Krauthammer's Guarded Optimism on Israel

Dr. Charles Krauthammer, a psychiatrist by training and a long time political journalist by profession, rarely travels outside of Washington DC to deliver talks. So it was not surprising that an audience of close to 2,000 filled the Grand Ballroom of the Chicago Hilton and Towers to hear him speak about Israel on Wednesday night to a Jewish United Fund event.  Krauthammer has been for many years a glass half empty person on Israel's struggle for normalcy.  So it was a bit out of pattern for Krauthammer to lean ever so slightly to the glass half full position in his remarks. 

As a long time admirer of Krauthammer and as someone very often in agreement with his conclusions in his many columns or remarks on cable news talk shows, the question I asked myself during the evening, was whether there is reason to see some signs for optimism in the current situation.

Krauthammer pointed to four emerging developments that he believes signify a potential improvement in Israel's position.

The End Of Israel's Messianic Notions About The Peace Process

The first development Dr. Kauthammer cites is that as a result of the failed Oslo process, Israel has overcome its messianic belief that the path to peace was finally there to be seized - that compromise X or concession Y would do the trick and get the Palestinians and their rejectionist Arab allies to end the conflict.  It is worth noting that Krauthammer uses the term "messianic" to refer to the delusional belief by many Israelis in the presence of a partner on the Palestinian side which shared Israel's longing for peace. 

There is no shortage of such delusional thinkers among liberal doves in the American Jewish community: the members of Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum, Brit Tzedek v Shalom and Ameinu, among others, who continue to maintain that a two state solution is there for the offing - if only Israel made the right gestures to the Palestinians and America engaged more (translation: leans on Israel more to get them to do it).  Much as the Palestinians are heavily invested in their narrative of the nakba (the disaster associated with Israel's founding), the peace camp is so invested in their narrative that Israeli settlements have always been the main problem that they cannot take their blinders off.

I am not as comfortable as Krauthammer is that Israelis have moved beyond messianism, becoming hard-headed realists.  While the Israeli left was routed in the election of January 2001 after 4 months of a vicious intifada (Sharon defeating Barak by over 20%), Ehud Olmert was elected to succeed the comatose Ariel Sharon last year on a platform of unilaterally abandoning most of the West Bank, a much larger scale disengagement than occurred in Gaza. Krauthammer properly describes Olmert as the most incompetent Israeli prime minister in history, a judgment affirmed by public approval ratings of  between 0 and 3% for the Prime Minister. Even if Israelis as a group are more sober about the aims of their enemies and the future challenges, Israel will still have to face these severe challenges (the near operational Iranian nuclear program, Hamas rocket attacks, a rearmed belligerent Hezbollah, and a defiant Syria) with a Prime Minister who refuses to leave office despite near total public belief that he is unable to lead the country effectively.

Most critics of Israel usually use the term "messianic" to attack Israel's West Bank settlers and their desire to retain the historic lands of the patriarchs. Krauthammer's description of the messianic delusion puts him in the same camp as another psychiatrist/political writer, Ken Levin, whose book The Oslo Syndrome  analyzed the need by liberal Jews to believe the best about their mortal enemies and tune out any conflicting messages.

Krauthammer argues that Ariel Sharon ended the second intifada by aggressively moving on several fronts: assassinating terrorist leaders, reoccupying West Bank cities, and moving to complete the security fence near the green line.  What aided Sharon enormously in his effort was the green light that was given to him by President Bush to take the steps Sharon believed were necessary to protect Israelis' personal security.  No President before Bush was as reluctant to criticize Israeli actions, some of which involved collateral damage to civilian populations, the events that always lead to condemnations by international human rights groups, Europeans, the United Nations and of course the Muslim world.

Krauthammer supported the Gaza  disengagement (admission: I too supported it back in 2005), and he continues to defend it today (here we part company). He argues that protecting a community of 7,000 Jewish settlers amidst over a million Palestinians was a waste of IDF resources. He also believes that withdrawing from Gaza put the onus on the Palestinians to self govern and ended their claim to victim status as occupied people, at least in Gaza. He says Israel should have treated the Gaza-Israel border as an international border after the disengagement.  This means that if Hamas  fired rockets from Gaza into Israel, that Israel had the right to respond to such an act of war against its  citizens with massive force - say 50 rockets  fired back into Gaza for every one launched against Israel.  Krauthammer says this would have preserved Israel's deterrent power. Krauthammer also says the Palestinians missed an opportunity (nothing new here) since they should have accepted the gift of Gaza as de facto recognition of the emergence of a Palestinian state

The problem with this approach is several fold. To begin, it can be argued that Israel lost much of its deterrent capability by failing to respond in the fashion Krauthammer recommended against Hezbollah after the disengagement from South Lebanon in the spring of 2000. In fact, the Palestinian intifada which followed only a few months later, may have been initiated at the time it was as a result of  Arafat believing that Israel had gone soft and would pull back everywhere when hit with force - that the country had lost its stomach to fight. When Sharon responded with a reoccupation of West Bank cities after the suicide attack at the Netanya seder in April 2002,  that definitely changed  the dynamic with the Palestinians.  But on the Lebanese border, there has been intermittent Hezbollah rocket fire since Israel left its security zone, and occasional kidnappings or murder of Israeli soldiers, even before the incident that provoked the war last summer. Israel's response to those attacks was always tentative. Over six years, Hezbollah built up a collection of over 15,000 rockets, and if anything, this arsenal proved an effective deterrent against Israel responding with disproportionate force to their provocations until the war last summer. 

Hamas seems to have learned from the Hezbollah experience.  Without an IDF presence on the border with Egypt, the smuggling of weaponry into Gaza has become much more substantial than occurred though the tunnels that were dug into Rafah during the period when Israel was still in Gaza.  So Gaza has become a Grand Central Station of Palestinian terror groups and armed gangs in the past year. In addition to Islamic Jihad, Al Aksa and Hamas, now Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda are working the territory.

Krauthammer's approach on the proper response to rocket attacks would not address the problem of weapons accumulation via Egypt, or the training and recruitment of new members for the armed groups, or the improvement in the targeting, range, and lethality of the rockets that were manufactured in Gaza. Israel now knows that any incursion into Gaza will be much deadlier than in the past, similar to what happened in the war with Hezbollah last year.

So who now has gained the deterrence upper hand? The side which has no fear of death and destruction to its own community (which will play any Israel counter-measures  to a sympathetic media as one more example of Israel's violence and oppression)? Or Israel, which values the lives of its people and soldiers? If the current stream of rockets into Sderot can cause many in the community to leave, the impact is huge.  Improve the rockets some more, smuggle in more of them, and soon Israelis will be in bunkers in Ashkelon, and Ashdod, as they were in Haifa, and Kiryat Shemona last summer.  The message will be clear: no one is safe. We are coming after you.  This is not a glass half full scenario.

Krauthammer argues that even with all the problems Israel faces, it is in far better strategic position today than it was before the Six Day War. Peace agreements have been reached with Egypt and Jordan. Israel has developed a robust economy. The Palestinians, through their self-destructive behavior, have squandered much of the moral capital they tried to accumulate as victims of occupation. However, Krauthammer did not address in any depth the Iranian nuclear threat. This one menace potentially dwarfs all of the older ones in the totality of the danger if the program is completed, and the difficulty for Israel in preventing its completion is formidable.

Arab Attitudes are Changing

Iran was used as an example by Krauthammer for his second positive development: the growing acceptance by many of the Arab states that they have real problems to deal with, and that the neverending state of war with Israel is not one of them. Iran at this point is busy destabilizing Iraq (the Mahdi army), Lebanon (Hezbollah), and the Palestinian territories (many groups they fund). A nuclear program would provide great leverage for Iran to push their political agenda in these places and others.

Krauthammer pointed to the fact that in the first days of the summer war between Israel and Hezbollah, the state-controlled press in several Arab countries, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia among them, as well as the leaders of some of these countries, were critical of Hezbollah for provoking the fight. I agree with Krauthammer that these countries hoped that Israel would bloody both Hezbollah and Iran by dealing them a body blow in southern Lebanon, which might have resulted in greater stability in Lebanon and a strategic pullback by Iran from its meddling elsewhere.  But there was no quick victory, and the longer the war went on, Hezbollah's resilience and defiance (as Krauthammer says, the war was a tie, but in this kind of war a tie goes to the insurgents) made them the heroes of the Sunni Arab street, an even worse proposition for the rulers of the Sunni Arab states.

Krauthammer points to the revival of the Saudi peace plan as another sign that while the Arab states have not become lovers of Zionism, they do see the instability among the Palestinians and the continuation of the Israeli Palestinian conflict as unhelpful to the stability of their own regimes, and as distractions from their bigger issues with Iran and Al Qaeda. The Saudi plan is of course unacceptable to Israel with its call for a "right of return for refugees", misnomer to be sure, since over 95% of the so-called refugees never lived in Israel, but are descendants of those who did. If common decency had prevailed, all would have been resettled in Arab lands decades ago. There are consequences for starting a war and losing, and refugee resettlement is one of them. 

Palestinian Civil War

Krauthammer joked that he hoped the press was not in the hall so that no one would accuse him of appearing to espouse Palestinian fratricide. But Krauthammer's point was more serious. He argued that the PA's fight with Hamas made it less likely that there would be international pressure on Israel to negotiate with a non-existent peace partner. Krauthammer is correct, I think, that the goal of the Palestinians' movement has always been to destroy and then replace Israel (a one state solution), not to share the land with it (a two state solution).  He predicted that at some point the Palestinians will tire of their self-inflicted misery and desire an improvement in their lives, rather than just lashing out at Israel. And then their politics and their goals will change.

Krauthammer admitted this was his most speculative assumption. I would go further. I see no evidence of any maturity in Palestinian political thinking. If anything, as described earlier, Gaza has already degenerated into a Hobbesean state of nature, run block-by-block by those with the more powerful weaponry. The supposedly sensible silent majority of Palestinians will never get to choose a different way, so long as thugs, with the discipline enforced by their weaponry and the death cult ideology of Islamic radicalism are increasingly calling the shots. And also remember that in supposedly free elections (Jimmy Carter declared them so), Hamas won an overwhelming victory.

The US-Israel Relationship

Krauthammer believes that the events of 9/11 solidified support for Israel among many Americans. The terror that always afflicted Israel was now hitting American at home. We had a shared battle with Islamic radicalism. The scenes shown on television of cheering Palestinians on 9/11 did not hurt support levels for Israel in the US either.

There are two levels of US support for Israel. There is government support, which as Krauthammer points out has always been bipartisan and strong. And then there is the support of individual Americans, which has also always been overwhelming as measured in comparison to support for the Palestinians.  Krauthammer, to his credit, risked the disapproval of some liberals in his audience by emphasizing the importance of the strong support for Israel coming from the Christian Evangelical community. He told the audience that Jews need to thank Evangelicals for their support, and not slam them as political enemies due to disagreements on social issues or other concerns. Treat people with respect, and make your case for what you believe where you disagree with others, but do not turn your back on a vital part of the pro-Israel community in America.

The anti-Israel forces have hardly retreated in this country, despite the strong support that exists for Israel.  I think there is potential slippage ahead in political support levels, particularly if the country veers left politically. As pointed out in earlier articles,  anti-Israel sentiment predominates in most colleges and universities and many newsrooms, where the prevailing ideology is sympathy for the underdog (journalists) or sympathy for the anti-American side of a conflict (academics). 

The propaganda campaign that attempts to link the unpopular war in Iraq with right wing Israelis as its initial and key proponent is still put out regularly by a stream of commentators. Add in the well-publicized smear campaigns of Jimmy Carter and Professors Walt and Mearsheimer on the supposed power of the Israel lobby to stifle debate on US Mideast policy, and it is clear that the campaign of vilification of Israel will not soon end. 

Perhaps to a large Jewish audience, Krauthammer was attempting to put the best spin on an ambiguous situation.  After 59 years Israel still seeks normalcy as a nation.  But Israel is not Finland nor Austria nor New Zealand. Those are normal countries, unless one of them starts publishing offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. At the moment, no one is chanting death to Finland or plotting to carry it out. The issues and challenges for Israel today are as unique  as they were 9 years ago, when Krauthammer wrote his stirring and provocative article on the occasion of modern Israel's 50th anniversary.

I think the case can be made that since that article appeared, Israel's situation has not improved. 

Richard Baehr is chief political correspondent of American Thinker.