No Pain, No Gain in the Mideast

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On Iraq, doves have looked pretty good the last few years as the rationales offered up by the hawks (myself included) have mostly fallen apart. But on Israel, which is now embarking on a promising peace initiative with the Palestinians, it’s the other way around. In retrospect, the doves now look foolish and the hawks positively brilliant.

Three years ago, if you recall, Israel faced near-daily suicide bombings. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded by hastening construction of a security wall and launching a military crackdown in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Doves everywhere were horrified. “Mr. Sharon’s policy so far has been worse than ineffective; it is aggravating the terrorism,” wrote New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.

As it happens, Sharon’s policy succeeded unequivocally. From September 2001 through July 2002, terrorists operating out of the West Bank killed 173 people. The following 12-month period, with the security wall under construction, that number fell to 68. The year after that, with the wall further completed, the number fell again to 28. Maybe Sharon aggravated the terrorists, but he did not aggravate terrorism.


Sharon also refused to negotiate with Yasser Arafat. This too was seen as reckless and irresponsible. Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska spoke for the traditional foreign policy establishment when he urged that “we cannot hold the Middle East peace process hostage by making Yasser Arafat the issue.... Credible alternative Palestinian leadership will not step forward in response to a perceived American-Israeli demand for Arafat’s removal.”

Well, guess what? The Americans and Israelis demanded Arafat’s removal. And credible Palestinian leadership did step forward. To be sure, luck -- in the form of Arafat’s timely death -- intervened. Still, we now can see that negotiating with Arafat would have been folly. And President Bush, despite his many -- almost innumerable -- failings, deserves enormous credit for backing Sharon despite intense international pressure.

The doves got it so wrong because they fundamentally misread the situation. The idea that harsh Israeli counter-terrorist measures must inevitably backfire is rooted in the view that the Middle East conflict is a “cycle of violence.” (No doubt you’ve heard this phrase countless times.) According to this theory, Palestinians attack Israelis because Israeli repression makes them desperate and angry. More repression creates more desperation and anger, which creates more terrorists. Yet the last Palestinian uprising began as a response not to excessive Israeli strength but to a perception of Israeli weakness.

In 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak withdrew his army from Lebanon in response to continued attacks. Later that year, he made concessions to Arafat in a noble but doomed effort to sign a peace accord. Arafat interpreted both these things as a sign that he could win even more concessions by unleashing a terrorist campaign.

Sharon’s counteroffensive stymied Hamas and the other militant groups and proved to many ordinary Palestinians that they couldn’t bleed Israel back to the bargaining table. Indeed, Palestinians came to realize that their uprising was inflicting far more pain on them than on Israel. That doesn’t make the suffering of innocent Palestinians any less tragic. But it does suggest, cruelly, that some pain was probably necessary not only to stop terrorist attacks but also to persuade the Palestinians to elect a moderate like Mahmoud Abbas, who would renounce violence. A report last month in this newspaper described Palestinian voters as “exhausted by violence.” It turns out the driving force in Israeli-Palestinian relations was not a “cycle of violence.” It was a dialectic: Palestinian rejectionism met a stronger Israeli response, which produced mutual accommodation. Hagel, of all people, should have known. (In case you’re not up on your 19th century German philosophers, that last line was a clever reference to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who invented the concept of historical dialectics but, unlike Chuck Hagel, never visited Nebraska.)

To be sure, the current Israeli-Palestinian thaw could easily come undone. Yet the fact remains that we would not have come to this point were it not for Sharon’s intransigence. There are a lot of dovish critics, in the United States and (especially) in Europe, who never would have predicted this. I don’t hear them apologizing.