In their ongoing struggle to escape reality, Israeli politicians and opinion leaders have settled on a new approach to our never-ending war with the Arabs of Eretz Yisrael: not ending the conflict, but managing it.
After almost thirty years of disillusionment and literally thousands of (Jewish and Arab) deaths, all but a tiny minority of Israelis – found in the halls of Meretz and the columns of Ha’aretz – finally understand that the slogans “land for peace” and “two-state solution” represent delusions, and that the attempts to implement them have been disastrous. Of course these ideas are still popular among European antisemites, liberal US Jews, and much of the American government, to our great regret. But that’s another story.
Unfortunately a new fantasy, espoused by Micha Goodman in his book (English title: Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War) has taken hold of Israel’s ruling elites; and while it is not quite as pernicious as the previous delusion, it too will not lead us to the promised land of peace. Indeed, it is likely to damage our strategic position for the inevitable war that is ahead. I refer to the idea that while it is impossible to resolve the conflict, it is possible to tamp it down, to moderate it, to ameliorate the violence: to manage it until at some time in the dimly-envisioned future it will be possible to end it.
Goodman argues that both of the solutions proposed by the Left and the Right respectively – partition into two states or imposition of Israeli sovereignty over all of the land – are fatally flawed: partition is impossible for security reasons, and sovereignty for demographic/political ones. Management is seen as suboptimal by both sides; but he thinks there’s no alternative.
Unsurprisingly, the weakest part of Goodman’s argument is his discussion of how the application of appropriate management tools – mostly economic incentives – will ultimately lead to change in Palestinian consciousness, or at least a pragmatic decision by them to accept some form of non-belligerence and even cooperation. Just like the two-staters, Goodman refuses to understand his enemies, because the consequences of doing so are too disturbing.
When the book first came out in Hebrew it was a minor sensation here. Even Bibi Netanyahu, the man the NY Times loved to call “Israel’s hard-line right-wing PM,” was seen carrying it. In any event, the basic idea, if not the details, of managing the conflict seem to have been adopted as policy by the entire political center, including Netanyahu, Bennett, Gantz, Lapid, and others. This approach especially appeals to professional politicians, because almost by definition politicians love short-term, kick-the-can-down-the-road “solutions” to recalcitrant problems. Why take risks when you don’t have to?
According to this approach, everything that can be done to improve the Palestinian economy (as if there is one in any real sense!) should be done, within the constraints of our security. The PA areas will get 4G (someday even 5G) phone/internet service; we continue to sell fuel and electricity to Hamas-ruled Gaza; more work permits are being granted to residents of the territories even as we try to plug the holes in the security fence along the Green Line. Sometimes this policy leads to absurdities. For example, in accordance with the Oslo Accords, Israel collects import taxes on behalf of the PA and transfers the money to it. After the Knesset passed a law to deduct from this a sum equivalent to the amount the PA pays imprisoned terrorists or the families of “martyred” ones, Defense Minister Gantz arranged a “loan” to the PA to offset its loss!
Note that the arguments for and against this policy are not couched in terms of whether it is a good thing for us to help the PA, but rather the security implications of it. So Gantz argues that it is important to support the PA, because if it collapses Hamas will take over in Judea and Samaria, which would be worse for us than the Fatah-dominated PA. The same goes for Gaza: by allowing the Hamas leadership to enrich itself by diverting cash received from Qatar and by providing Gaza with water to drink and electricity to operate rocket factories, we (at least for a while) encourage them not to launch those rockets. But nobody asks about the long-term consequences of in effect paying our enemies to not kill us.
Management involves the judicious use of sticks as well as carrots. There are almost nightly raids in Judea/Samaria to arrest or kill terrorists who are planning attacks. There are periodic warlets with Hamas in which weapons factories and depots are bombed. Just this past week, the IDF cut the head off of a particularly nasty group of terrorists, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (but money will flow from Iran, younger men will step up, and the head will grow back).
The short-term nature of this policy is obvious. The PA/PLO leadership and that of Hamas, as well as the great mass of Palestinian Arabs who share their ideology (whether or not they care for the corrupt and dictatorial leadership) are not made more moderate by this policy. Indeed, it is insulting to them to suggest that! As I have written before, resistance is an essential characteristic of Palestinian identity. Indeed, it is the only truly unique part of specifically Palestinian culture, the part that distinguishes them from other Arabs. It is the reason we can have peace with the UAE, for example, but not Hamas. We cannot buy and beat them into giving up their identity.
In response to the argument that economic improvements and education will ultimately lead to moderation, I point to the Arab citizens of Israel and the Arabs of Jerusalem. In both cases, they have better standards of living, healthcare, educational and occupational opportunities, and more political freedom than Arabs living anywhere else in the Middle East. And yet, in recent decades they have become more radicalized, as illustrated by last May’s riots in Israel’s mixed cities.
Managing the conflict is only a short-term expedient, and a poor one, since it allows our enemies to grow more capable over time, as we have seen with Hamas. After repeated operations to “mow the grass,” we find the grass coming up higher and tougher each time. At some point we will not be able to cut it.
Humans are territorial primates. Modern technology hasn’t changed that, only made it possible for the territories involved to be larger and the wars bloodier. Our conflict is a struggle between peoples for territorial dominance. Although we find it tremendously difficult to face the fact, it is a zero-sum game. One side will win, and the other will disappear from the region. We will not win by underestimating the commitment of our enemies to victory, and even less so by assuming that we can transform them from deadly foes into good neighbors.