A response to David Brooks and Thomas Friedman

David Brooks and Thomas Friedman separately wrote widely read New York Times op-eds in response to the May 14th violence at Israel’s border with Gaza. While recognizing the extremism on the Palestinian side, they nonetheless faulted Israel’s leadership, mainly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for not exhibiting “pragmatism” and for not being willing to take “a few calculated risks.” Their criticism was not strictly about Gaza.

Brooks wrote (“The Gaza Violence: How Extremism Corrupts,” May 17): “When faced with an extremist, you have two choices: counter the extremist mind-set with your own or reject that mind-set and double down on pragmatism. By and large, Israel has taken the former path. The shift from the politics of [Yitzhak] Rabin and Shimon Peres to that of Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman is a move from pluralism to ethnocentrism, from relentless engagement to segregation.”

Friedman wrote (“Hamas, Netanyahu and Mother Nature,” May 22): “If there were ever a time for Israel to take a few calculated risks to try to nurture a different pathway with Palestinians in the West Bank, it’s now. Unfortunately, its prime minister is too cowardly, and America is too slavishly supportive, for that to happen.”

Their criticism of Netanyahu’s stance vis-a-vis the Palestinians is misplaced because he broadly reflects the disillusioned, security-conscious views of much of the Israeli electorate. That electorate has turned rightward since the late 1990s due to certain realities of the last 18 years that Brooks, Friedman and many liberal Americans seem either to ignore or to inadequately appreciate. Although Israelis elected Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, Ehud Barak in 1999, and Ehud Olmert in 2006, the elections in 2009, 2013 and 2015 resulted in Likud-led coalition governments. Latest polls indicate that the Likud would be even stronger were elections held now, despite the ongoing investigations of Netanyahu for possible corruption.

Four realities of the last 18 years have, taken together, turned the Israeli electorate rightward.

Palestinian rejection of compromise Israeli proposals. Although Prime Minister Rabin, who was a careful military man in his long career, has been mythologized as the Israeli leader who could have made peace with the Palestinians, the kind of solution he outlined in his last speech to the Knesset in October 1995, a month before he was murdered, included the following cautious features: Rabin envisioned a Palestinian “entity which is less than a state;” the Jordan Valley as Israel’s long term security border; united Jerusalem the capital of Israel under Israeli sovereignty; and a permanent border between Israel and the Palestinian entity to the east of the 1949 Armistice line.

At Camp David in July 2000 Ehud Barak offered much more than Rabin’s outline; in 2008 Ehud Olmert went still further. Both times, the Palestinian rejected these earnest Israeli offers that would have resulted in a two-state reality. These rejections, although consistent with a long history of earlier Palestinian rejection of partition, were a great disappointment, some would say a shattering disappointment, following the optimism of the Oslo Accords.

The 2000-04 terror war launched by Yasser Arafat following the failure of the Camp David talks was dominated by cruel murder of Israeli civilians. While virtually every attack left shattered families, the following events were particularly affecting: the June 2001 suicide bombing of a popular Tel Aviv disco, which left 21 dead, mostly teenagers; the August 2001 suicide bombing of the Sbarro Pizzeria in central Jerusalem in which 15 died, including five members of one family and two close teenage friends who were buried side by side; the March 2002 suicide bombing in Netanya’s Park Hotel at a communal Passover Seder, which left 30 dead, most of whom were elderly; and the September 2003 suicide bombing at Cafe Hillel in Jerusalem, which caused seven deaths, including a well-known physician and his daughter on the eve of her wedding. There were many other attacks in public places, including repeated suicide bombing of buses. Suicide bombs usually were filled with nails and ball bearings to increase the suffering of the victims and the maiming and disfiguration of those who survived. The main targets were Israeli civilians, not soldiers. More than 1,000 Israelis were murdered in this prolonged assault and public life was seriously disrupted. Only after a sustained effort by the IDF in the West Bank against the terror infrastructure, combined with the construction of a security barrier that impeded access to Israel, did the pace of such attacks abate sharply in 2005. This four year war left serious scars, psychological as well as physical. When Hamas’s leader, Yahya Sinwar, said a few weeks ago, “We will take down the border and tear out their hearts from their bodies,” Israelis were reminded of the hatred and cruelty exhibited during 2000-04 and took Sinwar’s threats very seriously.

The sorry history of Gaza following Israel’s 2005 evacuation of all settlements and its military presence in the Strip. Hamas executed a bloody coup against the Palestinian Authority in June 2007. The new rulers focused on building military capabilities to confront Israel, and used mortars, rockets, and attack tunnels (in 2014) against Israel in three violent confrontations in 2008-09, 2012 and 2014. And, most recently, there have been weekly violent attempts to break though the border fence as well as multiple incendiary attacks on Israeli land across the border.

The transformation of Gaza makes Israelis even more wary of a Palestinian state in much of the West Bank. The prospect that Jerusalem and Israel’s highly populous coastal plain, including Tel Aviv, its surroundings communities, and Ben Gurion airport, would be in easy mortar/rocket range, means that Israel could only contemplate an agreement with stringent Israeli security safeguards in place, conditions that the Palestinians have totally rejected until now.

The ever more explicit rejection of the Jewish people’s historic ties to Israel and Jerusalem, the branding of Zionism as a colonial enterprise launched by Europeans, and the denial of the right of Jews to their own state. These views are not new, and are in keeping with the rejectionism that has guided Palestinian actions for more than 80 years. What is somewhat new is the boldness with which they have been articulated in recent years by Mahmoud Abbas, who is so often called “moderate.” Regrettably, his falsehoods and statements of Israel’s illegitimacy usually pass without condemnation in the West. It was remarkable that Abbas received widespread criticism, including from people who are usually silent about his outrageous statements, for his April 30 address to the Palestinian National Council. He was chastised for his claim that Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves due to their social behavior and money lending. But, as Yossi Klein Halevi pointed out, the international community failed to criticize Abbas for his “Zion denial” in that speech, which is more important for the possibility of an eventual end-of-conflict agreement. And it is not just speeches: Palestinian textbooks, media, and sermons by Imams in mosques regularly depict Israel as a colonial implant and claim all of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River as Palestine.

The “colonial implant” trope is particularly important. For Palestinians, it conjures up remembrance of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, also derided as a colonial implant, which was defeated by Saladin in 1187 after an 88 year period of existence. The parallel is clear: Just as the Crusader Kingdom was eventually defeated militarily, so too the goal must be victory over the current “colonial implant.

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In light of these four elements of Israeli-Palestinian history since 2000, it seems eminently sensible and pragmatic for Israelis to be deeply skeptical about whether a Palestinian state in much of the West Bank would lead to an enduring peace, given the absence of mutual acceptance. Rather, it would likely lead to war. In Israel, the mantra often repeated by former president Barack Obama and European leaders, “two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security,” seems like a dangerous fantasy in light of Palestinian beliefs, words, and actions.

Given these four elements and the thoroughgoing conceptual rejection of Israel, it seems bizarre to be chastised by Brooks, Friedman and others for not boldly offering new concessions to the Palestinians.

Yes, it might turn out that once a form of sovereignty or greater autonomy is established for Palestinians, if leaders emerge who truly focus on building their entity and improving the lot of their population, the quest for conquest of Israel may abate over time and ultimately dissipate. However, in light of the realities mentioned above, this seems like a slim and distant hope. In any case, the security strictures that Israel insists on in negotiations must be strong enough to deter and prevent the development of armaments and serious attacks. This is particularly the case because the size of the West Bank and the length of its border are both many times greater than with Gaza. Currently, Israeli forces make repeated raids of workshops and other facilities that can manufacture armaments. Without such raids, the production of weapons, including rockets and mortars, would likely proceed. Smuggling would also be a challenge. The maintenance of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a vital Israeli interest. Were it to fall and be replaced by an Islamist regime, smuggling into a Palestinian state would likely increase substantially, enhancing the wherewithal to attack Israel.

Opinion polls show that Israelis continue to support negotiations with the Palestinians although large majorities do not expect them to succeed. Certain questions elicit what appear to be contradictory responses; however, they actually make sense. A comparison of polls in 2010, 2015, and 2017 shows that Jewish support for “two states for two peoples” has declined from 69% to 60 % to 55%. However, when questioned about the possibility of unilateral annexation of all of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] by Israel, only 8% were in favor while 53% opposed any annexation. Another question asked which of several values was most important to respondents. The largest response (49%) was for a “State with a Jewish majority.” Opposition to full annexation and valuing the maintenance a large Jewish majority are clearly consistent. Together, they are hardly “extremist.” But why the declining support for “two state for two peoples?” It appears that the experience with Gaza, the steady drumbeat of delegitimization of Israel by the Palestinians, and their denial of Jewish connection to the land have convinced many Israelis that any Palestinian state would be used mainly to plan and execute attacks on Israel. These poll results ought to convince someone like David Brooks that the Israeli electorate has, in fact, not embraced extremism, even though some Israeli politicians fit that label. It should be noted that Prime Minister Netanyahu has prevent unilateral annexation proposals from being realized, consistent with the poll responses.

Another reason for the declining support for “two states” may be the realization that whatever entity might be agreed to has to have far less than the usual rights of a “state.” Rabin’s cautious approach deserves renewed consideration.

By and large, Israelis love their country and comparative polls show Israelis to be among the dozen happiest populations in the world, despite living with stresses and threats that most countries don’t face. Yes, many Israelis feel stuck. They would prefer a negotiated agreement that ends the current status quo but they see no safe exit.

Israelis take politics and security issues very seriously particularly because they and their families directly bear the consequences of decisions made. Perhaps David Brooks and Thomas Friedman could adopt a somewhat humbler stance in their assessments of Israeli caution vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

About the Author
Lewis Rosen is a retired economist who has lived in Jerusalem for more than 30 years. Born and educated in the US, he worked for the Office of Economic Opportunity for two years in Washington D.C. and was on the economics faculty of York University in Toronto, Canada for 13 years. In Israel he has been involved in a wide range of business planning and economic analysis projects.