Politics & Policy

Taking Sides

"No fault" doesn't work here.

JERUSALEM — I am usually a great believer in trusting the common sense of the American people. Since 1997, for example, Gallup polls have shown that Americans do not believe there ever will be Arab-Israeli peace by a margin of roughly 60 to 40 percent. Twice in this period Americans became slightly more optimistic, splitting about 50-50 on this question: during the 2000 Camp David summit, and just before the Aqaba summit.

The fact that even the media euphoria around peace summits leaves half of Americans cold shows a high degree of healthy skepticism, in contrast with the very American notion that all conflicts are solvable. Most people assume that the Middle East will always be dominated by hostile despotisms.

I don’t, but I agree that if the U.S. does not succeed in changing the balance in favor of more democratic and pro-Western governments, the prospects for peace will not be good. Americans also, by large margins, tend to side with Israel over the Palestinians and Arabs generally. A McLaughlin poll taken one month after September 11 found that 72 percent of Americans wanted continued support for Israel, and thought, by a 4-to-1 margin, that the Arab world still sought Israel’s destruction.

Yet on one critical tactical question, I believe that Americans misunderstand the situation. When asked in a June Gallup poll whether the U.S. should take sides in the conflict, a negligible number said to take the Palestinian side, 18 percent said to take Israel’s side, and a whopping 74 percent advised taking neither side.

If Americans support Israel and want their government to reflect that support, why would they not want the U.S. to “take Israel’s side” in the conflict? The only explanation I can see is that Americans believe that, if the U.S. wants to help broker peace agreements, it must project some degree of neutrality between the parties.

This instinct is, at first blush, entirely natural. Most people don’t understand conflicts they are not a part of. Even Bill Clinton, no simpleton, said of his own mediation efforts, according to Sidney Blumenthal’s new book, “Sometimes I wish I was a psychologist. It’s just not rational.”

But if there are two boys in the schoolyard who are always fighting, and you want to do something about it, you need to know: Are they both bullies, or is one of them the instigator and the other basically a good kid? Sometimes you can’t know who starts what, or for institutional reasons you can’t be bothered to find out. So you just try to set a “no-fighting” rule and then enforce it. Being impartial often seems not only simpler, but necessary. How else can you maintain your credibility with everyone? There is a problem, however, with the neutral approach: It favors bullies. If you are bully, the more neutral the mediator, the more you can diffuse the blame for your actions. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to stick the blame on your victim. This is easier if you happen to be smaller and weaker than the kid you are picking on.

And if the bully regularly succeeds in tagging the blame on others, it gets worse far from being deterred by the mediator, he has incentive to continue making trouble.

International relations has a term for bullying: It’s called aggression. The whole purpose of the international system is to police it. International law is not built like “no-fault” car insurance rather, aggressors are to be sanctioned, victims protected.

This is not a matter of sentimentality or even justice. It is purely pragmatic. Everyone knows that if you want less aggression, you should deter it rather than reward it. But is less widely recognized that misplaced neutrality violates this cardinal rule. It therefore does not advance peace efforts; it cripples them.

The notion of an honest broker needs to be refined. When Israel and the Palestinians were at Camp David, an honest broker was needed to craft an agreement that met the needs, if not all the dreams, of both parties. But when one side refused to negotiate, turned over the table, and (a few months later) started shooting, being honest required crying foul.

For all the progress that has been made since then, the U.S. still has not fully done that. Crying foul does not just mean condemning terrorism, it means acting in a temporarily lopsided way, putting full blame on the aggressor, and fully backing the victim’s efforts to fight back. When fighting is going on the instinct to be neutral must be turned on its head: The more the blame is focused, rather than shared, the sooner aggression will become counterproductive, the sooner it will stop, and the sooner negotiations can begin.

There is nothing more demoralizing for Israel, and more encouraging for Hamas and other terrorist groups, than for the United States, Israel’s best friend, to say you can fight, but don’t touch their leaders. No one in al Qaeda has immunity, from Osama bin Laden on down; Hamas should be treated the same way. Yet U.S. President George W. Bush even went so far as to say that attempting to kill senior Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi was not in Israel’s security interests.

It is hard to overstate the damage caused by the knowledge that our only ally is setting limits on how we can fight back, and if we go beyond those limits then the blame for the conflict will shift to our shoulders. The current attempt to induce a Palestinian crackdown against terrorism is publicly limited to withholding a carrot Palestinian statehood without brandishing the real stick giving Israel full backing to fight.

As a result of the post-Aqaba wave of attacks, the U.S. now reportedly dropped its objection to targeted killings, which it continues to officially oppose, in any area where the Palestinians are not actively working to prevent attacks. But the fact that having limited permission to hit Hamas is considered progress shows how far the U.S. has been from fully backing Israel’s right to self-defense. Americans are right to want their country to act as an honest broker, but being honest does not mean being blind.

Saul Singer is editorial-page editor of the Jerusalem Post. This first appeared in the Post and is reprinted with permissin.


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