February 18, 2005.
On Iraq, doves have looked pretty good the last few years as the rationales
offered up by the hawks (myself included) have mostly fallen apart. But on
Israel, which is now embarking on a promising peace initiative with the
Palestinians, it’s the other way around. In retrospect, the doves now look
foolish and the hawks positively brilliant.
Three years ago, if you recall, Israel faced near-daily suicide bombings. Prime
Minister Ariel Sharon responded by hastening construction of a security wall
and launching a military crackdown in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Doves everywhere were horrified. “Mr. Sharon’s policy so far has been
worse than ineffective; it is aggravating the terrorism,” wrote New York Times
columnist Nicholas Kristof.
As it happens, Sharon’s policy succeeded unequivocally. From September 2001
through July 2002, terrorists operating out of the West Bank killed 173 people.
The following 12-month period, with the security wall under construction, that
number fell to 68. The year after that, with the wall further completed, the
number fell again to 28. Maybe Sharon aggravated the terrorists, but he did not
Sharon also refused to negotiate with Yasser Arafat. This too was seen as
reckless and irresponsible.
Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska spoke for the traditional
foreign policy establishment when he urged that “we cannot hold the Middle
East peace process hostage by making Yasser Arafat the issue. Credible
alternative Palestinian leadership will not step forward in response to a
perceived American-Israeli demand for Arafat’s removal.”
Well, guess what? The Americans and Israelis demanded Arafat’s removal. And
credible Palestinian leadership did step forward. To be sure, luck – in the form of
Arafat’s timely death – intervened.
Still, we now can see that negotiating with Arafat would have been folly.
And President Bush, despite his many – almost innumerable – failings, deserves
enormous credit for backing Sharon despite intense international pressure.
The doves got it so wrong because they fundamentally misread the situation.
The idea that harsh Israeli counter-terrorist measures must inevitably backfire is
rooted in the view that the Middle East conflict is a “cycle of violence.” (No
doubt you’ve heard this phrase countless times.)
According to this theory, Palestinians attack Israelis because Israeli
repression makes them desperate and angry. More repression creates more
desperation and anger, which creates more terrorists. Yet the last Palestinian
uprising began as a response not to excessive Israeli strength but to a
perception of Israeli weakness.
In 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew his army from Lebanon in
response to continued attacks. Later that year, he made concessions to Arafat
in a noble but doomed effort to sign a peace accord. Arafat interpreted both
these things as a sign that he could win even more concessions by unleashing a
Sharon’s counteroffensive stymied Hamas and the other militant groups and
proved to many ordinary Palestinians that they couldn’t bleed Israel back to the
bargaining table. Indeed, Palestinians came to realize that their uprising was
inflicting far more pain on them than on Israel.
That doesn’t make the suffering of innocent Palestinians any less tragic.
But it does suggest, cruelly, that some pain was probably necessary not only to
stop terrorist attacks but also to persuade the Palestinians to elect a moderate
like Mahmoud Abbas, who would renounce violence.
A report last month in this newspaper described Palestinian voters as
“exhausted by violence.” It turns out the driving force in Israeli-Palestinian
relations was not a “cycle of violence.” It was a dialectic: Palestinian
rejectionism met a stronger Israeli response, which produced mutual
Hagel, of all people, should have known. (In case you’re not up on your
19th century German philosophers, that last line was a clever reference to
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who invented the concept of historical dialectics
but, unlike Chuck Hagel, never visited Nebraska.)
To be sure, the current Israeli-Palestinian thaw could easily come undone. Yet
the fact remains that we would not have come to this point were it not for
Sharon’s intransigence. There are a lot of dovish critics, in the United States
and (especially) in Europe, who never would have predicted this. I don’t hear