Sleepwalking Into World War III
Trump’s Dangerous Militarization of Foreign Policy
In “The Dream Palace of the Americans” (November/December 2019), Michael Doran reviews the past 70 years of Arab-Israeli conflict and concludes that Israel will not “give back at the negotiating table what it has taken on the battlefield” because power dynamics in the Middle East favor Israel over its rivals. This realpolitik view, he says, should guide the United States’ policy in the region, which should proceed from the premise that there will be no two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But this conclusion ignores an inconvenient reality: power dynamics change. That is precisely why Israel has sometimes handed back territories that it took on the battlefield. In 1979, it returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt after a long negotiation process. In 2000, it withdrew from southern Lebanon after judging that the benefits of staying were not worth the costs that the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah could inflict. And in 2005, similar calculations, along with demographic pressures, led Israel to withdraw from Gaza.
At the heart of these withdrawals were a series of assessments by Israel that shifts in the relative power of its rivals required a change in strategy. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egypt crossed the Suez Canal and rapidly moved into the Sinai Peninsula, demonstrating that it commanded modern military technologies and was able to innovatively deploy them in a time frame shorter than most Israeli experts had expected. Egypt’s aggression challenged Israel’s security doctrine, which since the 1967 war had been premised on military dominance, and proved that Israeli superiority was far from guaranteed. This major shift in the Middle East’s strategic landscape paved the way for the 1978 Camp David peace accords and the Egyptian-Israeli “land for peace” deal, which has proved durable for over 40 years.
Today, Israel’s technological, military, and economic power are significantly greater than those of its opponents combined. But what happened in the mid-1970s could happen again. Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah have built up serious offensive capabilities on Israel’s northern borders. Hamas, taking notes from Hezbollah’s experience, has been able to disrupt life in southern Israel. If those actors were to enhance their cooperation and use increasingly accessible technologies, such as missiles with cyber-capabilities, they could bridge the power differential with Israel. Such an alliance would not aim to defeat Israel but instead strive to increase the cost it would bear in any confrontation with the coalition’s members. These changes could alter Israel’s security calculus.
Even if this possibility seems remote, the fact remains that successful societies should not base their security doctrines on their presumed perpetual ability to control others. In Israel, it took an experienced soldier with a strategic vision, Yitzhak Rabin, to see this. His insight was that Israel cannot—and does not want to—permanently control a large population that seeks independence. By the time he became Israel’s prime minister for a second term, in 1992, Rabin saw that Israel’s long-term security required a viable Palestinian state, albeit one that would pose no threat to Israel. And he understood that “land for peace” was the only workable formula. (Rabin was attacked on several fronts for the talks that emerged from that insight, but ultimately, it was an ultranationalist Israeli who killed Rabin in 1995.)
Rabin understood that “land for peace” was the only workable formula.
Doran’s essay also includes several mischaracterizations. For example, he presents the 1967 Six-Day War as a struggle between Soviet-backed Arab states and Israel, with the United States as a mere observer. In fact, the United States had previously decided to support Israel, particularly against the Arab nationalist movements gaining force at the time, and Washington was intimately involved in Israel’s preparation for and execution of the war. Doran also errs in accusing the Arab states of distorting the meaning of UN Security Council Resolution 242. The resolution called on Israel to withdraw “from territories occupied” in the 1967 war—using a phrase that Doran claims was “deliberately ambiguous.” The Arab states, he writes, later insisted that the resolution required Israel to withdraw from all those territories, even though the Americans made sure that the words “all of the” did not appear in what Doran calls “the official text.” But the Arabs’ position was based on the French version of the resolution, which clearly demands that Israel withdraw from all the territories it occupied during the war. According to the UN Charter, both versions have equal legal weight; the French text is no less official than the English one.
Doran lauds the Trump administration for “playing power politics rather than trying to move the world beyond them” and for “challenging people’s illusions” about the Middle East. But if the administration’s ideas about the region resemble Doran’s, then it will merely be acting on another set of illusions.
TAREK OSMAN is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam From the Fall of the Ottoman Empire to the Rise of ISIS.
I argued that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as traditionally envisioned, is unrealistic and that the Trump administration is wise to adjust U.S. policy accordingly. Tarek Osman responds by asserting that, although it may seem unrealistic today, “power dynamics change.”
The question, however, is not whether power dynamics might change in the future but whether they are likely to do so. In this case, they are not. For the two-state solution to become viable, Hamas must collapse, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank must craft a shared vision of the future, and then they must march in lockstep toward a compromise with Israel. The number of stars that must align for this vision to become reality is too great to count.
Yet for a quarter century, U.S. leaders have stubbornly insisted on treating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as if it were ripe for settlement. Between 1993 and 2017, three presidents and dozens of their senior aides invested thousands of hours in pursuit of a permanent peace agreement. No other diplomatic goal has received this level of sustained attention across administrations. The meager fruits of this work do not justify the massive investment.
The number of stars that must align for the two-state solution to become reality is too great to count.
In support of his belief that the two-state solution is within reach, Osman invokes the memory of Yitzhak Rabin. A seasoned military man and political leader, Rabin was no starry-eyed peacemaker, and yet he was still ready to make painful compromises. Osman’s depiction of Rabin echoes that presented by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who often laments that were it not for Rabin’s assassination, the Israelis and the Palestinians would have signed a peace agreement.
This is a saccharine myth that ignores the chasm between Rabin’s and Clinton’s positions. The vision Rabin pursued was not compatible with the parameters Clinton presented to negotiators in 2000, which proposed a Palestinian state in 94 to 96 percent of the West Bank and Palestinian sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem. In a speech made before the Knesset a month before his assassination, Rabin described the Palestinian entity that he expected to emerge from the Oslo accords. It would be, he explained, “less than a state.” It would accept Israeli control over the Jordan Valley and a unified Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty. Rabin’s vision was, on the other hand, far more compatible with the so-called deal of the century—the peace plan that the Trump administration recently announced. And President Donald Trump’s proposal reflects a broad consensus in Israeli politics: both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz have applauded the deal.
Osman also devotes much effort to validating the Arab interpretation of Resolution 242, namely, that Israel must withdraw from all the territory it occupied after the 1967 war. Osman’s points on this subject are entirely academic. No U.S. administration has ever accepted that interpretation of the resolution. The American and British drafters of it regarded the English-language text as the definitive version, and they took pains to ensure that it supported their preferred outcome—a withdrawal of Israeli forces from only some of the occupied territories, and only after Israel’s neighbors recognized its new borders. The American architects saw “land for peace” as a way of compelling Israel’s enemies to compromise. President Richard Nixon and his adviser Henry Kissinger developed “land for peace” into a coherent doctrine, but President Jimmy Carter subsequently turned it on its head, fashioning it into a tool for forcing concessions from Israel rather than from its neighbors.
The Oslo accords used Carter’s approach as a template. But Oslo was born at a unique point in time—the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union—when the laws of power politics seemed suspended and miracles seemed possible. No one would claim that we are living in such a moment now. Nevertheless, what became known as the Clinton Parameters continued to drive American policy until the advent of the Trump administration.
Osman is right that power dynamics change, but in the last 25 years in the Middle East, they have changed mostly for the worse. Washington has seen the rise of Iran, the disintegration of Arab states, the advent of jihadism, the reemergence of Russia as a spoiler, and the deterioration of U.S.-Turkish relations. In the face of these troubling developments, the United States has become increasingly ambivalent about its leadership role in the region.
But not all changes have been negative. Israel has emerged as an economic powerhouse, especially in its high-tech sector, and it has developed an unprecedented closeness with the Gulf states. More than ever before, Washington’s interests lie in building Israeli power to shore up the battered U.S. regional security structure, not in tearing it down in the pursuit of a peace fantasy.
In this context, it is the responsibility of Palestinian leaders, whose politics remain riddled with irredentism, to prove that their nationalism can promote international peace and stability. Trump’s plan reflects this new reality. It returns to the original understanding of “land for peace” and to the Nixonian idea of how to fashion a successful Middle East strategy. If they desire American partnership and assistance, the onus is once again on Israel’s rivals to demonstrate that their aspirations serve the United States’ interests.