January 6, 2017 | The Weekly Standard

Protecting Palestine

Not long ago, I was talking to a Fatah official about Palestinian aspirations, especially his party’s sharp emotions about Hamas, the Palestinian fundamentalist movement that rules Gaza and would gladly overthrow the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority on the West Bank. Fear, loathing, secular outrage (which may have been amplified to please Western ears), and a certain sadness about unrequited Palestinian fraternity in the face of Israeli oppression punctuated our conversation. When I finally tired of his urgent demand that America rectify Israeli transgressions or see violence rip the West Bank, I asked him how long he thought the Palestinian Authority could survive if Israel yanked its support to Fatah's security apparatus. I suggested one month. He remonstrated: “We could probably last two.”

What has been lost, again, in Barack Obama's final venting against Israel through his abstention in the United Nations Security Council resolution against all Israeli settlements on the West Bank and Jewish homes in East Jerusalem is how disconnected American foreign policy on this imbroglio has been from the larger issues riling the Middle East. The truth about Fatah's security weaknesses is symptomatic of the truth about the Palestinians: They can exist as a non-Islamist polity only if Israel protects their attenuated nation-state. If the Jews pull back, then the militant Muslim faithful will probably recast the Palestinian identity, wiping away the secular Palestinian elite who have defined the Palestinian cause among Westerners since the Israelis and the Palestine Liberation Organization first started sparring with each other in 1964.

The Israelis have granted the West Bank Palestinians the opportunity to take a pass on the ongoing implosion of the Muslim Arab world. That pass also extends, with fewer guarantees, to the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, which could have a much harder time surviving with a triumphant Hamas on its border. We assume that East Bank Palestinians prefer Abdullah II, with his Palestinian wife, to fundamentalists from either bank. That might be wrong.

The Israeli pass may be conditional. It depends on whether Jerusalem wants to continue investing the manpower and wealth and absorbing the intensifying animadversions, ostracism, and harassing lawsuits over their “occupation” of Palestinian lands: the very occupation that has allowed the Palestinian Authority and the PLO vision of a nation-state to survive. Mahmoud Abbas, the 81-year-old PLO chairman and head of the Palestinian Authority, loves to castigate Israel for denying his people nationhood. But it's Israel's stubborn refusal to make the territorial concessions that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry dream of that has prevented the inevitable diminution of Israel's security prerogatives on the West Bank—the ones that keep Abbas and the Fatah clique in power.

Fatah's men actually exist in the best of possible worlds: They enjoy undisputed mastery of Palestinian politics on the West Bank; they have established a perpetuating oligarchy; foreigners pay for their dominion; the Israelis rarely take credit for maintaining Fatah's supremacy (which would further vitiate the group's legitimacy), while the Palestinian Authority can lambaste the Israelis for a wide variety of sins, most surreally blaming the Jewish state for the inability of the Palestinian people to come together. Abbas's men can unofficially condone, if not encourage, low-level violence against Israelis; through credit by association, Palestinians' knifing Israelis helps Fatah stay competitive with the Islamists. Even if violence worsened, the Israelis probably wouldn't stop protecting Hamas's principal foe, the only instrument Jerusalem has for keeping Islamic militancy at bay without deploying far more of the Israeli Defense Forces.

Israelis who deal with Palestinians intimately have no illusions about Fatah's staying power if the Jewish state's protective umbrella were removed. They have no illusions how much damage one man could do with a medium-weight, long-range mortar—and a Palestinian wouldn't even have to target the Ben Gurion International Airport to wreak havoc—if Israel didn't have total control over the West Bank's highlands.

Israel and the United States have invested heavily in creating the biggest institution in the Palestinian Authority: Fatah's police, internal-security, and paramilitary services. Americans, especially Americans who are fearful of Muslims voting, usually like to focus on “institution-building” as an alternative to supporting the “premature” development of democracy in Islamic lands. The United States, with the Central Intelligence Agency in the lead, has probably invested tens of millions of dollars, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars, in Fatah's security services. In 2007, when Hamas dethroned Fatah in Gaza following the failure of the two organizations to resolve their differences after Hamas triumphed in 2005's free parliamentary elections, the Islamists' smaller paramilitary force quickly overran Fatah security units operated by the whiskey-loving Muhammad Dahlan, a native of Gaza, who had an extensive intelligence and brutal security network running through the Strip. Dahlan had been a CIA favorite (he likely is still close to Langley). It's a good guess that the clandestine service's upper echelons in the Near East Division, like many in the Israeli security and intelligence services, would have bet that Dahlan had the upper hand on the Islamists—until it became obvious that Fatah's forces lacked leadership and spirit. Fatah's security personnel often look the part—the sunglasses, expensive Swiss watches, and dark German cars—and they certainly know how to torture their enemies. But they, like so much of the Palestinian elite who now live off international aid, have turned into fearful bourgeois who know the other side is hungrier, meaner, and uncompromised. However corrupt Hamas's senior officials may have become in Gaza, and they might be very corrupt, the organization does a vastly better job of hiding its acquisitiveness; its deeply religious, anti-Zionist mission remains real and crystal clear.

Fatah's men have become noticeably distressed by the increasingly overt anti-Iranian alliance between Israel and the Sunni Gulf states. That alliance is undoubtedly limited: Saudi Arabia, a deeply conservative Islamic state that sees itself as the guardian of the faith, isn't going to cooperate too openly with Israel against Iran, let alone officially recognize the Jewish state, which remains in the kingdom's Wahhabi creed an insult to Muslim supremacy—to God's dominion—in the Middle East. Riyadh's royalty can be energetically hypocritical and pragmatic, but there are always religious reins on their behavior. For the secular Fatah elite, however, the second Gulf war and the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Great Arab Revolt and the tidal wave of violence that has come in its wake, and the rise of Iran and its Arab Shiite militias have been an unmitigated disaster, since these events have demolished the centripetal eminence of the Palestinian cause among Arab Sunnis, especially in the Persian Gulf.

My senior Fatah official, annoyed by questions on the Syrian conflict, perhaps a more momentous cataclysm than the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, came close to yelling, “Look at us!” Caught in a dreamscape, President Obama and his secretary of state are still gazing. Devoted both to left-wing politics, where a pro-Palestinian disposition has become almost de rigueur, and Washington's peace-process obsession, they have retreated from the Middle Eastern chaos to the safe zone of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They may well believe they are doing the Jewish state an enormous favor by saving its liberal democracy from, as Obama's former coordinator on the Middle East, Philip Gordon, recently put it in the New York Times, everything from “European boycotts to prosecutions by the International Criminal Court to the loss of support from American Jews uncomfortable with the prospect of perpetual Israeli rule over millions of disenfranchised Arabs.” Obama, Kerry, and Gordon, who blessed the American withdrawal from Iraq and watched hell descend on Syria, talk about Israel and the Arab world as if the Arab state system, dominated by secular dictators, wasn't cracking up, leaving hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, great urban centers in ruin or decay, and Sunni and Shiite Islamists as the primary force reimagining the Middle East.

The historical and strategic parochialism of the Obama administration has been breathtaking. As for liberal American Jews, whose potential for idealistic infatuations should never be underestimated, they have never shown an overwhelming interest in the possibilities of self-determination among Muslims. Jewish Americans who travel to Israel, who have some recollection of what Israel was and what it has become, may, just possibly, realize the country has become much more liberal, prosperous, democratic, and free as it has “ruled” over the West Bank. This has occurred despite the more prominent role of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox on the Israeli right. (As in the United States, social conservatives in Israel are probably doomed to fight a rearguard action against the West's most sacred creed: individualism.) It may not have occurred to J-Street Americans, who are so uncomfortable with the aftermath of the '67 war, but the only reason Fatah hasn't created a more vicious police state—that is, created a typical Arab polity—is that Israel is right next door, checking the inclinations of the Fatah leadership, except when it comes to Hamas. The Labor party, the vehicle of Israel's socialist, less free, poorer, and far more boring past, to which many American liberals and Europeans remain so attached, has exhausted itself for many reasons. But chief among the causes of decline is that its hopeful vision of Israelis and Palestinians became too disconnected from reality. A pragmatic people, Israelis have, for the most part, moved on. Few Israeli soldiers and internal-security officers probably enjoy their time riding shotgun in their sectors of the West Bank, but civil disobedience about such service isn't an issue in the country because the Palestinians have given Israeli leftists so little hope.

Part of the American left and some Europeans may not be able to move on. They might not see beyond their anti-imperialist imperative—the revulsion for Westerners who dominate Third Worlders—to the underlying facts: that Fatah has always been on the cutting-edge of “disenfranchising” Palestinians; that the Fatah-Hamas struggle is a microcosm of the conflicts tearing the Arab world apart; and that Israel's presence on the West Bank, however offensive it may be to Muslim sensibilities and pride, is the only power that has given some stability, structure, economic vitality, and flashes of free speech to Palestinians.

Future relations between Europe and Israel are likely to differ, however. Most Europeans don't really care all that much about Palestine; it's always been for many a feel-good endeavor, a cost-free means for Europeans, especially on the left, to align themselves with a Third World (anti-American) cause and to express dissatisfaction with a muscular little state that uses too much force too often. Israel is very much a European state of the 19th century: an ethnicity fused with a religion, prideful of its identity, national ambitions, and military. It is, as the French Marxist orientalist Maxime Rodinson first piquantly put it, “a colonial-settler state”—as are all the culturally European offshoots of Mother England. Zionism reminds many 21st-century Europeans, especially Europe's postnational elite, of a troublesome past filled with minority problems and bigotry.

But Europe's problems now are enormous. Not even the perfervid leftist writers of Le Monde diplomatique see the Muslim refugee waves and Islamic terrorism targeting Europe as Israel's fault. Once upon a time, Washington, London, and Paris all looked at the peace process essentially the same way: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the core destabilizing issue in the Arab Middle East. Even the most dogged historian couldn't catalogue all the American and European intelligence and diplomatic cables and papers over the last 40 years stressing the urgent strategic importance of solving the Israeli-Palestinian question.

No one serious thinks that way now, not even Obama. Many of the same folks who used to stress the strategic importance of the Israeli-Palestinian/Israeli-Arab clash have effortlessly shifted to a different gravamen: A solution must be found to this conflict to save Israeli democracy and bring “justice” and “dignity” to the Palestinians. But the odds of such a quixotic campaign overriding the reality of the collapse of the secular Arab state system, even in Europe, aren't high. The Palestinian issue has risen in prominence under Obama not because it strategically merits our renewed attention but because the president has willed it. The Europeans, especially the French, have recently highlighted the imbroglio because that is what the French do, especially in the case of a socialist government that has become dependent upon the French Muslim vote, when it's clear that is what Washington wants them to do. As a senior French official recently put it to me, if Paris had gotten Obama to engage forcefully on Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian issue likely would never have surfaced at the United Nations Security Council. Obama encouraged the French, British, and Egyptians to wander. And yet the Russians, the world's premier troublemakers, have remained pretty indifferent to the Palestinian cause. Did Vladimir Putin vote against Israeli settlements in the U.N. Security Council? Yes. Has he unleashed the vast Russian propaganda machine against Israel in favor of the Palestinians, echoing the propaganda that Putin grew up with in the KGB? No. Has Putin even tried to make the Palestinians feel good? Fatah officials give the impression that the Russians have forgotten who they are. The Russians have replaced the Americans as the preeminent foreign power of the northern Middle East. Israelis and Russians see and speak to each other all the time. They do so mostly to ensure that they don't shoot at each other as they fly over Syria, in the Israeli case sometimes to kill the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, both allies of Russia in the Syrian conflict. Hard power is the coin of the realm in the Middle East. Putin takes the Israelis seriously, far more than he does the U.N. Security Council.

Only in the American academe, the weakest player in Washington's foreign-policy debates, can one find folks who are as enamored of this issue as is the president. Whether Obama actually thought in 2008 he could deliver to the Palestinians a state during his tenure, we don't know. The president's sense of himself suggests it's possible. His failure appears to have made him splenetic. If President Trump decides to push back on this issue, however, the Europeans are unlikely to follow Obama's lead and double down. Obama's abstention at the U.N. could prove to be the last gasp of this ancien régime. Damage has been done that cannot be undone, especially concerning the “lawfare” that may be waged against Israelis by enterprising Palestinians and sympathetic European leftists. But this is, at worst, a sideshow. The decisive factor in this largely intra-Western theater remains American leadership. If Donald Trump announced that he was establishing an American team to review the bang-versus-buck value of the United Nations, co-chaired by Mitt Romney and John Bolton, it would send a big shiver throughout the entire bureaucracy and the foreign diplomatic staffs. There is a good argument for Washington to fund a global podium where weaker nations get to vent their displeasure with the United States, but it's always healthy to remind the “international community” who is paying for the therapy.

If Donald Trump challenges the bipartisan illusions about the two-state solution and the peace process, his disruptive inclinations might improve the fortunes of both Israelis and Palestinians, who are going to live with each other intimately and painfully no matter what happens. Moving the U.S. embassy from its beachfront perch in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem should have happened decades ago. It's a 34-mile journey that would help everyone focus on the Middle East instead of this Westernized sliver of the Mediterranean littoral. The Palestinians are never going to control or “share sovereignty” in East Jerusalem. This is the most fundamental truth that embassies in Tel Aviv try to deny. As a byproduct, consulates in East Jerusalem usually become hotbeds of sincere Palestinian sympathy that aligns fairly closely to Fatah talking points.

Israelis could try to do more for their Arab neighbors: They could take on the thankless task of ensuring that Palestinians under Fatah's dominion are less abused, that the ruling West Bank elite are a little less corrupt, and that Israeli-Palestinian business ventures are encouraged, especially if they can reward Palestinians who aren't Fatah favorites. Certainly more Jews beyond Jerusalem and the big settlement communities that follow the Green Line make no security sense. If Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump's apparent intellectual alignment on the propriety of big Green Line settlements were to extend deeper into the West Bank, that would be cause for concern that the Israeli right is undertaking a biblical voyage without relevance to the modern Middle East.

The Jewish state has no choice but to play the long game—to plan for intrusive Israeli surveillance of the West Bank for at least another 50 years—while the Muslim Middle East establishes a new political modus vivendi, which may include Islamist regimes from Libya to Pakistan. Washington should keep its focus where it matters: on the deeply flawed, temporary nuclear deal with Shiite Iran and the titanic struggle for preeminence between the clerical regime, and its growing corps of expeditionary Arab Shiite militias, and Saudi Arabia and the Sunnis it will arm to fight the Islamic Republic. We should keep our eye on Turkey's historic reassertion of its Sunni Muslim identity and the possibility that the country (which may, too, go nuclear and reassert dominance in the northern Middle East) could also crack up from its many contradictions. We should endeavor to understand that Egypt's ruler, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, sits atop a volcano that could destabilize what's left of North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. Washington should try to contain the region's convulsions, to keep them from spilling into Europe, still America's most essential allies, and fragile Middle Eastern states worthy of our help—Jordan and the proto-nation of Kurdistan in northern Iraq.

This assumes, of course, that the United States intends to remain a Middle Eastern power.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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