There was an air of tedious familiarity in the latest United Nations debate on Israel. Like so many times before, Palestinian provocation led to Israeli military action, prompting the Palestinians to convene the Security Council, which obligingly took up a condemnation of Israel, which was vetoed by the United States. After the charade was done, everyone returned to business as usual.
Business is not usual, however. The ground is shifting under Israel and around it. A new international configuration is emerging that presents the Jewish state with new threats and new opportunities. Israel and its friends would do well to acknowledge the changing realities, plan for them and embrace them rather than wait to be blindsided.
On the plus side, Israel currently enjoys a breathing space that gives it unusual freedom of action. The Iraq war has eliminated, at least for now, Israel’s main military threat to the east. Syria, surrounded and beset, is suing for peace. The bottom has fallen out of the world’s tolerance for Islamic terrorism. Israel has been able for two years to fight terrorism in its own way, with minimal interference and with results that speak for themselves: Israeli deaths have plummeted. President Bush has given Israel the diplomatic cover it needs. Israel now has a window during which it can seek, if it wishes, to reach long-term agreements with its neighbors on the most favorable terms possible.
The moment will not last, however. Regardless of who wins the November election, the next administration must devote itself urgently to stanching the bloodshed in Iraq and restoring order. The world cannot allow that nation to devolve into a haven of lawlessness and international terrorism.
It may be that the chaos in Iraq is largely a result of bad decisions in Washington. After November, it will no longer matter who is to blame. At that point, the minds of America and the West must be focused on turning it around. In the months ahead the president, whoever he is, must move quickly to stabilize and broaden America’s international coalition. The United Nations must be brought back as a functioning player. Wavering partners must be reassured. New partners, including Islamic nations, must be brought in.
What will it take? Increasingly, the message coming from friend and foe alike is that to win the global war on terrorism, the West must confront the roots of Muslim rage. And that, like or not, means lowering the flames between Israelis and Palestinians. In the last two weeks, two of America’s most important allies, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, have made that point in major policy addresses. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Musharraf told the UN General Assembly, “generates anger and resentment across the Islamic world” and is central to any global effort. Creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel, Blair told his Labour Party’s annual conference, “would do more to defeat this terrorism than bullets alone can ever do.” Blair pledged to make it a “personal priority” — “after November.”
Israel could face a squeeze, or it could seize the initiative. The way out is in Prime Minister Sharon’s disengagement plan, not as a dead end but as part of a broader process of reconciliation. It’s also essential to listen to those Israeli military commanders who are urging their government, quietly but insistently, to reopen talks with Syria and the Palestinians. The safest kind of border, as Israel’s army chief of staff told an interviewer in August, is a border with a neighbor with whom you have signed a treaty.