Israel’s two greatest strategic mistakes

The murder of Alexander Levlovitz in Jerusalem when he was driving home from a Rosh Hashana dinner, is the latest in a series of cases of Jews killed or seriously injured by rocks and firebombs thrown by Arabs. The daily attacks in Judea/Samaria and Jerusalem rarely make the news outside of Israel, and even here we seem to accept them as natural phenomena, like large hailstones or volcanic eruptions, until someone dies or is maimed for life.

Right now this kind of terrorism is particularly prevalent, while at the same time a battle between police and rioting Arabs continues on the Temple Mount. The Arabs are upset because Israel’s government has decided that it is not acceptable for screaming mobs of Muslims to accost Jews trying to visit the Mount, where they are nevertheless not allowed to pray. There is continuous incitement on social media and in mosques calling on Muslims to “defend al-Aqsa,” which they can do on the Temple Mount or on highway 443.

Ever since the riots orchestrated by al-Husseini in the 1920s, the accusation that Israel plans to replace the al-Aqsa mosque with a Jewish temple has been effective in producing violent behavior among Muslims, despite its almost comical falsehood. Anything that Israel does in connection with the Mount is used as a pretext to make this accusation. The reason it works has to do with the first of two ideological principles that serve as foundations for Arab violence against Jews in Israel. Failure to take these principles into account led to the two greatest strategic errors made by Israel’s leaders since the founding of the state.

One principle is that of Muslim supremacy, according to which it is absolutely unacceptable that non-Muslims should in any way govern or control Muslims. A corollary is that a non-Muslim presence in what Muslims consider a holy place pollutes it. The so-called ‘status quo’ that has existed on the Temple Mount since it came under Jewish control in 1967 is a compromise – and you know compromises never fly with Muslims – to try to get around this. The status quo places the Mount under civil control of the Jordanian waqf, and allows non-Muslims to visit on a limited basis, but not to pray there.

Making this deal was the first great strategic error, because it should have been obvious that the Arabs would never be satisfied with anything less than full sovereignty over the Mount. Over the years, it has been a flash point for violence; and Israel has usually bowed to the threat of violence and little by little allowed its hard-won sovereignty to erode. For example, on several occasions the waqf has carried out construction projects while ignoring Israeli laws about safeguarding archaeologically sensitive areas; in fact, Jewish artifacts have been deliberately destroyed and Israel did nothing.

The other principle is the Palestinian Narrative, which asserts that the Jewish state is illegitimate, built on land stolen from indigenous ‘Palestinians’, and that violent ‘resistance to occupation’ is justified (indeed, more than justified: worthy of the highest praise).

The narrative got a massive boost from the second major Israeli mistake: the Oslo accords.

Oslo was not just a tactical error which led to the Second Intifada and thousands of dead Jews and Arabs, but also a strategic and ideological error from which Israel is suffering even today, long after the Intifada has been suppressed. The Oslo process implicitly validated much of the Palestinian narrative, asserting that Israel recognized the terrorists of the PLO as the representatives of the “Palestinian people” and spoke of “mutual legitimate and political rights.” Today the heritage of Oslo is the popularity in Washington and Europe of the idea that the 1949 armistice lines mark a border between Israel and ‘Palestinian’ territory, something that Yitzhak Rabin would have very vigorously opposed.

Recovery from these mistakes will be a long process and require a great deal of resolve and persistence. Among the difficulties associated with the Temple Mount is the position of Jordan, whose prestige in the Muslim world is directly tied to the waqf being in control of the Mount. No matter how King Abdullah feels about the PLO, Hamas and Palestinians in general – one suspects that his feelings are less than warm – he cannot appear less committed to Muslim sovereignty there than they are.

If Israel were to evict or sideline the waqf and take over full control, as it should have done in 1967, the pressure on Abdullah to take action would be immense. At the same time, he is dependent on Israel for the survival of his minority regime, which would place him in an impossible situation, perhaps even lead to an Islamist coup.

Only a gradual approach to recover sovereignty bit by bit, will work. Outlawing the screaming Muslim mobs on the Temple Mount was a good first step, but even that small step has had its price in Arab violence.

Neither are there easy ways to undo the damage done by Oslo. Arafat should have been killed in 1982, and the PLO should have been destroyed (both were saved by American intervention – US Marines escorted the PLO onto ships bound for Tunis). The moribund PLO never should have been revived and brought back to Israel in 1993. Unfortunately, we don’t have a time machine to go back and undo these errors.

One of the first acts of Yasser Arafat after Oslo was to take control of the media and educational system, which he turned into engines of indoctrination against Israel, Jews and ‘normalization’ – anything that might tend to reduce tensions between Jews and Arabs. 22 years later, a generation of Arabs that grew up under this system are stoning, burning and stabbing Jews to death whenever they have an opportunity.

Unfortunately, nothing has been done to change this. Oslo has long been abrogated and the Palestinian Authority has no legal authority; but Israel is afraid that if the PA collapsed it would be replaced by Hamas or worse. So it continues to prop it up. But the hateful incitement from PA media and its educational system must be stopped before it breeds yet another generation of terrorists.

Both of these mistakes were made because Israel assumed that compromise was an effective tactic when dealing with Arabs. Compromise is greatly admired in the West, where magnanimity is associated with strength. In the Middle East, an offer of compromise is understood as an admission of weakness. If I can take all of something, then why should I give you any? Therefore, I must not be strong enough to take it.

I am sure that the Arabs were surprised when Moshe Dayan offered them control of the Temple Mount. After all, Israel had conquered Jerusalem. Many of them were probably expecting to be kicked out of their homes, as the Jordanians had done to the Jews in 1948. But instead of teaching them that they had been defeated, Dayan gave them hope that by continued struggle they could prevail.

And if they do, you had better believe they will not be magnanimous.

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