Some policymakers “shape policy while intoxicated” when it comes to the Middle East, former Israeli Ambassador Yoram Ettinger recently observed at a Capitol Hill briefing. Ettinger’s remarks emphasizing Israeli power undergirding Middle East peace unwittingly contrasted with other speakers the following day who place hardly substantiated hopes in diplomatic agreements.
Ettinger addressed issues of Israel’s Jewish demography and Iran’s nuclear threat at a March 25, 2014, briefing at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center sponsored by the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET). Drawing upon past research by him and others, Ettinger in particular rejected a “demography of doom” consigning Jews to a minority status in the Holy Land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. A “maxim oft-cited on Capitol Hill” is a longstanding prediction of an ultimate Arab ascendancy in this area, according to EMET President Sarah Stern.
Yet Ettinger calculated that Jews in the combined Israeli and Palestinian territories excluding Gaza formed a 66% demographic majority. This majority would only grow through what Stern described as “Jewish demographic momentum” and Arab “demographic fatalism,” as measured by birthrate and immigration. Confidence in such a Jewish majority significantly affected Israeli willingness to make territorial concessions for the sake of an oft-invoked Two State Solution (TSS) to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which would create a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“The number one interest must not be peace, the number one interest must be security,” Ettinger argued when discussion turned specifically to a peace settlement with Israel during audience questioning. “There is no such thing as peace-driven security” in the Middle East he elaborated, only “security-driven peace.” Demanding a “realistic” approach to the “two state delusion,” Ettinger declared that in any Middle East peace process the “aim should never be the production of a document.” While Western society views contracts as binding, in the Middle East “agreements are not carved in stone; they are signed in ice.”
An agreement might last ten, 15, or even 60 years, but can easily fall victim to political turmoil, as events in Egypt and elsewhere indicated during the “Arab Tsunami.” Particularly in Israel’s case, if “you’ve lost the Golan Heights, the piece of paper you have is worthless.” A “disastrous impact” would also come from Israeli abandonment of the Jordan Valley heights.
While a desire “to leave behind a legacy” often motivates would-be Middle East peacemakers, Ettinger noted that for 14 centuries Muslims have had “no intra-Muslim comprehensive peace.” Why, then, would the region’s Muslims make permanent peace with the “infidel Jew” of Israel? According to the “Iranian and Islamic dictionary,” Ettinger had argued earlier concerning diplomatic efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program, “you engage a party which you cannot vanquish at this time.” This understanding of “engagement” followed from the canonical example of Islam’s prophet Muhammad, not any Webster’s Dictionary definition.
“We are talking about American interests,” Ettinger stressed with respect to any future Palestinian state, noting in an aside that Israel is a “damn good thing for American interests.” After all, “Israeli interests should take a backseat” to American interests for Israel’s American friends who “are not members of the Israeli legislature.” Russian-speaking Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas‘s past KGB training, for example, indicated to Ettinger in a lapsus linguae that a Palestinian state would increase “Soviet [read Russian]” regional influence.
A “classic zero-sum game” between Palestinians and Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy also meant a Palestinian state would risk the kingdom’s “demise,” as Jordanian officials had previously warned their Israeli counterparts. “Southern Syria, otherwise known as Jordan,” also could face threats from an Israeli Golan withdrawal, allowing diversion of Syrian military forces facing Israel to turn southwards. Alternatively, a future Syrian regime could threaten the once-Syrian Turkish Hatay province.
An Israeli “existential need” for a Palestinian state, by contrast, existed for Jeremy Ben-Ami while speaking at a Georgetown University panel the day after Ettinger. Maintenance of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state “absolutely turns on having a national state for the Palestinian people,” the founder of J Street, a left-wing alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, declared. “The demographics don’t work in Israel’s favor,” Ben-Ami argued, citing an approximate 50-50% split between Jews and Arabs in the combined Israeli and Palestinian territories, including Gaza. “There is no other alternative” to an ultimately evitable TSS, as one or three state proposals “are all illusions.”
“I just do not see any other solution” outside TSS, Ben-Ami’s fellow panelist Ghaith Al-Omari from the American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP) concurred. Yet unsubstantiated “fuzzy warm feelings of hope” were a mistake during the 1990s Oslo Peace Process, ultimately entailing that “you lose when you hit hard reality.” “We can negate the other,” Al-Omari criticized as the mutually opposed positions of Arabs and Jews stymying peace throughout Israel’s history, apparently forgetting Jewish compromise efforts such as the 1947 partition plan. “You have to show that something is different this time” for both Arabs and Jews, longtime American negotiator Ambassador Dennis Ross concurred with reference to Oslo’s legacy. In particular, unilateral Israeli moves such as withdrawals from Lebanon, Gaza, and the Judea-Samaria/West Bank “discredited the Israeli peace camp” after Arab hostility continued unabated.
“We vote on the credibility of the candidate” and not just a party platform in an election, Al-Omari conceded when discussing a necessity for reforms in Palestinian governing institutions. Absent such reform, Israelis would doubt Palestinian ability to implement any peace agreement. Building the “first Arab democracy” in Palestine had been an aspiration for Al-Omari himself, yet his involvement with Palestinian politics had taught him that Palestinian independence would have to precede democratization. As an aside, Al-Omari might also consider reforms in his own scandal-plagued ATFP (see here and here).
Yet the “greatest thing that can be done to come down on the side of the moderates” against Palestinian extremists such as Hamas, Ben-Ami argued, would be “to show that there is a payoff” in the peace process. Hamas “will ultimately be on the losing side” of a “credible peace deal,” Al-Omari agreed. “I would love to see how Hamas would campaign against it.” “Gazans are not Hamas,” Al-Omari also argued in describing a Hamas that maintains power through sheer dictatorship, although made somewhat popular by local anger at Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
Comparing the two presentations, Middle Eastern facts provoke questions about what Ben-Ami et al. had been drinking. Little evidence exists, for example, that PA authorities, just as dictatorial as Hamas, are fundamentally less interested in Israel’s destruction. Israeli concessions might once again simply invite more aggression. The outcome of any PA power struggle with Hamas among the Palestinians is also uncertain.
A Muslim-majority Arab state formed among such parties will hardly be more peaceful domestically and internationally than the 22 other such states. How Al-Omari intends to propagate democracy under the PA’s Basic Law declaring Islam the “official religion” and the “principles of sharia” the “principal source of legislation” is anyone’s guess. Notably, Israeli Christian Arabs are increasingly eschewing allegiance to the Muslim-dominated group allegiances of their Arab brethren in favor of a free, pluralistic Israeli state. Like past and present Chinese inhabitants of Hong Kong and Taiwan, these Arab Christians value personal freedom more than any national political aspiration.
Ettinger’s assessments, moreover, place in question the Arab demographic danger to an Israeli Jewish state and the corresponding need for territorial concessions. Indeed, growth in Israeli power through an increasing Jewish population and other factors would only deter Arab hostility to Israel, as scholars like Daniel Pipes have argued.
Prudence for Israel would delay any final consideration of principles concerning competing Arab and Jewish self-determination claims in the Holy Land until Palestinians manifest a practical ability to respect Israel’s security. After all, post-World War II acceptance of Germany and Japan as sovereign members of the international community required a variety of confidence building measures, not least of which was the development of stable free societies. Contemplating Gaza’s “giant terrorist entrepôt” in The J Street Challenge, Wall Street Journal editor Bret Stephens warned against expectations of any future Palestinian polity being a good neighbor to Israel like Canada. Contrary to Ettinger’s invoked drunkenness, Israel in any peace negotiation should “be very sober and realistic.”