In a March 1st piece for the Jerusalem Post entitled: “Why Palestinian Incitement Doesn’t Matter”, Zionist Union MK Ksenia Svetlova makes a pragmatist’s case against allowing the undeniable reality of virulent Anti-Jewish sentiment in Palestinian society affect Israel’s practical policy decisions vis-a-vis dealing with the current ongoing wave of terrorist attacks. The fact of her having made this argument more significant than the argument itself.

Her contention essentially boils down to 3 main points:

  1. Incitement against Jews and Israelis has been a constant feature of the Arab social landscape since forever, and yet violence isn’t constant. The current wave started in October 15, the fact that it didn’t start 2 or 3 or 5 years earlier, even though the incitement was just as present at those times, indicates that there are other, more important, factors in play.
  2. There is lots of incitement in Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and yet this doesn’t seem to be high on our list of national security concerns, and rightly so, because it’s happening in foreign countries, across secure borders. If we create a situation where the Palestinians are also on the other side of secure borders, we could then proceed to blissfully ignore the incitement in Palestine just as we ignore the incitement in other countries.
  3. The peace treaty we have with Egypt shows that the policy of ignoring Jew-hatred in the populace and negotiating with the regime based on realpolitik calculations alone is an effective one. After all, as Svetlova says, “isn’t a cold peace better than a hot war”? Therefore we should reach some sort of settlement with the PA or even take unilateral steps to draw our final borders, separate from the Palestinians, and leave them to deal with their hatred on their own time.

I think the honorable MK is wrong, and I’ll explain why, but what’s most interesting about the article is what she’s conceding by arguing in this way, not what she actually says.

These sorts of articles show that our country is more unified than it’s ever been on foreign policy matters. There is no longer disagreement about Jew-hatred being endemic to Palestinian society, Svetlova is only claiming that, for practical purposes, it doesn’t matter.  The broader implications of this become apparent when analyzing the article in terms of specific tactics, and then general strategy.

Tactical-“Border”. What For?

Svetlova’s argument from the Egyptian precedent puts far too much weight on the concept of “borders”, as if the border per se is a magic pill which always makes retreat tactically viable. This is a confusion because borders are only one part of the larger tactical picture, which includes our position against all our neighbors, individually and collectively.

The article mentions that it was Menachem Begin who made the deal with Egypt, but fails to note why this is significant. Begin entered into the negotiations from a position of strength, would certainly never have dreamed of doing anything unilaterally, and only embarked upon the process once he was thoroughly convinced that Anwar Sadat was a different sort of man; one who could be trusted.

The larger tactical picture on the Egypt front is different from the Palestinian not only because of the disparity between their respective leadership situations, but because of the simple fact that there is an enormous buffer between Israel and Egypt’s large population centers, namely the Sinai, while there is no such separation from the Palestinian population centers. Any border with a Palestinian state would entail a retreat, thus eliminating whatever tactical buffer still separating us from the Palestinians.

The bottom line is that it’s doubtful that putting what would be a ‘border’ in name only between us and the Palestinians will do anything other than create a situation in which we face just as much passive and active hostility from the Palestinian population, but with less ability to defend ourselves from it. This is especially evident when we unpack the implications of the two options Svetlova prescribes at the end of the article: ” [Israel should] proceed with the separation from [the Palestinians] either by reaching a settlement with the PA, or though [sic] unilateral steps that will end up in drawing the borders of Israel”.

It seems fair to assume that in order to reach a settlement with the PA, Israel would need to take steps which compromise its operational security capabilities in the West Bank, and that any unilateral steps would also be of the such a nature as to compromise Israel’s operational security capabilities in the West Bank. This in exchange for what? For the fact that we could then say that there is a border? This seems a hollow triumph.

The only way I could see this possibly working is if Israel withdraws completely and cuts off all access to Israel from the new Palestine. All access. If such a move can be successfully implemented we will have improved our tactical position by cutting ourselves off completely from the problematic population. But this would entail cutting off the Palestinians from the Israeli economy, causing great upheaval and suffering in the Palestinian population; a consequence I doubt Svetlova would consider acceptable.

Strategic

Now let’s look at the broader strategic implications of what Svetlova writes. Ironically, she gives up the game to her opponents on the right.

For a very long time–from 67′ to just a few years ago–the debate between Left and Right in Israel had roughly taken the form of Idealism vs. Pragmatism, respectively.

The Left would talk about a lasting and true solution to the conflict, one that would address and solve the root problems, these being largely caused by Israeli policies. In this view, the incitement certainly does matter, and Israel should retreat to behind the Green Line in order to remove the cause of the frustration that leads to incitement, ushering in a beautiful friendly peaceful future.

The Right, on the other hand, contended that the hatred and violence coming from the Palestinians had it’s roots in their own cultural issues, and that no concessions Israel makes would do anything to solve it. Indeed, these would only betray weakness, inviting still more violence. Therefore, the only real way to address the root of the problem is to somehow transform Palestinian society and culture, and seeing as it is very difficult to see how this can be done, Israel’s efforts should be focused on pragmatic security measures, harsh as they may need to be.

Svetlova’s article concedes the essence of this debate to the Right. Her arguments are mainly pragmatic and tactical, she only makes one classical Leftist point about the actual strategic unimportance of Palestinian incitement, and this almost in passing. It’s the first point I mention in my summary above; that the fact that incitement is always present and yet waves of violence aren’t, shows that the incitement does not cause the waves of violence.

This is a fairly feeble argument. It is similar to saying that the fact that a person had cancer for 10 years, and yet didn’t die every day, shows that the cancer did not cause his eventual death. The technical reason why this is wrong, is that there can be both proximate and immediate causes for things. The immediate cause of the current wave of violence may be the more specific apprehension of danger to Muslim control of the Temple Mount (which would just be more incitement anyway), or it may even be economic frustration or boredom or global warming or whatever, but this doesn’t mean that the more general cause, the constant decades long incitement, doesn’t play a big role.

In fact, the truth is that in these matters the proximate causes are of much greater interest, because the immediate causes tend to be the kind that is common all the time everywhere. There are always some economically frustrated people, there are always various grievances, especially among minorities. But not every minority is constantly inciting violence against the majority population. There have been Jewish minorities in dozens of countries for many centuries, often living under social and economic oppression far worse than what the Palestinians deal with, even if you believe the worst of their complaints. How much violent terrorism was perpetrated by these Jewish minorities in all of the years of persecution?

By making only this weak point against the fundamental importance of incitement to the conflict, and then going on to argue in a purely tactical and pragmatic fashion, Svetlova is essentially conceding that in strategic terms, Palestinian incitement does matter, in fact matters so much that there is absolutely nothing we can do about it but defend ourselves from it’s effects by a secure border. The piece should be called “Why Palestinian Incitement Matters Too Much”. So why does Svetlova still argue for unilateral retreat?

I suspect that the thought process leading to the adoption of Svetlova’s position is really a kind of attempt to save face by maintaining the same Leftist policy prescriptions even while adopting the reasons of the Right.

It has become untenable to hold on to the idea that more concessions on the part of Israel will result in greater goodwill from the Palestinian side. The experience of the 2005 disengagement and it’s aftermath shattered that illusion. Most erstwhile left-wingers in the country seem to agree now that it just ain’t so. But there is still the instinct to argue for the same bottom line position after all; to somehow keep up the fight. Let’s withdraw, says Svetlova, not because that will solve the problem but because that will allow us to better manage it.

Well then, say I, we all agree that we’re in damage control and containment mode. But that’s where the Right’s has been all along. The current policy of maintaining involvement in the West Bank is the product of years of trial and error in pursuit of precisely the same objectives Svetlova is advocating.

Conclusion

Svetlova’s argument, on this account, is reduced to a mere         security-tweak proposal under the guise of continued advocacy of the Left’s past policies. It is a shell of the old Peace-Now withdrawal argument, with it’s philosophical and ideological core hollowed out.

I’ve outlined why I think Svetlova’s tactical arguments don’t hold water either, but I’m not an expert. Whether she’s right or wrong, the fact that this is now the mode of argument shows how far the debate in Israel has come. Disagreements that seemed intractable are now, in essence, largely resolved.

Seeing as many on the Left have now come to adopt the Right’s thinking on the larger strategic picture, I think it’s only a matter of time before the habit and instinct of advocating for withdrawal is overcome, even on the Left. I anticipate the national debate will then be much more fruitful, as people and politicians alike come to realize just how much common ground they now have.