"Time is on my side, Yes it is!"
So sang the Rolling Stones. But which side has time working in its favor? That's one of the Middle East's most intriguing and controversial questions.
Recently, Israeli leaders and well-wishers--sincere and hypocritical alike--have spoken in panicky terms that time isn't on Israel side and it's either peace in a few months or the Biblical flood.
Even U.S. government policy claims that agreement can and must be reached right away or else. Presidential candidate Barrack Obama has stated that Israel desperately needs peace and must make lots of concessions to get it real fast.
Well, it's nonsense. But first let's ask why has this idea become so big?
First, peace is good. Second, on the left, peace is considered both good and reachable if Israel gives up enough.
Somehow, no serious analysis is ever made on what the other side, the Palestinians and Syria, are, want, think, or do.
Given these beliefs, they sincerely believe that Israel should be scared, pushed, and subverted--for "its own good"--to give. In this context, no serious reevaluation is made of the well-intended but arguably disastrous peace process of the 1990s. Many of those on the moderate left and center have drawn proper conclusions from this experience.
Others in the center or even moderate right, however, who don't accept the further left's arguments, have come up with one of their own. They already accept, of course, that peace is good but how does one justify a high level of concessions? The answer is that those thinking this way must conclude that peace is both possible and urgently necessary.
And this brings us to former (oh, it feels so good to use that word) Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and apparently, though possibly not, for acting Prime Minister Tzipi Livni.
For them, the argument that time is against Israel is the critical argument.
The response should be: on what is this claim based? After all, not only is it true but progress toward peace--as welcome as that would be--can worsen many of the factors they consider. Moreover, if too many concessions are made or a bad agreement is concluded than time really would be against Israel.
Perhaps the only specific point raised to show time is running out is the demographic one. Yet this is absurd. Egypt's birthrate, following a common pattern seen throughout the world, has fallen. The outflow of Palestinians to Jordan and other places is obvious. Palestinian population has been overestimated.
Beyond this, however, it makes no difference how many Palestinians there are in the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Israel is not going to annex the land and make the Palestinians there voters. Numbers alone--as the conflict's history shows--don't count that much.
Whatever supposed factor pitting time against Israel--Europe's Islamicization, declining Western support, radical Islamist takeovers of Arab states or the Palestinian movement--will not be neutralized by Israeli concessions or a Palestinian state's creation. After all, once the situation changed against Israel, the issue would merely be reopened no matter what diplomatic agreement might have been reached earlier. The concept that immediate giveaways buy long-term immunity is absurd on its face.
Equally, underlying all this irrational analysis is a dogma beloved by foreign observers and journalists that quickly collapses on examination: Israel cannot continue with the status quo.
Why not? Israel faces far less pressure than in prior years. Security is far better than in the 1948-1990 period when Israel potentially faced full-scale war with the armies of surrounding Arab states every day. In the 1990s' peace process period, when at times terrorism reached far higher levels than today.
As for rocket attacks time is on Israel's side since it will have a defensive system within a few years. Completing the security fence will also enhance protection. Regarding Iranian nuclear weapons, an agreement with Fatah won't deter Tehran's--or Hizballah's and Hamas's--determination to sabotage it and passion for destroying Israel.
These radical forces would try to take over a Palestinian state and attack Israel from Gaza, Lebanon, and (West Bank) Palestine. Would the Palestinian government be able or even try to stop them? Might this bring Israeli military action and a new war? Once a Palestinian state was created would Israel's Arab minority be happy or inspired to escalate demands?
What about the cost to Israel of occupation? Well, before 1994 Israel paid the entire budget for the territories and was 100 percent responsible for security control. Today, its involvement in the Gaza Strip is zero and in the West Bank perhaps one-fifth what is was. Olmert's personal sleaziness takes a higher toll on Israeli morale than the remnants of occupation. Most Israelis don't want more than a tiny portion of the West Bank and know any presence there is due to security needs, not Greater Israel ambitions.
Meanwhile, Israel prospers and progresses. This year saw record tourism, near record-low unemployment, and fast economic growth. Israel's real problems are internal--improving education and social welfare--having nothing to do with the Palestinians.
Equally, Israel is doing well internationally. While a leftist and academic fringe has become completely hostile and popularity in public opinion polls has fallen in Europe (often not far below levels of anti-Americanism), the diplomatic picture is good. With friendly British, French, German, and Italian governments, the most hostile states in Europe are probably Belgium, Spain, and Sweden. Aside from the United States, Australia and Canada are extremely friendly; Israel has good relations with India and China, and okay relations with Russia.
Sadly, too, while it's always been argued that pushing for peace, withdrawing troops, and making big concessions promotes the love of Israel, unquestionably the opposite happens.
While Israel progresses on hi-tech, medicine, and science, the Arab world lags behind. Palestinians pay a high price for stagnation but choose intransigence any way. In fact, time is on Israel's side; it grows in strength while the other side has become more divided and, in most cases, increasingly unwilling to wage the conflict.
Some of the attitude of time-as-enemy arises from a general Western malaise of self-hatred and defeatism. In addition, Israel kept winning wars without gaining strategic serenity, neither total victory nor total peace. Yet a combination of military triumphs, diplomatic efforts, and redeployment from the territories has brought Israel's security to what is, in relative terms, a near all-time high. It may be far below what other nations are used to having, yet it is Israeli standards that count here.
The reality is that the Palestinians--albeit living off large-scale, though poorly spent, global subsidies--for whom time is an enemy. They face bad conditions; Fatah's decline continues; the chance to have their own state slips away because their leadership pushes it away. Arab regimes face Islamist challenges that may be defeated but waste resources and stunt their progress. The chance for democracy, moderation, and stability has been lost for another generation.
Peace is preferable but much of what makes it so is that it must be a good peace, one that makes things better and is sustainable. Peace is possible only when the other side wants it. Today's peace process mania is like a cartoon character whose legs windmill in a blur but which never advances.
But Israel is in the stronger position and can, like the Rolling Stones, say to Palestinians and others that if they want to make things better for themselves:
"You're searching for good times, wait and see,
"You'll come running back to me."
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).
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