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Getting Lucky

Because I believe I have an unbroken record of linking to everything Jon Chait writes, his apologism for Ariel Sharon requires some comment even though I'm really, really disinclined to start up an ugly discussion of Israel/Palestine issues.

I think it's indisputably true that the so-called "security fence" (i.e., giant wall) that the Israeli government's been building has been an effective method of stopping terrorism and that this somewhat disproves the wishful-thinking dogma that political solutions must be found. That said, the concept of building a giant wall to seal off Israel proper from the Occupied Territories isn't really what's been controversial about Sharon's handling of this topic. Indeed, the wall was initially something the Labor opposition put forward and Sharon opposed. The controversy has centered on the route of the wall. A more minimal wall that hewed more closely to the Green Line would have been just as effective in safeguarding everyone behind it, but would have done less to secure Israeli settlements, and inflicted much less hardship on the Palestinian people. The infliction of some suffering on Palestinians in order to safeguard the Israeli population is, I think, quite defensible. The infliction of much more suffering in order to safeguard a small number of additional Israeli settlers is not.

But even beyond this, by far the most controversial Sharon initiative has been the refusal to enter into any negotiations with a Palestinian Authority led by Yasser Arafat. I don't think one can reasonably deny at this point that that policy has, in some sense, "worked." What's made it work, however, is that Arafat conveniently died. Policy initiatives that work thanks to good luck are, in fact, policy initiatives that worked. Nevertheless, I don't think critics of the policy owe Sharon any apologies here. One assesses these things based on their ex ante prospects for success. I'm glad that things now seem to be moving forward, but this is much more a result of fortuitous circumstance than of wise policymaking.

Chait concedes, of course, that there was some element of luck here, but asserts 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." This would strike me as a sound point if what had happened during the Palestinian election was that Abbas won a free and fair election against a popular, more rejectionist leader. But that isn't actually what happened. Instead, Abbas' leading rival was basically forced out of the race by a combination of pressure from external actors (not just the US, but also the EU and, it seems, the leading Arab governments) and the much-disparaged Fatah leadership. Basically, Arafat died and then the international community muscled Abbas in as his replacement.

This may well all work out in the end. I don't share the widespread pessimism about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in many ways it seems that between Abbas' rise and the dawning of a Likud-Labor coalition (with Shinui in the wings) and Sharon's slow-but-steady gutting of the Likud rejectionists we really may see significant progress in the near future. Certainly, I hope so. But at the same time, the set of policies that brought us here has been crueler than it needed to be on its own terms, and insofar as it's worked at all has worked thanks to hefty doses of good luck.

Last but by no means least, I'm going to make one final point that requires me to constantly re-iterate that I'm Jewish, lest the anti-semitism police come after me. But (I'm Jewish) I (I'm Jewish) hold (I'm Jewish) to (I'm Jewish) the (I'm Jewish) radical (I'm Jewish) proposition (I'm Jewish) that (I'm Jewish) America's (I'm Jewish) policy (I'm Jewish) toward (I'm Jewish) Israel (I'm Jewish) should (I'm Jewish) be (I'm Jewish) primarily (I'm Jewish) concerned (I'm Jewish) with (I'm Jewish) the (I'm Jewish) interests (I'm Jewish) of (I'm Jewish) America (I'm Jewish) and (I'm Jewish) not (I'm Jewish) those (I'm Jewish) of (I'm Jewish) Israel (I'm Jewish). Insistence from Bush that Sharon deal with Arafat as long as Arafat was alive and in power very well might not have accomplished anything in terms of solving the conflict or protecting Israelis from terrorism, but it certainly would have advanced other US foreign policy goals.

Now let's conclude by saying that I think it's clear the Palestinian leadership under Arafat likewise made any number of decisions over the past five years that have also been unwise, immoral, or some combination of the two and (I'm Jewish -- but unironically this time!) I find it somewhat grating that criticism is so overwhelmingly directed at unwise/immoral decisions undertaken by Israeli leaders.

February 19, 2005 | Permalink

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