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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Fanning the fire: Is there really no choice but violence for Israel?

This is just simple psychology 101, of course individuals and nations have choices, one needs only to look to history to see that if other alternatives were taken, then catastrophes could have been avoided.

Fanning the fire: Is there really no choice but violence for Israel?

By Patrick Regan

Arieh Ullmann's Oct. 5 guest viewpoint on the need for military preparations by Israel presented a picture of an Israeli government locked in a hostile environment and devoid of choices. Mr. Ullman is simply wrong -- wrong on the inferences he draws and wrong on at least some of the evidence he uses to make his case. A more sober view of conditions and events in the Middle East is warranted.

Israel might not like the choices it must confront, but it does have choices. Much of the tension in the region stems from generations of violent hostilities. Since the 1967 war, Israel has occupied areas of Syria (Golan Heights), Lebanon, Egypt (Gaza), and Jordan (West Bank). Some of the hostility to which Israel must react derives directly from the continued occupation of these lands. Israel has the choice to relinquish lands conquered in 1967. They choose not to do so. Israel continually prepares for conflict with Syria, a choice that Arieh Ullmann both advocates and worries about. But Israel has the choice to make concessions over the Golan Heights, a step that would reduce considerably the tension with Syria, to name but a few of the many options available.

Ullmann's use of evidence is problematic in part because it is designed to eliminate choices, and it is incorrect. He portrays an embattled Israel in a region where all hostility is directed at it, none initiated by it. One way he made his case was to claim that 39 Iraqi Scud missiles carrying chemical warheads were targeted at Israel during the first Gulf War. The evidence simply does not bear this out. According to a U.S. Defense Department review, 43 missiles did land in Israel or "in the vicinity of Israeli territory," and that none of them were equipped with chemical warheads. Ullmann's use of the chemical attack is designed to embellish his case that Israel lacks choices in its approach to its security situation. The evidence is wrong, so is the inference.

Israel exists in a conflict-prone region of the world. If there is one place on the planet that is perpetually at risk for war, the Middle East is it. But all conflict takes place in a strategic environment where each party's choices are predicated on the expected behavior of their adversary. To suggest that Israel has no choice is equivalent to either blaming its opponents for all the violence in the region, or suggesting that Israel never has any expectations other than imminent hostility from its neighbors. Neither holds up to evidence.

The world community recognizes that a large part of the hostilities toward Israel come from the failure to adequately resolve the Palestinian "problem." Regardless of which Arab or Islamic leader speaks, at the forefront are their concerns about the rights of the Palestinians to a viable homeland, a Palestinian state. For example, the virulent words of Mr. Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, are prefaced by the Israeli denial of Palestinian rights. This resonates with the Arab community and in part structures the strategic environment that Israel faces. Israel has choices here.

When the Palestinian election brought Hamas to power, the U.S. and Israeli governments chose to embargo all funds to the Palestinians. That was a choice. When Hamas offered a 10-year moratorium on violence toward Israel, Israel chose to ignore the offer. That was a choice. In neither case the alternative might not have looked attractive to Israel -- in its strategic environment -- but they did present viable choices. Hamas' offer did not include recognition of the Israeli state, but had Israel explored rather than rejected the offer, Katusha rockets might not be raining down on Israel today.

Tentative steps toward recognition might have been under way if a different choice had been made. If Israel had chosen to withdraw from the West Bank, Hamas might not have won the election -- some think this was almost a certainty. Instead, Israel chose the strategy of expanding settlements, resulting in a in a more precarious security situation. The separation wall is yet another example where a choice was made, perhaps the wrong one.

At the core it is not an honest description of the picture to suggest that there is only one choice, one strategy for Israel, and that being the choice of preparing for war.

One of Ullmann's concerns is that Israel's need to prepare militarily will have social and economic costs. Indeed it will, just as military preparations anywhere incur social costs. If the social and economic consequences of military vigilance are of primary concern, then any government should think about the choices they have in the strategic environment that they face. Peace can be cheaper than war, but peace takes effort and compromise.

It is patently wrong to suggest that all violence in the Middle East is targeted at Israel and that Israel is in no way culpable for any of the hostility that the region faces. Any effort to reduce tensions through the management of conflict requires concessions and risks, and both present choices. There are numerous choices that Israel makes that fuel the hostilities rather than ameliorate them, and they could choose otherwise. Often, these choices are made for domestic political reasons, even in the presence of better strategies. Those who think about the risk to the state of Israel should evaluate evidence honestly and consider choices wisely. Presenting the picture as black and white, inflaming passions, does little to advance peace.


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