You remember the “Jewish telegram?” It reads: “Start worrying. Details to follow.”
In other words, welcome to the new Middle East.
Assessing what to make of the turbulent region and Israel’s place in it at a moment of great concern about the direction of the Arab Spring and the push for Palestinian statehood depends on your degree of pessimism.
The optimal outlook is that the Arab world is on the road to democracy — but that it could take decades to get there and will be bumpy and full of setbacks and surprises along the way.
And that’s the good news.
The psychic toll on all who love Israel has been heavy of late as we witness a stepped-up and multipronged assault on Jerusalem’s very legitimacy. To be honest, I didn’t want to write another column about the Mideast this week. I felt I needed a break, and that maybe you did, too. But pressing events, and conversations with a number of experts and analysts in recent days pulled me back.
Let me be clear: I believe that Israel is unfairly maligned and held to a double standard by the international community, and that the primary reason there has been no peace with the Palestinians is that the Palestinians refuse to recognize the right of the Jewish people to have a state of their own. Israel has every right to defend itself, and must continue to do so, as it did on Sunday when Syria allowed Palestinians to try to storm the border.
That said, I also believe that a two-state solution is the only way for Israel to remain both a Jewish and democratic state, and that time is not on Israel’s side.
If the status quo continues, the prospects for the next few months are grim and predictable. The combination of United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state this fall — legally binding or not — and increasingly large and frequent mass marches by unarmed Palestinians on Israel’s borders from every direction will lead to a dangerously isolated Jewish state, one that is threatened diplomatically, economically and on moral grounds. This, in turn, will set the stage for stronger Israel-as-an-apartheid-state comparisons and continued delegitimization efforts through international institutions.
That’s not a nightmare scenario. That’s a realistic view of what’s coming our way very soon. The issue isn’t whether it’s fair for Israel to be treated this way. It’s not, and that’s infuriating. But the practical question remains: what, if anything, can be done to prevent it?
While the vote at the UN General Assembly in September in favor of a Palestinian state is a foregone conclusion, as is a U.S. veto in the Security Council, the battle now is over how the more than two dozen European states will vote.
Israel can live with the Arab and Third World states casting mindless votes for a Palestinian state. But for countries like England, France and Germany — allies and key trade partners — to go along with the tide would be crushing defeat for Jerusalem.
The irony is that despite the bad blood between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as evidenced by their recent verbal jousting in Washington, it was the president who defended the prime minister at the G-8 meeting last week. In pushing hard for a rejection of the Palestinian UN initiative, Obama is said to have countered strong criticism of the Israeli leader from European heads of state who complained that Netanyahu is arrogant and untrustworthy.
It may well be that they’ve harbored those feelings for awhile, and unfairly, but the Netanyahu visit to the U.S. didn’t help in the effort to ward off the UN showdown and coax Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
On the peace talks front, Israel’s dilemma becomes even more complicated. Consider the Catch-22 it finds itself in: unwilling, and not expected, to deal with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, which seeks Israel’s destruction, yet urged to re-start negotiations anyway.
Writing in The Weekly Standard, Elliott Abrams, an astute foreign policy analyst, noted the “incoherence” of Obama’s message in his May 22 AIPAC speech:
“We know that peace demands a partner,” Obama told the AIPAC delegates, “which is why I said that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Palestinians who do not recognize its right to exist… But the march to isolate Israel internationally — and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations — will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative.”
Observed Abrams: “So Israel cannot be expected to negotiate and it must start negotiating.”
While Abrams is correct, so is Obama, like it or not. The slim middle ground between their positions is in Israeli leaders sitting down with Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, soon, while they are still in control, in an effort to avert the UN showdown and keep Hamas out of the process. I don’t think it will happen, though, because neither Jerusalem nor Fatah seem interested in negotiating at this point — understandable in the short term, but deeply worrying long term.
Three Mideast experts addressed these and other regional issues on Thursday evening at a forum at Park Avenue Synagogue sponsored by American Friends of Tel Aviv University and The Jewish Week.
Judith Kipper, director of the Institute of World Affairs’ Middle East Programs, asserted that Israel has “a strategic imperative” to withdraw from the West Bank, and expressed confidence that Egypt, seeking stability, would prevent Hamas violence against Israel.
Both Uzi Rabi, director of Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, and David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Peace and a former editor of The Jerusalem Post, were more wary, noting the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood and the populist anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt.
The panelists agreed that despite the possible inherent dangers of a peace initiative, if Israel remains passive at this point, waiting to see how the Arab revolution plays out, the outcome might be worse.
The message is clear: Jerusalem and Washington must work together with renewed urgency to ensure that the current situation doesn’t spiral down into violence.