“We are now in the middle of the third great battle with totalitarianism in living memory. As with the struggles against fascism and communism, this conflict can only be won by a mobilization of Western resources and resolve. What has happened in the Gaza Strip is a lost battle in that process. There is not room for too many more of these defeats.”
by Barry Rubin, The Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2007
The seizure of the Gaza Strip by Hamas opens a new period in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Middle East. A new Islamist state is being established and it doesn’t bode well for the West or regional stability.
And yet we can hope that something will be learned from this experience. Israel’s left-leaning Ha’aretz expresses the lesson with what some would call British understatement: “Anyone in Israel still contemplating the question of a Palestinian partner might also need to do some rethinking. In Gaza, at least, it seems there is nobody left for Israel to talk to.”
In 2000, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat turned down President Bill Clinton’s offer of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in east Jerusalem and an opening offer of $23 billion in aid. Ever since then it has been clear that there is no diplomatic solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Arafat’s renewal of terrorist violence only reinforced this point.
The problem was not just Arafat, but the overall strategy of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian movement. Since the peace process began in 1993 with the Oslo Accords, that leadership made hardly a single effort to move Palestinian society toward peace and moderation. Fatah did have an attractive alternative it could have offered: We will get a state, return the refugees to live in it, develop our economy and culture and enjoy large-scale international aid in exchange for ending the conflict.
Instead it continued to glorify violence, spread hatred of Israel and America, and raise a new generation with a belief in eventual “total” victory and the extinction of Israel. After Arafat died, Fatah remained incompetent and corrupt but lacked a strong leader. Unable to obtain a state, unwilling to make peace and uninterested in governing well, Fatah dug its own grave. Why should anyone be surprised that Hamas replaced it? At most, Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and American pressure to hold fair elections only accelerated this process.
There has been another important lesson in this recent history: Most of the Arab states and movements need the conflict to continue. After all, what would mismanaging dictatorial regimes do without having Israel as a scapegoat? If, for example, Syria made peace with Israel in exchange for getting back the Golan Heights, it would be the beginning of the end for that regime. Within weeks, its people would be demanding human rights and free-enterprise economic reforms. The regime could not use anti-Israel and anti-American demons as an excuse to continue the dictatorship, deprive its people of rights and material well-being, and mobilize support. The same applies to radical Islamist movements seeking to gain power.
So let’s get this straight: There is no near-term solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. There is no Palestinian side with which a compromise agreement can be negotiated. Many Arab states seek to exploit the conflict. Others would like to make peace but are too scared, and it is to the West’s discredit that such states don’t believe that it can or will protect them.
There are several key policy conclusions to be drawn from the Hamas triumph. First, Western and especially U.S. policy must get beyond an obsession with solving this conflict. It is going to go on for decades. Peace plans will go nowhere. Hamas will not be persuaded to moderate — why should it when it expects victory at home and appeasement from Europe? Hamas is the enemy, just as much as al Qaeda, because it is part of the radical Islamist effort to seize control of the region, overthrow anything even vaguely moderate, and expel any Western influence.
Second, since Palestinian politics have clearly returned to a pre-1993 status, so must Western and U.S. policy. This means no Western aid and no diplomatic support until their leaders change policies. The Palestinian movement can only earn financial help and political backing on the very distant day when it accepts Israel’s right to exist, stops endorsing and using terrorism, and is serious about negotiating a real two-state solution.
Third, it is time to support Israel proudly and fully. Israel has done everything possible for peace, taking great risks to do so. But the idea that evenhanded, confidence-building behavior can broker peace is regrettably dead.
There are wider strategic implications for U.S. and Western interests in this dramatic yet predictable development. The radical forces have gained a major new asset that will encourage the recruitment of new cadre. Iran, Syria and Hezbollah will grow more confident and aggressive.
We are now in the middle of the third great battle with totalitarianism in living memory. As with the struggles against fascism and communism, this conflict can only be won by a mobilization of Western resources and resolve. What has happened in the Gaza Strip is a lost battle in that process. There is not room for too many more of these defeats.
Mr. Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and the author of “The Truth About Syria” (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007).