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30667An unconvincing defense (Stephen Walt on Thomas Friedman)

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  • Sean McBride
    Jan 14, 2009
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      via Stephen M. Walt by Stephen M. Walt on 1/14/09

      In today's New York Times, Thomas Friedman offers a quasi-defense of Israel's assault on Gaza, expressing that hope that Israel is trying to "teach Hamas a lesson" similar to the lesson it supposedly taught Hezbollah during its 2006 war in Lebanon. If Hamas learns not to use violence and accepts Israel's existence, he writes, then maybe diplomacy can produce the two-state solution that Israel badly needs and supposedly wants.

      A few comments: To begin with, Friedman's depiction of the Lebanon War is at odds with the more sober conclusions reached by the Winograd Commission, the official Israeli commission of inquiry convened to examine its conduct of that war. And if it was such a resounding victory, why do Israelis now claim that the war in Gaza is necessary to re-establish their deterrent? Moreover, Friedman concedes that Israel is likely to face a renewed challenge from Hezbollah in the future. With meaningless "victories" like that, who needs setbacks?

      Second, Friedman portrays Israeli society as divided between those who believe that ending the occupation is essential for Israel's long-term security and those who believe that continuing the occupation is the key to Israel's long-term security. He omits the hard-core settlers who believe that Israel has a god-given right to all of Mandate Palestine (a group that comprises some 20 percent of Israeli society) and claims -- incorrectly -- that it is the opponents of the occupation who have been driving Israeli policy in recent years.

      In fact, it is increasingly clear that it is the opponents of the two-state solution that have been in charge. Friedman refers to Israel's "withdrawals" from Lebanon and Gaza as evidence that Israelis support a negotiated settlement. This is dubious at best. Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 because the cost had become too great (i.e., they were in effect driven out by Hezbollah). Under Ariel Sharon, Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza as part of a larger plan to consolidate Israeli control over most of the West Bank, and put off the prospect of a Palestinian state indefinitely. As his chief advisor, Dov Weisglas, admitted in an interview, the withdrawal from Gaza "supplies the amount of formaldehyde that's necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians...when you freeze the process you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state...this whole package that is called the Palestinian state has been removed from our agenda indefinitely."

      With respect to the West Bank, the number of Israeli settlers more than doubled during the Oslo period, and Israel consolidated its control via an elaborate array of checkpoints, roads, and the meandering "security fence." According to the Foundation for Middle East Peace, since 2001 the number of Israeli settlers on the West Bank has grown by roughly 70,000 people, some 18,000 of them outside Israel's "security fence." The vast majority of the settlers aren't independent extremists operating on their own: they are subsidized by the Israeli government, rely on government utilities for water and electricity, and depend on the IDF for protection.

      Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has warned on several occasions that failure to get a two-state solution places Israel's future at risk, but he has done nothing to halt the settlement project or to empower those Palestinian leaders (such as President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad) who genuinely seek a two-state solution.

      It is often said that Israel lacks a "partner for peace," but so do the Palestinians. So if the Obama administration is serious about settling this conflict, it will have to exert real pressure on both sides.

      MAHMUD HAMS/Getty Images


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