The "rationalist fallacy" – i.e., the belief that all conflicts can be solved by men of goodwill sitting around the bargaining table – increasingly afflicts the Western world. In the "rationalist" model, all men basically want the same thing – a larger slice of the world’s material goods – and are therefore amenable to bargaining over the size of their slice. Negotiations are the universal solvent, and any resort to the use of military force is inadmissible, unless explicitly sanctioned by the U.N.
The rejection of the use of force is reflected in the Western media’s obsession with body counts. Whichever side kills more of the enemy is presumed to be the bad guy. By that standard, Binyamin Netanyahu pointed out to a particularly obnoxious BBC interviewer, the Americans and British were the bad guys in World War II, since they killed more German civilians than the Germans killed of theirs. The enunciation of rules of combat that favor non-state actors and terrorists is a further reflection of the presumption against the employment of military force.
Nowhere has the obsession with negotiations been more evident than in Middle East peacemaking since the onset of Oslo. Under Oslo, the "peace process" itself was discussed as if were something real – ever in need of protection, revival, and new momentum.
To what degree Israelis continue to embrace the rationalist fallacy is difficult to say. But two other factors tend to repeatedly suck Israel into the whirlwind of negotiations. The first is the view that some identifiable "peace process" is necessary in order to protect Israel’s citizens from despair and hopelessness. Proponents of Oslo and the Gaza withdrawal explicitly did so in terms of the necessity of providing Israelis with hope for future peace. Prime Minister Olmert’s vow to turn Israel into a "fun" place to live is another example of the perceived need to protect Israelis from sinking into despair over the intractability of the conflict with the Palestinians.
The view that the government’s primary obligation "is presenting us with a timetable for achieving peace" as part of "its guarantee for future generations," propounded recently by Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit, is dangerous. As Jerusalem Post columnist Evelyn Gordon notes, the claim that attaining peace with the Palestinians is essential for Israel’s future viability lends itself easily to the proposition that Israel should pursue peace regardless of the other side’s actions and intentions.
And that leads, in turn, to frequent misreadings of those intentions. The Palestinians are deemed to be "tired of war" just like us, or at least just like we would be if we were in their miserable situation. Yet repeated polls show overwhelming Palestinian support for Hamas’ refusal to recognize Israel, suicide bombings, the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, and Kassam attacks on Israel.
Even those with a far less rose-colored take on the possibility of negotiations, often seem to think that participation in negotiations constitutes a harmless game that keeps the Europeans off our case. But negotiations with no hope of success are not harmless illusions. Expectations are created, hopes raised. Something must fuel that process, and that something has traditionally been Israeli territorial concessions or the lowering of her security precautions.
I MENTION THESE POINTS BECAUSE THE YAKETY-YAK BRIGADES are out again in full force. A new American Jewish group, funded by George Soros, who has never before given to Jewish causes, and Charles Bronfman, is being formed to encourage America to take a more active roll in the Middle East – i.e., force the parties back to the bargaining table, regardless of the chance of anything binding and enforceable coming from those discussions. Soros would bring us back to the heady days of the Clinton Adniminstration, when talk was all the rage and "friends" of Israel were busy encouraging Washington to lean on Jerusalem.
No doubt the Palestinians wish the new group every success. For one thing, renewed negotiations would likely bring back suspended American and European aid. In addition, Mahmoud Abbas learned from his mentor Yasser Arafat that the mere willingness to talk is often enough to extract from Israel goodwill gestures and concessions. Each stop and start in the process is followed by new Israeli concessions in return for the same previously unfulfilled Palestinian promises.
Yet as long as nearly two-thirds of the Palestinian population support Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel's legitimacy talks with the Palestinians will lead nowhere. Even if a Palestinian leader of goodwill could be found, he would not be able to deliver peace, and any attempt to do so would likely cost him his life.
When international aid provided to the Palestinians is used to dismantle the refugee camps and build economic infrastructure rather than to pay the salaries of a dozen competing security services and 50,000 armed men -- in short, when Palestinians care more about their own well-being that destroying Israel -- peace is possible. The trashing of the Gaza hothouses epitomizes how far we are from that day.
Since the onset of Oslo, public opinion in Israel has undergone a sea change. A large majority has reconciled itself to a Palestinian state. On the Palestinian side, by contrast, nothing has changed. The "right of return," for instance, remains sacred doctrine today as it was in 1949. Part of the reason for that lack of change is that the Palestinians learned that they would be rewarded for just showing up at the bargaining table, without any commitment to peace or even to fulfill their specific promises.
The Bush administration has to some extent reeducated them on that score by refusing to be sucked into "process" for its own sake. A return to the mind-set of the Clinton years would thus reinforce all the wrong lessons.
THE PALESTINIAN TRACK is not the only one upon which Israel is being urged to resume negotiations. After Syrian ruler Bashar Assad hinted to the German paper Der Spiegel that he would be interested in peace negotiations with Israel – on days when he is not busy threatening Israel with all-out war – various wise men urged Prime Minister Olmert to begin exploring the seriousness of Syrian intent. Thus far Olmert has wisely rejected that advice.
The Assads, father and son, have long understood that just hinting at a willingness to negotiate often brings its own rewards, including increased prestige for the Syrian regime. The elder Assad enjoyed watching American secretaries of state rush to Damascus at the slightest hint of moderation. And his son seems to have acquired the same taste.
To be sure, Syria has a good deal to offer Israel - the cessation of arms transfers to Hizbullah, chilled relations with Iran, and the closing of its border to Iraqi insurgents. The theory goes that the Golan Heights is such a prize that Syria might pay the price. That is highly dubious. If Syria wanted the Golan so badly, the senior Assad would have granted Ehud Barak what amounted to little more than a bicycle path on the eastern shore of the Kinneret.
MK Yuval Steinitz has long argued that the present Syrian regime has little interest in the Golan. The lack of an external enemy in Israel would imperil the country's domination by the Assads' minority Alawite sect (about 12% of the population). Moreover, peace with Israel would remove Syria's last pretext for maintaining its toehold in the Bekaa Valley, which is worth far more than the Golan.
Even assuming that Syria truly seeks the Golan, once it regained possession what would prevent it from reneging on its promises and resuming its role at the head of the Arab rejectionist front? Syria's first concern will always be its place in the Moslem umma, and peace with Israel is not at the top of the Muslim agenda.
Even if Assad remained on good behavior, what assurance do we have that his successors will hew to the same path? "Nations have no permanent friend or ally," Lord Palmerston reminds us, "they only have permanent interests." As long as Syria remains a police state and economic backwater, the interests of any regime will always require maintaining an external enemy - i.e., Israel.
Far from increasing Israel's security, the return of the Golan to Syrian control pursuant to a peace treaty would greatly increase the Syrian’s temptation to go to war. Starting near its own goal line, with Damascus within easy range of Israeli artillery, Syria presently faces major disincentives to war. Since 1973, the Israeli threat has preserved quiet on the Syrian front. But if Syria were to find itself once again overlooking the Galilee, with Israeli tanks far removed from its borders, its risk calculus would change dramatically. In short, Israel is far more secure and defensible with the Golan Heights and without a peace treaty than it would be with a peace treaty and without the Golan.
In short, a rush to the bargaining table with Syria or the Palestinians would only provide the Arabs with more evidence of Israelis' mad desire for "peace" at any price and their continued susceptibility to any snake-oil nostrum that offers it.