Machiavelli said that it’s better to be feared than to be loved because he knew which one is the superior motivator. When it comes to Israel negotiating with its neighbors, many politicians seems to think that the only way Israel will make concessions is if it is threatened with terrible consequences if it doesn’t. Although their intentions may be noble, bullying Israel into making peace will not bring them the results that they seek.
Secretary of State John Kerry is the latest example of this trend. He recently told Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that if the current peace talks don’t succeed, Israel will face an international delegitimization campaign “on steroids.” Ehud Barak said the world won’t allow the occupation to continue much longer, Bill Clinton said that things would only get tougher without a Palestinian state, and countless other bloggers and pundits have repeated the same message: if Israel doesn’t make peace now it will regret it. Exactly what the negative consequences of not making peace entail tends to be left vague, but it usually involves the delegitimization campaign against Israel.
Let’s step back into reality for a second. Israeli politicians are responsible for the welfare of their constituents, just like all leaders of democratic societies. Therefore Israel has to put the safety of the Israeli people ahead of the wishes of others, even Presidents and Secretaries of State. The last time that Israel made concessions to the Palestinians, it led to the Second Intifada and two wars in Gaza. Are we supposed to believe that all of that fighting and counter-terrorism made Israel look better in the eyes of the world than if it had simply never negotiated with the PLO to begin with? The lessons of Oslo continue to resonate among both the Palestinians and the Israelis, even if American politicians have forgotten them.
It is unquestionably true that delegitimization is one of the major threats to Israel over the long term, but delegitimization cannot kill people. Terrorist attacks from the West Bank and Gaza can. Israeli leaders must weigh the costs and benefits of making concessions to the Palestinian Authority before the atmosphere in the region is truly ready for peace. If Israel withdraws from the West Bank and large scale fighting resumes, it would be a disaster for both sides. That is not speculation but a guarantee: Almost all of Israel’s industry and population is within rocket range of the West Bank. Terrorist attacks can bring daily life to a halt and stop airplanes from flying in and out of Ben-Gurion Airport. When given the choice between that scenario and dealing with more angry protests in European cities, it’s no real question as to which is more harmful to Israel both in the short and long term.
There was a time when Israel truly was isolated. It could not count on the United States of America as an ally; it had a stagnating economy and untrained army, and was in the process of resettling thousands of refugees. It had no peace treaties with any of its neighbors and had few friends on the international stage. Yet despite all of this it managed to not only survive but become a superpower in the region. It is extremely unlikely that all that progress will be reversed if Israel fails to make peace with the Palestinian Authority.
It goes without saying that the Palestinians are not threatened with any kind of negative consequences should the peace talks fall through, despite the fact that they are the ones who have been refusing to negotiate for months if not years. If peace talks fail the Palestinians can simply return to where they were before: the “victims” of cruel Israel and its American ally. And when they hear Kerry promising that Israel will be isolated if peace talks fail, why wouldn’t they sabotage the talks? An isolated, delegitimized Israel only serves their interests. When politicians try to scare Israel into making peace, all they are doing is ensuring the Palestinians will not.
This is not to say that Israel should not make concessions or seek peace with its neighbors. Israelis know the value of peace and that the status quo is not desirable. That is the major problem with these scare tactics: they assume that Israel simply doesn’t want peace and must be dragged to the peace table. History has shown that Israel will negotiate but only when they think that doing so will actually lead to peace.
The Israelis will make peace because they want to and because they believe it is safe to, not because they think that they have no other option. When Secretary Kerry is out of office and has moved on to bigger and better things, the Israelis and the Palestinians will still have to live with each other. Peace will come naturally as a result of these people accepting each other; historical evidence and logic suggests that it is unlikely they can be forced into it. Perhaps instead of scaring Israel, Kerry can try helping it become secure so that the Israeli people will be willing to take risks for peace again.