Israel operating from position of strength with Palestinians

Throughout most of their conflict, Arab and Israeli leaders have tended to oscillate between two, and only two, worldviews: I am weak; how can I compromise? I am strong; why should I compromise? Israel today is very much in the second mode.

For Israel, these are the best of times and the worst of times. Globally, the campaign to de-legitimize Israel has never been more virulent, while locally the beaches and restaurants of Tel Aviv have never been more crowded — as suicide-bombing and rockets from Gaza and Lebanon seem like a distant memory.

In noting this contrast, Ari Shavit, a columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz, reported that the number of Israeli millionaires "soared by 43 percent between 2008 and 2009, with 2,519 new ones joining the 5,900 we already had, for a total of 8,419 Israeli millionaires... Never has life been so good here for so wealthy an elite, as the country is poised at the brink of the abyss."

Israel's newfound sense of security, though, was bought at a very high price — and it is not a steady state.

Let me explain. The history of Israeli-Arab relations since 1948 can be summarized in one sentence: "War, timeout, war, timeout, war, timeout, war, timeout, war, timeout. ..." What differentiates Israel from the Arabs and the Palestinians is how much more productive Israel has been during its timeouts.


Israel today is enjoying another timeout because it recently won three short wars — and then encountered one pleasant surprise. The first was a war to dismantle the corrupt Arafat regime. The second was the war started by Hezbollah in Lebanon and finished by a merciless pounding of Shiite towns and Beirut suburbs by the Israeli Air Force. The third was the war to crush the Hamas missile launchers in Gaza.

What is different about these three wars, though, is that Israel won them using what I call "Hama Rules" — which are no rules at all. "Hama Rules" are named after the Syrian town of Hama, where, in 1982, then-President Hafez el-Assad of Syria put down a Muslim fundamentalist uprising by shelling and then bulldozing their neighborhoods, killing more than 10,000 of his own people.

In Israel's case, it found itself confronting enemies in Gaza and Lebanon armed with rockets, but nested among local civilians, and Israel chose to go after them without being deterred by the prospect of civilian casualties. As the Lebanese militia leader Bashir Gemayel was fond of saying — before he himself was blown up — "This is not Denmark here. And it is not Norway."

The brutality of the Israeli retaliations bought this timeout with Hezbollah and Hamas, and the civilian casualties and troubling TV images bought Israel a U.N. investigation into alleged war crimes.

This is important: For its first 30 years — from 1948 to 1956, from 1956 to 1967 and from 1967 to 1973 — Israel bought its timeouts with conventional wars against conventional armies of nation states. But now that Israel's primary foes are nonstate actors who deploy rockets nested among homes and schools, the cost of buying its timeouts has gone up dramatically. Now they include potential U.N. indictments of generals and political leaders for war crimes and corroding relations with democrats everywhere.

That is why it is vital that Israel use this moment of strength, this timeout, to do precisely what Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggested to the cabinet the other day — offer a "daring and assertive political initiative" to advance the peace process with the Palestinian Authority's president, Mahmoud Abbas, and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

If only. ... Bibi Netanyahu has been Israel's prime minister now for 15 months. If he retired tomorrow, this term in office, like his first, would not merit a footnote to a footnote in Israel's history. Yes, Netanyahu gave a speech in which he grudgingly accepted the idea of a two-state solution, but it was a speech addressed to Barack Obama to get him off his back. It wasn't to the Palestinian people to get them on his side.

''Bibi thinks the negotiations are not about the future of Israel, but the future of U.S.-Israel relations," Moshe Halbertal, the Hebrew University philosopher, told me when I visited Israel last week.


Which brings me to the surprise. Israeli defense officials were clear with me: The Palestinian security forces built by Abbas and Fayyad in the West Bank are the real deal, and their effectiveness is a vital stabilizer of the current timeout.

But Abbas and Fayyad will not be able to sustain this timeout if Netanyahu resumes settlement-building in September, when the partial freeze expires, and if Israel doesn't soon start gradually transferring control of major West Bank Palestinian towns to the Palestinian Authority.

Bottom line: Israel needs to try to buy its next timeout with diplomacy, which means Netanyahu has to show some initiative. Because the risks to Israel's legitimacy of another war in Gaza, Lebanon or the West Bank — in which Israel could be forced to kill even more civilians to squash rocket attacks launched from schoolyards by fighters who wear no uniforms — will be staggering.

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