While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on his way to the White House today to meet with President Obama, Israel faces a potentially existential threat from Iran, whose leadership has repeatedly stated its intention to destroy the Jewish state.
President Obama told Newsweek magazine last week: "I've been very clear that I don't take any options off the table with respect to Iran. I don't take options off the table when it comes to U.S. security, period. What I have said is that we want to offer Iran an opportunity to align itself with international norms and international rules. I think, ultimately, that will be better for the Iranian people."
When asked if he expects U.S. ally Israel to refrain from taking military action in the face of existential threat, he said:
No, look, I understand very clearly that Israel considers Iran an existential threat, and given some of the statements that have been made by President Ahmadinejad, you can understand why. So their calculation of costs and benefits are going to be more acute. They're right there in range and I don't think it's my place to determine for the Israelis what their security needs are.
To me, the above sounds very reasonable and understanding of Israel's difficult position. While like many security-minded Americans who favor strong alliance with Israel, I have been concerned that President Obama might waver in his commitment to supporting this ally's right to self-defense (and incidentally, front line defense of the free world from Islamist extremism), I see reason to be cautiously optimistic that, as with his positions on U.S. security, President Obama will prove better than his critics' worst fears. In the meantime, let us support him in his efforts to employ diplomacy and sanctions, and hope they work to contain Iran. Israel's supporters do not prefer war.
That said, given the likelihood that, in exchange for U.S. support, the Obama administration may press Israel to pursue a peace process that would lead to creation of a Palestinian state in the short term, now is a good time to review what Israel's recent concessions in the name of peace have produced:
1) The Gaza withdrawal: in August, 2005, Israel evacuated Gaza, and instead of moderation, extremism in Gaza spread like a virus. Al Qaeda operatives infiltrated Gaza from Egypt, Sudan and Yemen, weapons and cash poured in, and Hamas undertook a years-long campaign of rocket terrorism aimed at civilians in Israel's southern towns.
2) The Lebanon withdrawal: Israel withdrew in May, 2000 from Lebanon, only to see Hezbollah, the terror network that struck the U.S. barracks in 1983, killing 241 Marines, further ensconce itself there as what the Lebanese President Lahoud termed a "legitimate political party." Hezbollah kidnapped three Israeli soldiers and an Israeli businessman in October 2000, and in 2002 began launching Katyusha missiles into northern Israeli towns, and attacking troops in northern Israel. In 2004, Israel freed over 400 live Arab prisoners in exchange for the businessman and the dead bodies of the soldiers kidnapped in 2000. In July 2006, Hezbollah terrorists infiltrated Israel's northern border, killing three Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two more. Israel launched the second Lebanon War to rescue the soldiers, whose dismembered bodies were eventually returned to Israel in exchange for four live Hezbollah militants, the bodies of 200 more, and convicted PLO child murderer Samir Kuntar.
3) The Oslo Peace Accords: for seven years, Israel returned to the negotiating table, conceding land in the face of continued terrorism. While Israeli leaders prepared their people for peace, Yasir Arafat preached war to his people in Arabic. The process culminated in Arafat's rejection, in 2000, of a Palestinian state that would have consisted of 95 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, with a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem. After rejecting the offer, Arafat and the Palestinians resumed of the intifadah, targeting Israelis in suicide bombings.
Senator John Kerry recently put it succinctly: "Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, only to face Hezbollah; Israel withdrew from Gaza, only to face Hamas rockets. Israel is not about to let the same thing happen in the West Bank, nor should they."
The recent history of U.S. peacemaking efforts in the region is rife with hubris: for decades, U.S. presidents have flattered themselves into thinking that they could impose a solution in the region without addressing the core problem: the leadership of Arab countries surrounding Israel poisons its people via propaganda and funds terrorism to keep the essential, destructive dynamic in play. Terror networks, some operating semi-autonomously, find haven in these countries to conduct their attacks. The idea of a Palestinian state is a worthy dream. But unless and until Arab leadership evolves, any Palestinian state created in the near term will almost certainly be a terror state. Let us hope President Obama is realistic enough to grasp this unfortunate reality.