Is there is a common thread to — and lesson to be learned from — Israel’s agonizing efforts to obtain the release of Gilad Shalit, its ongoing crisis in dealing with the Palestinians, and President Barack Obama’s failure to dissuade Iran from its relentless effort to develop a nuclear bomb?
It appears to be this: the more you compromise with a bully, the worse off you are.
I know that sounds politically incorrect and out of step with Obama’s foreign policy of engagement, but when your adversary is unwilling to meet you halfway — or maybe at all — one’s eagerness to be accommodating is perceived as weakness and desperation, only resulting in your opponent making ever-increasing demands.
Consider: for many years Israel had a firm policy of not negotiating with terrorists. But over time, and especially in the painfully sensitive case of seeking to regain captured IDF soldiers, Jerusalem relented, and on several occasions gave up hundreds of imprisoned Palestinian militants in return for a few of its young men, even for their lifeless bodies.
In a society where the vast majority of families have sons and daughters serving in the army, the pressure on a Jerusalem government to pay almost any price for the return of a captured soldier is very high. It is difficult for those of us living outside of Israel to understand and appreciate the emotions involved.
In the case of young Gilad Shalit, the heart says do whatever it takes to return him to his family, his home and his country. But the intellect reminds us that the result of freeing hundreds of Palestinian militants, many with blood on their hands, could well result in the deaths of more Israelis.
One problem is that Israeli compassion — the willingness to free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli — is seen by Hamas as a flaw on Jerusalem’s part and an opportunity to ratchet up its requirements for a deal.
The Palestinian Authority, by contrast, is considered more amenable to negotiating with Israel than Hamas, which calls openly for Israel’s destruction. But since 1993, some argue, Israel’s international standing has declined “not despite Oslo but because of Oslo.”
In her cover piece in the January issue of Commentary, Israeli writer Evelyn Gordon makes the case that the more Israel has done to advance the “peace process” — from ceding claims to the West Bank and Gaza, to continuing negotiations in the face of terror attacks, to making significant unilateral withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza — the more Israel’s very legitimacy is questioned, even in Western Europe.
Gordon concludes that it was Israel’s “very willingness to make concessions for the sake of peace that has produced its current near-pariah status.”
A key flaw, she says, is in Israel’s leading the Palestinians, and the world, to believe that a peace deal is possible even while the Palestinians continue terror and call for the end of the Jewish state. “Each new initiative raised new hopes of a peace that was in fact never achievable,” Gordon writes, “and it is human nature to be angrier over disappointed hope than over having never hoped at all. What is worse is the very fact that whenever negotiations broke down, it was Israel, rather than the Palestinian side, that came back with a better offer.” This led to “the impression that both sides thought peace would be achievable if Israel just gave enough. Thus the lack of peace must be Israel’s fault.”
The trouble with Gordon’s logic is that it discounts steps being made toward progress and leads to military confrontation, such as Israel reoccupying Gaza, a move Gordon assures us would meet with “initial outrage that would gradually die down” as life for Gazans would improve, “thanks to the end of the blockade, resumption of trade across the border, and improved employment opportunities.”
But history in the region has shown that for the Arabs, threatening Israeli security is more important than improving life for their own people, with “martyrdom” through suicide bombings the most dramatic example.
Still, the takeaway here is that once you determine the risk is serious enough, you must do whatever necessary to stand up to a tormenter rather than seek to appease him. Which leads us to the U.S. confrontation with an Iran committed to building a nuclear arsenal — a scenario that Washington says is untenable.
The Bush administration talked tough, branding Iran part of “the axis of evil,” and refused to deal seriously with the mullahs in Tehran. But that didn’t stop their nuclear efforts. Obama came to office championing engagement with foreign adversaries. So far, though, his efforts to negotiate a meaningful agreement with Iran have been scoffed and snubbed.
Draw the line and hold firm.
Whether the issue is the Shalit swap, a deal with the Palestinians or confronting Iran, our side must determine its red line, be realistic about what is achievable and what is not, tell the world why that is and explain what action we will take if the other side is not forthcoming. Then stick to our word.
This is not about public relations. It’s about survival.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in The Week.)