The New York Times’ Tom Friedman has incredibly insightful friends and colleagues he loves to reference is his articles. Alas, many of my friends lean more inciteful than insightful.
One loves to make historical analogies. At least those that fit his confirmation biases. For him, every negotiation with an enemy is Neville Chamberlain seeking to appease Hitler. Why talk with an enemy you need to destroy? Every militant group that he opposes is always Al Qaeda-like. Just kill their leaders today and worry about tomorrow’s leaders tomorrow.
Today, I introduce my friend to James Baker III, of the Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. Perhaps he can impact my friend’s tendency to misconstrue history.
Baker’s analysis of a current crisis that too often violently ebbs and flows with the vicissitudes of each side’s misfortunes, offers political leaders the long-term vision necessary to at least begin resolving seemingly intractable problems. With fewer intractable problems, there’s less need to birth false historical analogies. While cable talk shows and Avigdor Lieberman’s rants might become less interesting, addressing the root cause of problems beats endlessly debating all the reasons you can’t or shouldn’t and offering the wrong solutions.
Here are Baker’s comments, with a few bracketed tweaks from me. (Don’t click the links just yet.)
The root of (the) present crisis is not purely extremism; it is largely (a result of unaddressed) grievances and disenfranchisement. If a political compromise can be reached, (this group) will not survive long.
They succeeded by working alongside a wide range of local groups. (I SEE YOU OVER THERE. NO CLICKING YET!) They depend on support from the local population as a whole. In the words of Charles Lister of The Brookings Institution, “They are still totally reliant on an interdependent relationship with what remains a tacitly sympathetic and facilitating population.”
These groups and the public have not cooperated because they share its extremist ideology.
Rather, top political and religious leaders agree that the crisis should be seen in part as an uprising against (an occupying and controlling) government’s … security forces indiscriminately detaining and torturing… and using lethal force. ..It is no surprise that (there is a) demand for an end to such practices. Moderate political leaders have offered to turn against them (and will gain support) if political grievances can be addressed. (A) future as a (viable) state is largely contingent on whether … political issues can be resolved.
If you failed to follow my admonition, you already know that Baker was not commenting on Israel, Hamas, Fatah, or the Palestinian Authority. His topic was ISIS (also known as ISIL, if you’ve watched Professor Obama speak at any of his recent golf-delaying* news conferences). *A little known fact: Obama golf games still hold a comfortable lead over Obama news conferences. Even the delayed ones without congressional playing partners.
Baker’s insight on ISIS comfortably applies to Israel and its battle with Hamas because the key to resolving what has now been 47 years of low and high level conflict is to remove the oxygen that allows the conflict to survive. The Israeli and Palestinian radicals who believe in endless war and threaten genocide, expulsion, kidnapping and terrorism are not reflective of the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians who simply want to get on with living their lives — normal lives where missiles, rockets and bombs aren’t part of the daily forecast, where walking across the street means looking side to side and not up to the sky.
Israel needs to recognize that more closely embracing Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate head of the Fatah party controlled-Palestinian Authority, the administrative authority over Areas A and B in the West Bank, is an important part of weakening Hamas. ( Even though the PA was originally given authority over Gaza, Hamas ousted the PA in 2007.) The recent reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas and the just announced cease-fire agreement terms between Hamas and Israel gives Israel that opportunity, especially if the PA is, as is rumored, given a significant role in the border crossing into Egypt, the overall Gaza reconstruction effort, and, over time, becomes more involved in the security forces.
Fatah is enthusiastically supported by the vast majority of Arab League members and has forsworn the use of violence. Abbas’s administration has a positive and improving track record in administering the West Bank under difficult conditions of Israeli occupation and has been endorsed as a true “peace partner” by many Israeli politicians, including former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres and former prime minister Ehud Olmert.
If all Palestinians see that non-violence has achieved something tangible — fewer West Bank checkpoints and nightly raids don’t substitute for a two-state agreement that gives Palestinians in the West Bank control over their own lives — then it is only logical that Hamas’s support in Gaza (and the West Bank) should be reduced. A two-state agreement will offer West Bank Palestinians sustainable benefits that Palestinians in Gaza will then want for themselves. The recent comical “Hamas victory celebration” after thousands of Gazans have been killed, tens of thousands injured, and billions in property destroyed, will come to be seen more as the Palestinian Nakba.
Let’s end where we started. One historical analogy my friend won’t make, because it suggests a final peace agreement is possible, relates to Britain and Northern Ireland. Admittedly, this isn’t a perfect analogy. But when there is a sui generis conflict like the Israelis and Palestinians have, with long-standing territorial and religious issues that frequently erupt into spasms of violence that resonate throughout the world, it is hard to find any comparison that perfectly fits. Thankfully.
But here are some lessons from that conflict that do fit: One, there is no military solution. Unless underlying issues are addressed, the cycle of violence will continue. Israel can try to kill every significant Hamas leader, but it can’t kill their supporters’ ideologies and beliefs. New leaders will emerge. Ultimately, Israel has to negotiate a political solution unless its leaders believe the “acceptable level of violence” status quo that has existed for 47 years is sustainable indefinitely. It isn’t.
Two, Hamas is more than a terrorist organization to its supporters. Hamas provides various social and governmental services and is viewed as defending Gazans from Israeli aggression. That’s not an excuse for Hamas’s indiscriminate violence, but it is an explanation for why they are able to build support. One way to weaken that support is to provide Gazans with a more moderate alternative, one that works to avoid every-other-year wars and provides life-affirming benefits to Palestinians. Current Hamas supporters will start to want what West Bank Palestinians get.
Three, recognize that reaching a peace agreement is not a zero sum process. Yes, Palestinians will eventually get their own state, but Israel will also get a better Israel. Peace will bring Israel greater economic and diplomatic returns and reduce military threats. Peace will also bring Israel the normalcy and legitimacy its leaders and citizens have sought and deserve. Peace will also shore up Israel’s support from diaspora Jewry and the U.S.
Four, the absence of a two-state agreement is a zero-sum process. No one wins. Israel’s leaders need to recognize that a two-state agreement is one of Israel’s vital interests, as critical or even more critical to address than Iran’s nuclear efforts. Without an agreement, Israel risks losing strong U.S. support — perhaps Israel’s most critical vital interest — and also risks a further attenuation of diaspora Jewish support. Palestinian leaders need to recognize that continued occupation misery may lead to a one state solution becoming the default option if they are unable to make the type of territorial and security compromises Israel will likely demand.
Will Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recognize that there is no way to destroy Hamas or the next Hamas-like group militarily, and the only way forward is for him to wage a peace battle within his coalition that is at least as ferocious as this last Gaza War? Can the 2003 Arab Peace Initiative (Road Map Plan) serve as the basis for developing a comprehensive agreement? Will Netanyahu and Abbas be open to painful compromises that threaten not only their political careers but could also threaten their lives? Will Israel be wise enough to realize that Hamas’s reconciliation with Fatah is ultimately in Israel’s interest as it will create an opportunity to have a unified approach to Gaza and a final agreement that is with, and is supported by, all Palestinian political parties? Will third parties such as the U.S. and the Arab League take more active roles in offering specific plans and support? Will another third party — Egypt? — emerge that both sides trust enough to play an interlocutor role along with the U.S.?
The Israeli and Palestinian issues — borders, refugees, Israeli security, Palestinian capital, Palestinian demilitarization — are known, as is the general path to an agreement. The failure to follow that path will only lead to continued unrest and an eventual eruption of violence. Let’s hope both sides have their political GPS’s programmed to negotiate and that they both work to not only prevent another Gaza War but to bring lasting peace to their peoples.