But digger a little deeper might reveal a sign of health.

It’s hard to feel great about a country where the most recent Prime Minister resigned over corruption charges, the previous Prime Minister might have had to had not a cerebral hemorrhage intervened, his son was convicted, and the leader of the Likud opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu, faced constant corruption allegations when he held the Prime Minister’s job from 1996 to 1999.

But maybe this is a sign of strength.

If you think about the problems that Olmert, Netanyahu, and both Sharons have had, they all have come from campaign finance problems. Troubling to be sure, but that results from the relative stringency of Israeli law, not from the relative corruption of the leaders.

Israeli election law is quite strict: it is very difficult for anyone to contribute to campaigns. I’m on the US supporting board of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (sort of like NRDC in Israel), and when the executive director was discussing the problems of influencing the Knesset, in my innocence I suggested forming something like an Israeli environment PAC. She had to explain to me patiently that this simply isn’t allowed in Israel.

Put another way, what gets Israeli politicians in trouble is what American politicians do all the time: PACs, soft money, independent expenditures, “nonprofit education foundations,” etc. just can’t be done in Israel. Even cases like former President Ezer Weizman, who accepted payments from political friends, could probably be arranged under US law as a sort of fancy sinecure at a fake “think tank”: if Israeli law was like American law, they just would have made Weizman the “Vladimir Jabotinsky Fellow” at the “Bar Kokhba Institute for Public Policy” and he would have gotten more money that way.

Consider what happened after Israel’s rather pathetic 2006 war in Lebanon: immediately, the Winograd Commission was formed and specifically held Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz accountable for their failures. Can anyone imagine a similar thing happening the United States with the Iraq War?

It’s critical to look at Israel warts and all. And there are a hell of a lot of warts. But the political culture in many ways is a lot healthier than the conventional wisdom holds.