JERUSALEM - The “peace process” between Israelis and Palestinians has ground to a halt. What should American and European leaders do? Try not to make the situation worse.
That will be a challenge. Many in the West believe that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is relatively easy to solve — certainly not on a par with the much bloodier wars being waged by Sunni and Shia jihadis in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya.
The Palestinians say they want a state of their own. They should have one in Gaza and the West Bank (territories Israel captured from Egypt and Jordan, respectively, at the end of a defensive war in 1967). The Israelis want security within recognized borders. Have the “international community” promise them that. If Israelis and Palestinians can’t work this out on their own, impose a “two-state solution.” It’s a tempting approach. Let me explain why it’s dead wrong.
Ten years ago this summer, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to test the hypothesis that Israelis could trade “land for peace.” He ordered the evacuation of all Israelis from Gaza — forcibly removing those who refused to quietly pack up and leave.
He hoped Gaza would thereafter become a peaceful place whose leaders would focus on economic development, education and health care. If that happened, the argument for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank would become compelling. But, he believed, if Gaza instead became a base for attacks on Israelis, they would be able to strike back hard — with the understanding and support of the international community.
Recall what followed: In 2007, Fatah and Hamas, the two major Palestinian political factions, went to war with one another other in Gaza. Fatah, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, was the loser. Hamas soon began firing missiles — thousands of them — at Israeli villages. That led to wars with Israel in 2008 and 2012. Then, last summer, on top of missile attacks came the revelation that Hamas was building tunnels designed to infiltrate terrorists into Israel for the purpose of mass murder and hostage-taking. The result was an Israeli invasion of Gaza and 50 days of war.
And Mr. Sharon, it turns out, was wrong: Despite the fact that Israel was attacked and, as Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it, went to “extraordinary lengths to prevent civilian casualties,” many in the West — including in a United Nations report issued this week — blame Israel as much or more than Hamas for the death and destruction suffered by the people of Gaza last summer.
Based on this experience, most Israelis fear that withdrawal from the West Bank would be disastrous. The power vacuum left behind soon would be filled by Hamas, the Islamic State, an al Qaeda affiliate or Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanon-based foreign legion.
From the Judean Hills in the West Bank all Israel’s major population centers could be targeted with mortars that no missile defense system can knock out. Israel would strike back with predictable consequences.
All of which brings us to this: Over the weekend, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius visited Jerusalem and Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital, where he discussed a resolution he is eager to advance in the U.N. Security Council. It would call for the immediate renewal of talks between Israelis and Palestinians and set a timeframe of about 18 months for them to reach a permanent agreement based on the 1967 lines and with Jerusalem as a shared capital.
If, by the deadline, no agreement is reached, Western governments would recognize a Palestinian state. Is it possible Mr. Fabius does not realize that would give Mr. Abbas a strong incentive not to compromise?
Even if, through some miracle, the 80-year-old Palestinian Authority president did come to terms with Israel, what would be the result? He was elected to a four-year term 10 years ago. Hamas doesn’t recognize his authority. It’s likely that his successor — whoever that may be and however he may come to power — won’t be either.
Knowing this, should Israelis really be expected to make concessions that will endanger the lives of their children? In the past, American presidents, Republican and Democratic alike, have blocked such actions in the U.N. Security Council. But President Obama is threatening to break with that tradition. There is speculation that he’s actually encouraging the French to take this step.
The glib reply: “Something needs to be done!” But perceived urgency is not the same as smart policy. How about this: Concentrate on incremental improvements. With barbarians chopping heads just over the border, joint Palestinian-Israeli security programs should be quietly expanded. Instead of promoting boycotts against Israel, push for Palestinian-Israeli economic cooperation, with Israelis providing more and better jobs for Palestinians in the West Bank. In the absence of such cooperation, a Palestinian state will inevitably end up a failed state and a ward of the international community indefinitely.
Even Gaza presents an opportunity for modest gains. At the moment, Hamas appears to be going out of its way not to provoke another conflict. Its forces have been moving against Islamic State sympathizers. Israelis should be encouraged to reward such behavior.
Such a cautious approach could save and improve lives — Palestinian and Israeli alike. No one will win a Nobel Prize and former enemies won’t be seen hugging and mugging for the cameras on the White House lawn. What we might see, however, are Israelis and Palestinians learning that peaceful coexistence is possible and, for those who don’t yet know it, desirable. At the very least, Western leaders would not be making matters worse.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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