How Unilateralism Has Hurt the U.S. and Endangered Israel

On Friday, the Nation magazine hosted Yizhar Be’er, who directs a media monitoring organization in Israel called Keshev. (The group’s president is David Grossman, the writer, who lost his son, a tank commander, in Lebanon last month.)

The theme of Be’er’s comments was the danger of unilateralism—the policy of going it alone in the Middle East, undertaken by both the U.S. and Israel. Be’er spoke of a false attitude in Israel toward its neighbors that is scarily reminiscent of American attitudes: “we are under continuing threat and the other side only understands the language of power.” The Israeli media had helped create that attitude by “strengthening the feeling of threats and paranoia through a process of demonization and delegitimation of the other side.”

Nation senior editor Roane Carey asked whether Iran was likely to become the next Iraq, and come under military attack. Be’er said he believes that Israel doesn’t want a showdown with Iran, and doesn’t want the United States to seek one either. The prospect is too frightening.

“The Israelis always say that the only thing the Arab world understands is the language of power. Well, the Israelis also understand the language of power. Iran has power.” Facing Iran, Israel feels vulnerable, Be’er said.

I pointed out that when I was in Israel, David Kimche, a former high government official, wrote in the Jerusalem Post that Israel had declined to negotiate with Syria when it wanted to make deals over the last few years because Syria was “too weak to threaten us.” I found this to be a staggeringly bad idea of how to deal with one’s neighbors.

Be’er agreed. He said that five years of unilateralism, during which Israel has claimed that it has no partner for peace and must establish its borders on its own, has been a terrible mistake. “We are a tiny country. Your country can afford to make a mistake, as you have in Iraq. For us, one mistake of this magnitude and our existence is threatened.”

Be’er’s comments left me demoralized. I emailed Roane Carey at the Nation to get his take on the event. He wrote back about the dangers of unilateralism:

I do think the overwhelming US “support” for Israel over the past 3-4 decades has had the paradoxical effect of endangering Israel in the long run—we’ve allowed them, through massive aid and UN vetoes, to think they need never, or almost never, make peace with their neighbors—to live under the illusion that they’re not a Middle Eastern country.

It would be better for the US AND Israel if Washington were finally to say something like the following: ‘Look the game is up. As your ally and friend, we’re telling you that you have to come to terms with your neighbors, and that we will no longer act as your enabler. Therefore, we have decided to throw our full support behind the Arab League’s Beirut Declaration offering full peace for full withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines, first announced in 2002 and reiterated since, and urge you to do the same, which would give you peace and diplomatic relations with all 22 members of the Arab League in return for full withdrawal from the territories, including East Jerusalem, and a reasonable resolution of the refugee issue (probably return of a significant chunk, maybe 100,000 or so, plus public recognition of the expulsion of ’48, and generous monetary compensation for the rest, which we will contribute to).

If you do this, we will remain your ally and even sign a mutual defense Pact—hell, we’ll even station a permanent brigade or division of US troops on your borders as a tripwire if you want—but in return you must agree to these measures. If you refuse this offer, fine—it’s your right as a sovereign state. But if you do refuse, we will henceforth cut off all aid, military and economic, and will never veto a UN resolution against you again. You’ll be left to sink or swim on your own. Take your pick.