Bernard Kouchner is Wrong; Thomas Friedman is Wrong

Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, said that Israel no longer desires a Middle East peace deal. (See J Post article)

Thomas Friedman, the normally very astute NY Time columnist, says that Israel and the Palestinians do not seem so interested in peace, so the US should tell them, "give us a call when you're ready for peace and would like our help." (See NY Times article)

They are both wrong.

The Jeruslaem Post quotes Kouchner as saying "Before there was a great peace movement…It seems to me that this aspiration has disappeared."  The reason he is wrong is that the aspiration has not disappeared.  We still want peace.  The problem is we have despaired of actually achieving it any time soon.  Some of the reasons we have despaired are ones that Friedman cites in his piece — except he's wrong in his interpretation.  He says the Israeli and Palestinian politicians keep trekking to Washington so that they can tell their constituents they are doing something, when in fact, they are not.

Does Mr. Friedman think he's figured this out, and Israelis haven't?  Get real.  We are far more cynical than he is.  Israelis don't buy that hooey.  The little boy has cried wolf too many times. It's always the last chance for peace.  It's always crucial to act now.  Yet no one acts, and nothing happens. It's one of the reasons we are despairing.

So what are the reasons Israelis have despaired of having peace?  There are a whole bunch of them:

  • Israeli politics.  Netanyahu can't make a deal.  As soon as he starts edging close to the necessary concessions, his government will collapse.  Therefore he can't really do anything meaningful.
  • Who does Abbas speak for, anyway?  Would we make a deal with the PA in the West Bank and ignore Gaza? The PA certainly doesn't control anything in Gaza.  How can we make peace with the Palestinians if they can't make peace with themselves?
  • Continued "unhelpful" rhetoric from supposed Palestinian moderates. Last week a prominent Fatah figure said "We have never accepted the state of Israel.  We are a liberation movement." How can we recognize someone who doesn't recognize us?
  • The Israeli supporters of the peace movement may not like the separation barrier,and they may be critical of Israel's action during Operation Cast Lead, but the truth is the actions of the Israeli military do seem to have been effective in slowing terrorism and rockets down to an "acceptable" level. 

So if there is no one capable of making peace, and the status quo is "bearable" for most Israelis, what are we to do?  We despair.  Not for the long term, just for now.  Just until these governments collapse and we get some new ones aligned in a way that will be more conducive to making peace.

Friedman is also wrong when he says no US administration has dared to take down the "peace processing is us" sign.  The George W. Bush administration took that sign down for a long time.  If that had started the efforts they made in the last two years of their rule significantly earlier, maybe they would have succeeded. 

Friedman is right when he says "The Palestinian leadership “wants a deal with Israel without any negotiations” and Israel’s leadership “wants negotiations with the Palestinians without any deal.”  However, he is wrong when he says America should decide to sit it out until the Israeli and Palestinian positions change.

Friedman says that right now the US seems to want peace more than either the Israelis or the Palestinians.  He may be right about that.  However, I think he is completely wrong about the appropriate response.  The reason the US wants peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians more than the involved parties do is because as odd as it may sound, in some ways the US has more at stake in this struggle at the moment.  The Israelis and the Palestinians are momentarily uneasily content with the status quo.  Attacks against Israel are down,the economy in the West Bank is picking up, and Hamas gets to do what they want in Gaza.  Everyone is momentarily feeling OK.

But for the US, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a "flash point" of significant geopolitical significance.  American soldiers are dying almost every day in Iraq and Afghanistan; America has to be very concerned about Iran's growing nuclear capabilities.  The anti-Israel and anti-American flames that the jihadis can fan based on liberating Palestine are great fuel for recruiting more terrorists and more instability. 

When there is a fire, you have a few different choices for how to fight it.  America is fighting fires in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Sprinkle water on some fires and all you do is spread them.  What you need to do is remove the source of fuel.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a source of fuel for Islamic extremism in places far removed from Jerusalem.  It is in America's best interests to remove that source of fuel, to remove that source of conflict, and bring stability to the region.  Israel and the Palestinians are less concerned about global geopolitics — they are focused on their narrow areas of concern.  This is a global issue, and as such it deserves America's full force and attention.

I would suggest the opposite of what Friedman suggests.  Instead of America pulling back and saying "call us when you're ready" America should play hard ball.  America should treat both the Israelis and Palestinians like stubborn, rebellious children, and tell them no more ice cream if you don't start behaving nicely.  The only way both sides will be able to make the needed concessions without having their governments fall apart is for them to be able to say "what could I do?  We can't take on the United States!"

So Mr. Kouchner is wrong — we really do still want peace.  And Mr. Friedman is wrong — leaving it up to us will result in another 40 years of dithering and wandering in the desert.

Kouchner does have a valid point in his critique of the Israeli peace camp.  It is valid to criticize the Israeli left for despairing. After all, as Rambam tells us, one of the essential articles of faith for a Jew is not to despair, not ever.  "Though he may tarry, I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah."

Reb Barry

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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