Outside-the-Box Thinking

I’ll dispense with the introductions – my colleague Matt Dupuis did a fine job earlier and in any case I doubt I could puff myself up in a way that would be particularly impressive – in favor of jumping right in. One of the great things about twenty-first century media is the diversity of opinions. I’m particularly excited by the potential that the chattering classes’ digitization has to bring in fresh perspectives and question stale policies and assumptions.

Hand-in-hand with the modern landscape of opinion writing, though, comes the obligation to recognize that some “fresh” perspectives that haven’t gone mainstream remain out in the cold for a reason: they’re really flawed. David Samuels’ recent piece in Slate provides an object lesson. Through some rather convoluted logic, he argues that Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear program is the surest route to a Palestinian state. It’s an odd argument, the specifics of which require a full reading of the piece, but the basic logic as I understand it goes something like this:

  • Israeli leaders know they need to give the Palestinians some kind of state, but can’t do so without reestablishing the military credibility they lost in Lebanon and Gaza so they aren’t capitulating out of ‘weakness’;
  • Pretty much everyone but Iran would benefit from the Iranian nuclear program’s destruction, notwithstanding the popular outrage it would generate;
  • Attacking Iran’s nuclear program would, at a stroke, sabotage any potential U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, eliminate a threat to Israel’s security, seriously weaken a rising rival power, and reestablish Israel’s reputation as a daring and mighty military force;
  • The resulting displeasure of the United States would give Israeli politicians the excuse they need to support the creation of a Palestinian state, using a combination of Israel’s reestablished prowess and pressure from Washington as political cover for the necessary withdrawals.

Matt Yglesias has a decent take that I mostly agree with, but I think Samuels’ logic is flawed in ways even more basic than Yglesias mentions. Obviously, he assumes that Israel’s current leadership supports the creation of a Palestinian state. I have seen nothing from Netanyahu’s government to support that assertion. The new Israeli PM hasn’t even given a perfunctory oral commitment to a two-state solution, never mind any indication that he’s willing to follow through with implementing one. If he’s a closet two-stater, he’s done a very good job hiding it. I won’t even bring up the new foreign minister. Samuels also seems to assume that an Israeli strike would be highly effective not just in neutralizing Iran’s nuclear program (itself a highly debatable proposition), but in rendering Iran a “paper tiger” in the eyes of the region and halting its rise. Again, quite doubtful, even under the best of circumstances.

More to the point, though, Samuels fundamentally mischaracterizes the relationships between Israel, the United States and the rest of the region. He writes that the U.S.-Israeli relationship is marked by a lot of “play-acting” wherein the U.S. denounces Israel for military actions it secretly supports, and Israel pretends to be restrained from doing really ambitious stuff that it talks about but probably wouldn’t do in any case, and that Israel’s primary value to the United States is it’s “capacity to project destabilizing power throughout the region.” There’s a grain of truth there, but only a grain. From a purely realist perspective (which, admittedly, I tend not to take), the last thing the U.S. wants is an unstable Middle East. America likes Israel’s capacity to project military power, but, at least outside of neo-con circles, tends to get nervous when all that latent energy actually becomes kinetic. Far from protecting America’s oil interests, as Samuels claims, Israel’s itchy trigger finger tends to put them in jeopardy by introducing “destabilizing” elements into the equation. Oil prices certainly don’t fall when IDF tanks start rolling.

Also problematic is Samuels’ rather dismissive attitude toward the populations of Middle Eastern societies. He treats the expected outrage on the “Arab street” as a rather transient problem that can be managed with some telegenic progress on the Palestinian issue. He doesn’t seem to consider that the reactions of Arab governments (which he presumes would be positive, at least behind closed doors) and Arab populations (which he admits would not be positive) might be linked, and that such provocative Israeli actions might actually force some Arab regimes to move beyond perfunctory anti-Israeli rhetoric in order to insulate themselves from popular anger. This would not be a step forward in creating a stable Middle East with a powerful Israel and a cowed Iran – indeed, it would be a step in the opposite direction assuming the various means of soft and hard power projection that Tehran has at his disposal were not also victims of Israeli firepower.

Finally, Samuels repeats the old line that Israel can only make concessions from a position of strength. The problem is, it’s not backed up by much real evidence. The scare put into Israel in 1973 shocked it out of its post-’67 power trip and was one of the factors that led to an eventual rapprochement with Egypt. The problem, of course, was that this took away Israel’s major conventional military opponent without addressing the issue of the Occupied Territories, and for a while it didn’t look as though it would be addressed at all. During the 1980s the notion of a two-state solution was still considered fairly radical, in large measure because Israel had no incentive to give anything up. It took an escalation into violence on numerous fronts – in other words, a return of insecurity – to put the issue of a negotiated settlement back on the political radar screen.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not suggesting that if Hamas could only start setting off bombs in Tel Aviv a solution could be reached. Far from it. I am saying, though, that the Israeli regime, like that of most states, responds to incentives, and will only make politically difficult compromises when it feels it has to. An Israel that feels it is “strong” won’t make the concessions necessary for peace. Popular apathy and hard-line politics stand in the way. American pressure could help change the game, but that takes political will in Washington to bring about, not Israeli jets over Iran.

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