One of the world’s most persistent myths is the idea that “peace” between Israelis and Palestinians is the key to progress in the region–the region being, apparently, everything between Morocco and Pakistan. Why this should be so is a mystery, since most of the conflicts in that region, including the most violent ones, haven’t involved Israel at all. Yet the myth persists.
It was repeated in today’s New York Times by no less a personage than Abdullah Gul, the president of Turkey:
The wave of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa is of historic significance equal to that of the revolutions of 1848 and 1989 in Europe. The peoples of the region, without exception, revolted not only in the name of universal values but also to regain their long-suppressed national pride and dignity.
Is it obvious that “national pride and dignity” is, in the Arab world, the ally of “universal values”? Gul continues:
But whether these uprisings lead to democracy and peace or to tyranny and conflict will depend on forging a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and a broader Israeli-Arab peace.
Why on earth would that be true? Currently an uprising is going on in Libya, to take just one example. We don’t know whether Qaddafi will stay in power or whether the rebels will be victorious. We don’t know who the rebels are, or which faction among them will emerge supreme. We don’t know whether the rebels, if they win, will institute either a democracy or a more liberal society. Why will any of this depend on what Israel does vis-a-vis the Palestinians? Are Libyans such a perverse people that the type of society they want to live in depends somehow on Israel?
The same questions can be asked about Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Iran, and so on. Gul continues:
The plight of the Palestinians has been a root cause of unrest and conflict in the region and is being used as a pretext for extremism in other corners of the world.
Note the two very different points being made in that sentence. The second one is true: Israel and the Palestinians have been used as a pretext by extremists, along with the U.S. stationing troops in Saudi Arabia, intervening in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, and so on. But a pretext is just that, a pretext: by definition, removing it will not make the extremism go away.
Gul’s first point is not true: the “plight of the Palestinians” has not been “a root cause of unrest and conflict in the region,” except, of course, with respect to the Palestinians themselves. We are currently seeing unrest across much of the Arab and Persian world; this unrest has nothing at all to do with Israel or the Palestinians. As Gul himself said just one paragraph earlier, it relates to some uneasy combination of “universal values” and “national pride and dignity.”
Israel, more than any other country, will need to adapt to the new political climate in the region.
Really? Why? Israel is already a democracy, and most of the Muslim countries now experiencing unrest–Libya, Bahrain, Iran, Syria, Yemen–don’t even have diplomatic relations with Israel. Should they become democracies, how exactly will Israel need to “adapt”? Actually, if there is one country we can single out that may need to adapt to a “new political climate in the region,” it is Saudi Arabia, not Israel.
In these times of turmoil, two forces will shape the future: the people’s yearning for democracy and the region’s changing demographics. Sooner or later, the Middle East will become democratic, and by definition a democratic government should reflect the true wishes of its people. Such a government cannot afford to pursue foreign policies that are perceived as unjust, undignified and humiliating by the public. For years, most governments in the region did not consider the wishes of their people when conducting foreign policy. History has repeatedly shown that a true, fair and lasting peace can only be made between peoples, not ruling elites.
I’m not sure history has shown any such thing, but what is Gul’s point? The only sense I can make of this paragraph is that the key countries that have made peace with Israel–Egypt and Jordan–have done so in defiance of the will of their people, so that when democracy comes to those countries, Israel could be threatened. That might be true; if so, it utterly contradicts Gul’s earlier assurance that “the emergence of a democratic neighborhood around Israel is the ultimate assurance of the country’s security.”
So now comes the inevitable demand on Israel (not the Palestinians):
I call upon the leaders of Israel to approach the peace process with a strategic mindset, rather than resorting to short-sighted tactical maneuvers. This will require seriously considering the Arab League’s 2002 peace initiative, which proposed a return to Israel’s pre-1967 borders and fully normalized diplomatic relations with Arab states.
But wait! Isn’t the League’s proposal a good example of an offer made by “ruling elites” that may not have reflected the “true wishes of [their] people”? And isn’t the heart of the problem, from Israel’s perspective, the fact that the elites of the Arab League can’t deliver peace when Hamas rules Gaza and Hezbollah controls Lebanon?
Then, too, there is the “right of return,” which is, in ambiguous form, part of the 2002 plan. That leads to Gul’s next observations, which appear to be a sort of threat:
History has taught us that demographics is the most decisive factor in determining the fate of nations. In the coming 50 years, Arabs will constitute the overwhelming majority of people between the Mediterranean Sea and the Dead Sea. The new generation of Arabs is much more conscious of democracy, freedom, and national dignity.
In such a context, Israel cannot afford to be perceived as an apartheid island surrounded by an Arab sea of anger and hostility.
Or, one could say: In such a context, Israel cannot afford to allow the West Bank and Gaza to be used as launching pads for attacks against Israel; and if the Palestinians want an alternative to “anger and hostility,” they should give up their dreams of genocide. Gul offers a peaceful vision:
A dignified and viable Palestine, living side by side with Israel, will not diminish the security of Israel, but fortify it.
Why? Israel has already been down this road. It withdrew from Gaza in hopes that a “dignified and viable” Palestinian Authority would maintain the peace there. Instead, Hamas took over and started firing rockets.
Gul offers Turkey’s assistance in bringing about a peace agreement:
Turkey thinks strategically about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process…. We are therefore ready to use our full capacity to facilitate constructive negotiations. Turkey’s track record in the years before Israel’s Gaza operation in December 2008 bears testimony to our dedication to achieving peace.
Note the delicate reference to “Israel’s Gaza operation.” Why was that operation necessary? Because of Hamas’s commitment to Israel’s destruction. Turkey has been harshly critical of Israel’s self-defense in Gaza, and more recently has supported the “flotillas” that have tried to break the Gaza blockade to facilitate the shipment of weapons to Hamas.
It will be almost impossible for Israel to deal with the emerging democratic and demographic currents in the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world. Turkey, conscious of its own responsibility, stands ready to help.
Note how Gul comes full cycle. He begins by claiming, with no support whatever, that the Israel-Palestine conflict “holds the key” to whether the current uprisings in the Muslim world lead to “democracy and peace” or to “tyranny and conflict.” This claim is false. The future of the Arab and Persian world is not in the hands of either Israel or the Palestinians. In conjunction with this claim, Gul assures us that Israel “need not fear” Muslim upheaval, because democracies in the region around Israel are “the ultimate assurance of [that] country’s security.”
But that supposed assurance transforms rapidly–in the space of a single op-ed!–into a threat. The Arabs are winning the demographic war, and the younger generation of Arabs will no longer stand for a lack of “national dignity.” So Israel had better cave in to longstanding pressures to vacate the West Bank, bless a Palestinian state, and hope for the best–the same course that in the past has only enabled Palestinian violence.
If Muslim states like Turkey would pressure the Palestinians to abandon their hope of conquest and the “right of return,” then possibly a lasting peace could occur. But they haven’t done this; instead, they have maintained the Palestinians in a perpetual state of dependence and have used them as shock troops and, as Gul observes with respect to extremists, as a pretext for their own policies.
It may well be true that the current uprisings will impact Israel, for better or worse. In particular, the overthrow of Mubarak has the potential to cause grave problems–depending, obviously, on what sort of regime succeeds him. But whatever happens, Israel has no choice but to defend itself. Knuckling under to international pressure to take actions that will compromise its security makes no more sense now than it did before the current unrest began.