Friday, October 20, 2006

Strategic assets and white elephants

I just answered an question relating to to supposed inadvisability of Israeli territorial “concessions” to our Arab neighbors. The question is one that comes up rather often in discussions of Israeli policy and politics; so I think my answer may be worth sharing. A____ gave a fairly thorough account of the historical enmity to Israel of the various Arab countries, then asked:

If the Arabs do not want a binational solution or any form of peace, then they will not stop until Israel is fully destroyed; so doesn’t giving them land just speed up the “wiping israel off the face of the earth” process?

Dear A____ - Your description of Arab states’ hostility to Israel is factual enough, as far as it goes; but I can’t say whether it’s actually a useful answer to any particular question. In response to your question, I’d like first to point out that there is a big difference between talking about “the Arab states” and talking about “the Arabs”, as you did. “The Arab states” refers to a relatively small group of countries (or, more accurately, governments) with known histories and policies, such that it’s possible to say definite and verifiable things about them. For example, I can say that among the Arab countries near Israel, only Egypt and Jordan have made peace with Israel and recognize its existence, and know that I’m saying something true. On the other hand, to say that “the Arabs do not want any form of peace with Israel” is to assume that all Arabs think exactly the same way - a gross over-generalization. There are many millions of Arabs, and among those millions of people there is a great deal of diversity of opinion. We should all get out of the habit of talking about “the Arabs” as if they were all alike, just as we should expect others to avoid making sweeping generalizations about “the Jews”. Second, I believe you’re making one of the classic mistakes about Israeli policy regarding territorial withdrawal. You’re assuming that all land Israel holds is an asset, such that any time we “give” land to the Palestinians (or the Syrians, or the Lebanese, or whoever) we are strengthening them and weakening ourselves. If this were true, obviously it would be important to retain as much land as possible, and to make territorial concessions (if we made them at all) only in return for very substantial benefits. Indeed, this assumption is true in certain cases. The Golan Heights, for example, has genuine strategic importance for Israel - both in regard to our water supply and in direct military terms. Giving up the Golan Heights and returning to the international border - or worse, the 4 June 1967 de facto border, which had some Israeli land under Syrian control - would genuinely weaken us, and thus it would make sense to make this concession only in return for full, reliable, and permanent peace with Syria and other local Arab states. On the other hand, I see no reason to view Israel’s former settlements in the Gaza Strip as an asset to Israel: they were hugely costly to defend, and the only people who benefited from them were a few farmers who made substantial profits by using cheap Palestinian and Thai labor, and irrigated their crops with heavily-subsidized water. As far as I’m concerned, getting out of the Gaza Strip made Israel stronger and more viable, not less; and while the Palestinians certainly “spin” our withdrawal as a victory for them, I believe that in the long run the Disengagement was a victory for Israel. (All this has nothing to do with the issue of how much compensation should have been paid to our former Gaza Strip settlers and how well or badly their resettlement has been handled; the fact that I believe the Disengagement was a good idea doesn’t mean I think the Disengagement was carried out perfectly.) Similarly, I support retaining some parts of the West Bank, in order to strengthen Israel’s strategic position compared to the pre-1967 situation; but I see no reason that Israel should retain all the small settlements scattered through the entire West Bank, where a few thousand settlers live among two million Palestinians. Many of these small settlements are very costly to defend, and do not provide any compensating benefit to Israel. How is such a settlement an asset to Israel? Why does closing down such a settlement aid the process of “wiping Israel off the map”? In short, I believe that certain pieces of land are genuine assets, while other pieces of land are “white elephants” in the technical sense: that is, supposed “assets” that in fact cost far more to maintain than they yield in benefits. (Remember that white elephants were given by the King of Thailand to his enemies: they were holy so they couldn't be used for work, they were a gift from the King so they couldn’t be discarded, and they cost a great deal to feed!) It seems to me that the best way for Israel to survive is to focus less on how horrible “the Arabs” are, and instead focus on how we can strengthen ourselves. What can we do to improve our economy (which in turn supports our military and our educational system)? What can we do to increase our internal cohesiveness? How can we manage our affairs so that we can exist within some vaguely rational border as a democratic state with a solid Jewish majority? If Israel does a good job of strengthening itself - which mostly means strengthening its own population and institutions - nobody is going to be able to “wipe us off the face of the earth”, at least not without using nuclear weapons and presumably facing a massive retaliation in kind. But if we fixate on control of land as the sole criterion for security, we are going to neglect other factors which are in reality much more critical to our long-term survival. Best regards, -Don Radlauer

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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At Fri Oct 20, 11:16:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger lisoosh said...

Interesting, and I think valuable answer as it changes the direction of the discussion.
I look forward to reading some of your more right wing commenters opinions. I would imagine quite a few will bring up rockets from Gaza and other potential incursions from areas of the West Bank.


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