At an off-the-record gathering of foreign-policy mandarins and opinion-mongers recently, the former head of an allied nation said he was advising President Obama to push as hard as possible for a speedy settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Most of those attending the conference nodded in agreement. I bit my tongue, waited for a break, and then buttonholed the statesman near the coffee and tea dispensers. Might I ask a question? He graciously said I might.
Sir, if you were Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, would you make peace with the Israelis? You understand that peace would be of enormous benefit to your people and to Israelis alike. On the other hand, you know that while you wield power in the West Bank, Hamas rules Gaza. And Hamas refuses — as a matter of both theology and policy — to accept the existence of a Middle Eastern nation led by non-Muslims.
What’s more, Hamas is financed and instructed by an Iranian regime that also wants the Jewish state wiped off the map. Tehran plans to soon have nuclear weapons to utilize in pursuit of that goal.
Don’t you think that if you were to sign a peace treaty with Israel, as Egyptian president Anwar Sadat did in 1979, you would end up as Sadat did in 1981 — assassinated by self-proclaimed jihadis?
(Historical footnote: The fatwa approving Sadat’s assassination was granted by Omar Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian cleric who would later move to the U.S., where he preached in mosques calling for “jihad against the infidel.” His career ended in 1996, when federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy sent Abdel-Rahman — a.k.a. the “Blind Sheik” — to prison for life for his role in the first World Trade Center bombing.)
The statesman conceded that for Abbas to end the conflict with Israel at this moment would require courage. That means he’ll need strong support from those of us committed to peace. I asked: How would we demonstrate that support? Would your country supply bodyguards to Abbas? Should Abbas accept a Praetorian guard composed of foreigners? That would be awkward, he allowed. But we can find solutions to such problems.
I imposed upon him further: What concessions do you think Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu should make — knowing that a peace treaty may lead to the overthrow of Abbas and to a new replacement who will not see himself as bound by any promises made by Abbas?
Israel’s withdrawals from southern Lebanon and Gaza did not further the cause of peace. Instead, both territories became terrorist bases from which missiles have been lobbed into Israeli towns. What would prevent the same from occurring on the West Bank, which is adjacent to Israel’s major population centers?
He said international peacekeeping forces would be needed. I noted that international peacekeeping forces were deployed in southern Lebanon at the conclusion of the war launched from there by Hezbollah in 2006. Nevertheless, Hezbollah has imported thousands of missiles that are, right now, pointed at Israel. Has it not become apparent that international forces cannot be relied upon to defend Israelis? Indeed, is it not obvious that the U.N. — now routinely manipulated by Iran and other members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) — has become, de facto, an ally of Israel’s enemies?
With this as context, is advising President Obama to push as hard as possible for a quick settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict the wisest course? Does it not seem likely that this effort will lead, paradoxically, to more bloodshed? He suggested that the problem is complex — too complex to sort out during a break in a conference. He then politely excused himself.
His perspective, however, remains conventional wisdom — all the more so since face-to-face Palestinian-Israeli negotiations were resumed early this month after a hiatus of a year and a half. What I fear he and others are failing to recognize is that Israel is at war with Palestinians, Arabs, and much of the “Muslim world” not because of what it does but because of what it is: the last, tiny patch of land between Morocco and Pakistan not under some form of Islamic rule.
If negotiations cannot be the path to peace at this point in time, what can be? The defeat, on multiple fronts, of what President Obama prefers to call “violent extremists.” Should Iran’s nuclear ambitions be frustrated, should al-Qaeda be further weakened, should Hamas lose power in Gaza, and Hezbollah not manage to bully its way to power in Lebanon, a meaningful “peace process” could finally begin. Reduce the pressure being exerted by the jihadis, and Palestinians and Israelis might find a way to live as neighbors.
The notion that there can be a separate peace for Israelis and Palestinians is appealing, as is the theory that such a peace would drain the energy from the jihadi regimes, movements, and groups waging a civilizational struggle against the West. But the notion is fictional and the theory is wrong. I did my best to convey that to the former head of state. I’m not confident I succeeded.
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism and Islamism.