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Treason of the hawks

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 "Treason of the Hawks"

by Stephen Walt

In Every War Must End, his classic study of war termination, Fred Iklé coined the term "treason of the hawks" to describe those tragic situations where hardliners stubbornly refuse to make peace and thereby lead their countries to disaster. Iklé, who served as Ronald Reagan’s under secretary of defense and is certainly no dove, recognized that obstinate opposition to making peace is as dangerous to a nation’s future as naïve pacifism and potentially as damaging as deliberately selling out to the enemy. 


After pointing out that "treason" is a word that carries especially harsh moral connotations, Iklé noted:

[T]he English language is without a word of equally strong opprobrium to designate acts that can lead to the destruction of one’s government and one’s country, not by giving aid and comfort to the enemy, but by making enemies, not by fighting too little, but by fighting too much and too long. 'Adventurism' — much too weak a word — is perhaps the best term to describe this 'treason of the hawks.' … Treason can help our enemies destroy our country by making them stronger; adventurism can destroy our country by making our enemies more numerous."

I was reminded of Iklé’s insights when I read about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ideas for resuming the peace process with the Palestinians. Netanyahu clearly wants to avoid an open rift with the Obama administration, which has forcefully reiterated its commitment to negotiating a two-state solution. To do that, he has to pay lip service to the peace process. But because Netanyahu has long opposed the creation of a viable Palestinian state and instead wants to extend Israel's control of the West Bank, he has to lay out a set of demands that will endlessly delay the process and make it hard for Obama to put meaningful pressure on him. 

According to Ha'aretz, Netanyahu will insist that the Palestinians go beyond their prior recognition of Israel's right to exist (as expressed in the 1993 Oslo Accord) and explicitly recognize Israel as a "Jewish state."  Furthermore, he wants the United States to agree that a future Palestinian state be barred from possessing its own army and forbidden from making alliances with other countries, while Israel is permitted to monitor its borders, its airspace, and its use of the electromagnetic spectrum, presumably in perpetuity. In the meantime, the expansion of Israeli settlements will surely continue, and in ways that will soon preclude any possibility of a territorially contiguous state on the West Bank. Lastly, Netanyahu wants to link progress toward a two-state solution with an end to Iran's nuclear program. As I've noted before, this condition would allow Tehran — purposely or inadvertently — to derail a two-state solution by stonewalling on the nuclear issue. Ironically, this outcome might suit Iran and Netanyahu alike: Israel could keep expanding settlements and the Islamic Republic could continue to play the Palestine card against its Arab rivals.

My question is this: What is Netanyahu thinking? Doesn't he realize that time has nearly run out for the two-state solution, and that failure to achieve it is by far the most serious threat facing Israel? The prime minister and his allies keep harping about an "existential" threat from Iran, but this bogeyman is mostly nonsense. Iran has zero — repeat, zero — nuclear weapons today, and even if it were to acquire a few at some point in the future, it could not use them against nuclear-armed Israel without committing national suicide. Let me say that again: national suicide.

And could someone please explain to Netanyahu that a group of devout Muslim clerics aren't likely to fire warheads at a land that contains the third holiest site in Islam? Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said some remarkably foolish things about the Holocaust and repeatedly questioned Israel's legitimacy (as in his oft-mistranslated statement about Israel "vanishing from the page of time"), but he's never threatened to murder millions of Israelis (and Palestinians) with nuclear weapons. Just last weekend, he even told ABC's George Stephanopolous that if the Palestinians reached an agreement with Israel, then Iran would support it. Moreover, as Roger Cohen has noted, there is no evidence that Ahmadinejad has any particular animus toward Iran's own Jewish community. Despite his many offensive statements, in short, Ahmadinejad is not Adolf Hitler and we are not living in the 1930s.

The real threat to Israel's future is the occupation, and the conflict with the Palestinians that it perpetuates. To see that, all you have to do is look at current demographic trends and poll results and then ponder the consequences for Israel. There are presently about 5.6 million Jews in "Greater Israel," (i.e., the 1967 borders plus the West Bank) and about 5.2  million Arabs (of whom nearly 1.5 million are citizens of Israel). Palestinian birth rates are substantially higher, however, which means they will be a majority of the population in "Greater Israel" in the not-too-distant future.   To put it bluntly, it is Palestinian wombs and not Iranian bombs that pose the real threat.

Netanyahu ought to be equally concerned by signs that the Zionist ideal is losing its hold within Israel itself. There are reportedly between 700,000 and one million Israeli citizens now living abroad, and emigration has outpaced immigration since 2007. According to Ian Lustick and John Mueller, only 69 percent of Israeli Jews say they want to remain in the country, and a 2007 poll reported that about one-quarter of Israelis are considering leaving, including almost half of all young people. As Lustick and Mueller note, hyping the threat from Iran may be making this problem worse, especially among the most highly educated (and thus most mobile) Israelis. Israeli society is also becoming more polarized — which is one reason Netanyahu had such trouble forming a governing coalition — with the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox at odds with secular Israelis, to include the more recent immigrants that form the core of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's support.

So what are Israel's options? One alternative would be to make the West Bank and Gaza part of Israel, but allow the Palestinians who live there to have full political rights, thereby creating a binational liberal democracy.  This idea has been promoted by a handful of Israeli Jews and a growing number of Palestinians, but the objections to it are compelling. It would mean abandoning the Zionist vision of a Jewish state, which makes it anathema to almost all Israeli Jews, who want to live in a Jewish state. The practical obstacles to this outcome are equally daunting, and binational states do not have an encouraging track record. If the choice were between this option and a genuine two-state solution, there can be little doubt about which Netanyahu would prefer.

A second option would be for Israel to retain the West Bank and expel the Palestinians by force, there preserving its Jewish character through an overt act of ethnic cleansing. A few Israeli extremists have proposed something akin to this, but to expel millions of Palestinians in this fashion would be a crime against humanity. The Palestinians would surely resist being driven from their homes, and such a heinous act would take place in full view of a horrified world and damage Israel's reputation far more than the recent carnage in Gaza did. No true friend of Israel could support such a course of action, and one hopes that Netanyahu has the good sense to recognize that it would be a tragic mistake to go down this road.

The only other option to a genuine two-state solution is some form of apartheid, in which the Palestinians are granted limited autonomy in some disconnected and economically crippled enclaves whose borders, airspace, and aquifers are controlled by Israel. The Palestinians' fate, in other words, would remain in Israel's hands, even if some modest efforts were made to improve their living conditions. This outcome seems to be what Netanyahu has in mind, but it is not a viable long-term solution either. The Palestinians are not going to accept being permanent vassals — especially once they are a majority in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean — and they will continue to demand either a viable state of their own or full political rights within Israel. Over time, this option is going to be an increasingly difficult sell around the world, and especially in the West.

That is why former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Ha'aretz in 2008, "if the day comes when the two-state solution collapses," Israel will face "a South-African style struggle for voting rights." Once that happened, he warned, "the state of Israel is finished." Despite his long career as a Likud Party stalwart, Olmert finally recognized that if the two-state solution becomes impossible, Israel will be stuck defending a political order that is anathema to prevailing Western and American values. Although lots of other democracies have behaved abominably towards minorities in the past, such behavior is not legitimate in the 21st century. Americans favor self-determination and our own political traditions emphasize liberal values and the virtues of a melting-pot society. Even a lobbying group as powerful as AIPAC will find it hard to defend Israeli apartheid.

A two-state solution is not an ideal outcome; it is merely the best available alternative. If Netanyahu wants to safeguard Israel's future, therefore, he would not spend his time inventing new conditions and doing his best to make the peace process a charade. Instead, he would get on the phone to the White House and urge them to get moving as soon as possible to establish a viable Palestinian state, and he'd ask Obama to commit the resources necessary to make it work. He'd also be on the phone to Abraham Foxman of the ADL, Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, and Howard Kohr of AIPAC, urging them to pressure the White House and especially Congress to broker a two-state solution before it's too late. While he's at it, he'd denounce false friends like the Reverend John Hagee of Christians United for Israel and he'd invite Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street to come to Jerusalem and help him map out a strategy to turn the Titanic around before it hits the approaching iceberg.  

There would still be lots of hard bargaining to do, of course, and Netanyahu would have to make sure that a final-status agreement protected Israel's legitimate security concerns. But by acting in this way, Netanyahu would be helping preserve Israel's future instead of putting it in jeopardy.

If Netanayahu can't figure this out, then Barack Obama and George Mitchell are going to have to sit him down and explain the situation to him. And if they do, one can only hope that Israel's supporters here in the United States abandon their usual modus operandi and back Obama and Mitchell up. If they don't, they may someday have to explain to their grandchildren why they watched Israel drive itself off a cliff and did nothing to stop it.