Mideast Conflict as Zero-Sum Game

Giving Any Cheer to Other Side Seen as Weakness or Worse

By J.J. Goldberg

Published November 03, 2011, issue of November 11, 2011.
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Several readers have written in to protest my last column, which dissected conservative responses to the recent summons to Jewish unity issued by the Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee. Reader complaints are nothing unusual, but this time some good points were raised that forced me to rethink. In the process I’ve come across some new information, which I’d like to share.

The disputed passage came at the end of my column: “What unifies the Jewish right is not love of Israel but fear and loathing of the Arabs, and anything and anyone giving Arabs a moment’s satisfaction … is craven, foolish and treasonous.”

One reader wrote: “What unifies the ‘Right’ — which is not monolithic by any stretch — is love of Israel, and a realization that the Arabs mean what they say,” referring to Arab threats to destroy Israel. “That is not fear and loathing — that is a sober admission of reality.” Another objected that I was conflating critics of the ADL-AJC call to support the president with critics of J Street, lumping both groups together with critics of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange, and then accusing the whole bunch of “fear and loathing.” “That’s quite a trick,” he wrote.

A third wrote: “thank you red diaper doper baby, lefty-looney self-hating and stupid pseudo-Jew for your moribund, irrelevant opinion.” What can I say? You’re welcome.

To the others: point taken. I should have added a few all-toos — that is, all too often it seems as though all too many on the right are motivated by fear and loathing. To say these emotions are what unifies the right seems unjust. I probably could have saved some trouble by leaving out the whole thought and sticking to my main point, namely the way today’s dissenters become tomorrow’s stiflers and vice versa.

That is, I thought it could have been omitted. But then the weekend arrived and I went out to pick up my Friday Yediot Ahronot, where I encountered the following quote:

“Israel and the Palestinians are currently not capable of holding a direct dialogue because of a deep mutual lack of trust. For both sides, the view of relations as a zero sum game reigns supreme, and thus Israel and the Palestinians are driven by the intention to forestall achievements on the opposing side, even if as a result they themselves ultimately will suffer.”

In other words, they’re both making decisions based on what’s bad for the other side rather than what’s good for themselves. That’s basically what I was trying to say.

The quote comes from the concluding chapter of “Strategic Survey for Israel 2011,” published in August by the Institute for National Security Studies (formerly known as the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies) at Tel Aviv University. Yediot had an article about it in its weekend supplement. After reading it, I pulled up the full survey on line. (The English version is at www.inss.org.il.)

The survey is an annual assessment of Israel’s strategic capabilities and challenges. It consists of articles by institute staff scholars — a mix of academics and retired diplomatic, military and intelligence officials — on topics ranging from Iranian foreign policy to Israeli weaponry needs. It has no official stamp, but it’s generally thought to reflect current thinking inside Israel’s diplomatic and security establishments.

The author of the Yediot article, intelligence affairs correspondent Ronen Bergman, calls this year’s edition “the gloomiest and most ominous since the institute began publishing its annual assessments in 1983.”

Three primary themes recur throughout the volume: the Arab Spring; the weakening of American influence in the Middle East, and the breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. All three tend to deepen Israel’s global isolation, with dangerous economic and military consequences.

The survey also discusses at length the campaign to delegitimize Israel in Europe and elsewhere, including parts of America. The campaign has had little practical impact so far, the authors write, but it’s gaining momentum. Eventually it will begin to hurt as investments and markets are shut off and leaders are unable to travel overseas for fear of arrest. Even Israel’s military freedom of action will be constrained by threats of sanctions.

Much of the trouble is beyond Israel’s control, the authors agree. America’s global standing is diminished by domestic political and economic paralysis, inconclusive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and an indecisive response to the Arab uprising, along with its “proven inability … to revive Israeli-Palestinian dialogue.” The Arab Spring arises from social pressures within Arab countries, beyond Israel’s borders; how it will affect Israel’s regional relationships is impossible to predict. Delegitimization seems to elude Israel’s best efforts to combat it; public opinion is turning almost inexorably against Israel in many places, and where public opinion goes, institutions inevitably follow.

Sounds grim. But this is a strategic review, not a dirge. The purpose is to survey the landscape and recommend courses of action. The authors offer various small fixes, but one big one is raised repeatedly: an Israeli initiative to revive the “political process,” as Israelis call Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

“Israel cannot stop the deterioration in its relations with the Palestinians or with Middle East states, or the erosion in its international standing, in particular with the United States, unless it formulates an initiative that attempts a substantive breakthrough in the political process,” write the volume’s editors, Shlomo Brom and Anat Kurz.

Putting forward an initiative “will not necessarily solve the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts, and will certainly not neutralize the Iranian nuclear challenge.” But it can reverse Israel’s pariah image. That, they write, would allow states like Turkey and post-Mubarak Egypt to maintain civil relations, put the Palestinian issue behind them and focus on bigger problems: economic development and the Iranian threat. Result: easing Israel’s gravest security concerns.

The problem is, “Israel is not able to offer the Palestinian Authority the minimum concessions that would help it soften its preconditions for renewing the negotiations, namely, Israeli willingness, in principle, to accept a territorial settlement on the basis of the 1967 lines, with territorial swaps. The PA, for its part, is not capable of accepting the demand by the government of Israel to recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, a step that would help Israel approach negotiations on the basis of the 1967 lines. The result is a deadlock from which neither side benefits.”

Why can’t they? Because “a concrete Israeli compromise in the Palestinian context will generate public disquiet within Israel proper, with direct electoral implications.” Voters would balk at granting a victory to the other side, regardless of the security benefits. Which takes us back to where we started.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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