Saturday, November 30, 2013

Long-Term versus Short-Term Thinking in the Middle East

People in the so-called “West” tend to accept certain basic principles.  One is that the West is intellectually superior to the rest of the world.  Another is that “long-term thinking” is superior to “short-term thinking.”  These days, however, these principles can’t both be true.

The deal between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran is but the latest example of how those who are fighting the West are digging in for the long haul, whereas America and her allies are thinking about little else than the present.  Perhaps that is a by-product of the fact that Western regimes are democracies, which tend to live from one election cycle to the next.  But whatever the cause, Westerners seem not only to lack crystal balls but any interest in finding them, whereas those who struggle with America are planning patiently for the future.  

Before we consider what is frequently being hailed by the American media as the Obama Administration’s “victory” in reaching a deal with the Iranians, let’s turn back to the one nation who may suffer most from that “victory” – the state of Israel.  It is in Israel where you see the short-term/long-term dichotomy in the starkest possible terms. 

Israel, in its first few decades, was a proud nation whose very existence was hailed among much of the world as miraculous.  Surrounded by hostile neighbors, many of whom weren’t afraid to attack at a moment’s notice, that small country defeated the odds time and time again, with the help of one of the world’s most modern and fierce militaries.  Israel had her enemies, to be sure, many of whom got together in the United Nations and proclaimed that “Zionism is racism.”  But whether you loved or hated her, you couldn’t help but view Israel as a force to be reckoned with.  As a result, her enemies abandoned the prospect of large scale military attacks against Israel and turned instead to isolated terrorist strikes of the type that only strengthened Israel’s resolve and undermined international support for her adversaries.

Some may still view Israel in that way, but increasingly, another reality is setting in.   For starters, most of her adversaries have abandoned terrorism as a strategy and are turning instead to what they call “non-violent resistance.”  That really is just a euphemism for waiting it out and allowing Israel to implode from within.  Maybe this anticipated implosion will take ten years, maybe fifty, but according to her adversaries, sooner or later Israel’s implosion is inevitable.  Allegedly, the destruction of the “Jewish State” as such is being led by her incessant drive to occupy more and more Palestinian land, which is contrary to the very essence of the obsession with justice that is at the heart of the Jewish religion.   Even as her leaders proclaim their support for peace and a “two-state solution,” the Palestinian narrative continues, Israel’s government is permitting the construction of additional West Bank settlements on the very land that the Palestinians would need if they were ever to have a viable state.   Whether this settlement construction stems from imperialist urges or simply the inability of the Israeli mainstream to stand up to the political power of the right-wing settler lobby, the fact is that for decades, no Israeli government – not even the ones on the political left – has been willing to “Just Say No” to the Occupation.  Consequently, Israeli’s adversaries argue, they can simply sit back, gather international support for their struggle against imperialism, watch Israel lose any sympathy whatsoever outside of its tiny borders, and ultimately fracture from within.

Even here in America, you hear more and more older Jews talking about how the younger generation of Jewish adults is abandoning not only their support of the Israeli government but the very principle of Zionism.  Who is going to defend Israel in 20 or 40 years, they wonder?   Evangelical Christians who think that Jews are heading for Hell?  Black-hatted Ultra-Orthodox Jews who refuse to fight in the military?   The Palestinians are betting that such a coalition will not be able to stand, and that soon enough, the isolated and fractured “Jewish State” will give up its claim to the West Bank and allow Palestinians and Jews to live together in a single bi-national state.   Call it the United States of Palestine – a melting pot for the 21st century.  Palestinians see it as a much more modern concept than that of Zionism, which is increasingly associated with occupation, discrimination, and xenophobia.  Or so goes the narrative.

Therein lays the Palestinian strategy for how they will someday regain power in their homeland.  On the Israeli side, the approach is more like a shrug than a strategy.  “We have the land, they don’t, and we’re not giving it up,” aptly summarizes the attitude.  The Israelis recognize that the Orthodox, the settlers and the other hard-liners comprise a powerful political force, and they see legitimate security issues in trying to accede to the demands of the peaceniks on the left.  So the easiest thing to do is simply pay lip service to “two states for two peoples,” while not proposing any dramatic concessions, and assume that the combination of the Wall, the Israeli Defense Forces, and the robust Israeli economy will continue to keep Israeli citizens secure and prosperous.  As for what to do with the Palestinians, the answer seems to be to ignore them, and as for what to do with Israel’s isolation and unpopularity in capitals throughout the world, the answer seems to be to ignore those problems as well.  In short, Israel has no plan for regaining international support, which you would think a tiny country would desperately need, and merely shrugs off the topic, as if the problem is the world’s and not Israel’s.   

            Truth be told, those Israelis who are primarily responsible for the Occupation aren’t so much worried about the Palestinian threat.  What scares those Israelis is Iran, and in particular, the prospect that Iran will come to acquire nuclear weapons and then furnish them to terrorists.  If that happens, Israelis will soon be an extinct sub-species.  

            The Israeli fear of Iran is legitimate, if you ask me. Iranian leaders have for years expressed the vilest anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli sentiments imaginable, and have accumulated various allies in states that neighbor Israel who haven’t thought twice about using violence to take Jewish lives.  As someone who loves Israel, I am deeply depressed by the idea that the current regime in Iran could acquire nuclear weapons.    Yet as far as I am concerned, that is exactly what the present deal with the Obama Administration points to – at least if we think long-term, like they do in Nablus, Hebron and, apparently, Tehran.  

            Try to put aside all the pro-Administration propaganda that inevitably is spewed by the American media, no matter what Administration is in power.  Our recent deal with Iran is as interesting for what it doesn’t say as for what is does.  For example, as chronicled quite powerfully in yesterday’s Washington Post lead editorial, the deal (a) will “involve a mutually defined enrichment program with mutually agreed parameters” and no mention is made that Iran must close all its enrichment facilities (meaning that the oil-rich nation of Iran, which hardly seems to need nuclear power for non-military purposes, will also be able to enrich uranium for the indefinite future), and (b) the final deal will “have a specified long-term duration to be agreed upon” and that once that period is over, “the Iranian nuclear program will be treated in the same manner as that of any non-nuclear weapon state party” to the treaty on non-proliferation (meaning that at some time in the not-so-distant future, the sanctions would be over and the uranium-enriching Iranian government would presumably be able to continue with its nuclear ambitions free from any special restrictions.  According to the Washington Post, Obama Administration officials claim that reference to a “long-term” sunset clause could last for 15-20 years, but the Iranians are proposing that it be more like 3-5 years, and the final number will surely be the product of negotiation.  In the meantime, economic sanctions will be lessened.   

            Put all that together and the upshot is that even though vicious anti-Israel rhetoric continues to flow from the Iranian government, there seems to be nothing stopping a more economically powerful Iran from emerging. What’s more, at some point between 2018 and 2028, that strengthened Iran will be given a virtual green light to realize its obvious ambition of being a nuclear power in the military sense of that word.  I’m willing to assume that the Iranians, like the Palestinians, are patient enough not to worry about whether that happens in five years or fifteen years.  Either way, the Iranians – and their aspirations for power -- are here to stay.  But can the same thing be said about Israel?  

            Those folks in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Brooklyn who have been ignoring the Jews’ obligations to the Palestinians have kept hope alive that Israel could persuade the international community to stand up to Iran on the issue of weapons.  But the Jewish State cannot have it both ways.  It can’t continue to build out settlements and thumb its noses at the rest of the world on the topic of the Palestinians, and then expect that the international community will give a damn about what it has to say about Iran.  Quite frankly, fewer and fewer people outside of Israel give a damn about what Netanyahu has to say about ANYTHING; as a “pro-peace,” pro-Settlement leader, he has lost his credibility.   So when he cries wolf about the dangers inherent in the peace deal with the Iranians, nobody seems to notice that this time he might actually be right.

            If you are looking for a bright side about the Iranian deal, two quickly come to mind. First, feel good for the people of Iran who truly are not to blame for the noxious comments of their nation’s leaders, and who should be at least marginally more prosperous based on the deal’s lessening of economic sanctions against Iran.  Even those of us who support the continuation of sanctions as a means of fighting the Iranian leadership should not be at war with the Iranian people, who have as much of a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as the residents of any other country.  Second, it is certainly plausible that the increased prosperity resulting from the lessening of the sanctions could lead to progressive changes within the Iranian regime itself – potentially including less of a willingness to support international terrorists who threaten the existence of Israel.  

            Yes, hope springs eternal.  But I remain cynical nonetheless about the regime in Iran.  Given all they have said over the decades to denigrate the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland, they have earned the cynicism of anyone who truly cares about Israel. 

From the standpoint of the Obama Administration, maybe the deal struck in Geneva was the best of a bad set of options.  Maybe the die was already cast, given how war weary the world is and how much the Iranians seem determined to build up their nuclear capabilities.   My frustration, though, is that not enough is being said here in Washington about the long-term/short-term dichotomy.  In a world where robust democracies are clashing with non-democracies, the latter have a hidden strategic advantage.  They are equipped to be patient, whereas we democracies seem to strategize with ants in our pants.  As a result, if we look ahead to, say, 2030, I am afraid that Tehran will have even more nukes, the West will have even more fears, and the Palestinians will have even more stories to tell about how Israel is splitting apart at her seams.  Can that trajectory be changed?  Perhaps, but only if the West figures out that sometimes, even power-rich democracies need to think about the future and not simply concern themselves with the power-dynamics of the present. 

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