November/December 2000
An Israeli tank advances near Beit Jala

The Politics of Weakness

(December 19 2000) - As the Knesset is thrown into turmoil by Prime Minister Ehud Barak's resignation ploy, his foreign minister has been sent to Washington in a no longer disguised effort to negotiate a sweeping agreement under fire. Barak's attempt to compete with Arafat in the politics of weakness is breathtakingly irresponsible and anti-democratic.

Until now it seemed that it was Yasser Arafat who always managed to play the politics of weakness with great effect, always claiming that he could not abide by the agreements he signed, or was forced into ever greater waves of violence, because of the radical forces waiting in the wings. Binyamin Netanyahu also played the weakness card from time to time, pointing to the right-wingers within his cabinet waiting to topple him.

Now Barak is doing them one better. His government is not just threatening to fall, it has collapsed, and he has resigned. Netanyahu or Ariel Sharon wait in the wings, and are ahead in the polls. And Barak has pathetically gone from imposing ultimatums, to pretending not to negotiate, to openly negotiating as Israelis continue to be hunted down by Arafat's bands and some Jerusalem residents hide behind concrete walls and sandbags.

"Judge me by results," said Barak soon after his election, when his trademark zigzag style became evident. This is a fair, even necessary, request from the public by a leader. Yet what Barak seems to have failed to realize is that "results" are not just about arriving, like a commando, at a destination, but how you get there.

Barak himself gave the most stunning example of how process can matter as much as outcome when he withdrew Israel unilaterally from Lebanon. On a strategic level, there was a strong case that Israel was staying in Lebanon out of weakness and inertia, and that the border could be better defended with a combination of serious deterrence and obtaining the high moral and legal ground. But in this case, the "how" was critical: By running out of Lebanon on Hizbullah's schedule, under cover of darkness with thousands of the IDF's south Lebanese allies (the SLA) scrambling for their lives, the strategic withdrawal became a rout.

The serial buckling of first the SLA and then the IDF looked like the detonation of an empty apartment building, elegantly collapsing on itself. The collapse may have been deliberate, but it happened too quickly and easily, indicating that another slight push could induce a similar collapse again.

Without knowing the exact details of the agreement being discussed, we already know three very dangerous things about it. First, it is being negotiated at a point of maximum weakness and under fire. Second, it is being negotiated by a government that can no longer claim to represent a majority of Israelis. Third, it is being negotiated by a leader with a massive conflict of interest between his political survival and the need to be able to walk away from a bad agreement.

Nor has the government denied that what is being discussed is "Camp David-plus," where the plus is even deeper Israeli concessions in Jerusalem. While Barak helpfully reassures us that he would "never" relinquish sovereignty on the Temple Mount, and Jerusalem would be "strengthened" by an agreement, both of these pledges seem to amount to Orwellian obfuscation.

Let us be clear: Anything that separates the heart of Jerusalem, the Old City, from Israel is dividing Jerusalem, not "strengthening" or "expanding" it. It is true that it is possible to modify Jerusalem's municipal boundaries as defined by Israel after the Six Day War without necessarily dividing Jerusalem or changing its essential character. But it is not the relatively new Arab neighborhoods and suburbs in eastern Jerusalem that are in question, but the heart of the city that has symbolized the return to Jewish sovereignty after two millennia.

Over these many centuries, the Jewish people came to see a return to sovereignty in general and to Jerusalem in particular as an abstraction. Some Israelis seem to think that since to them the Old City is a quaint tourist attraction, returning Israel's bond with it to the level of abstraction is a price worth praying for peace. The problem with this theory is that the Palestinians and the Arab world have given no indication that sacrificing Israel's most prized patrimony will bring real peace.

Even in a neighborhood more forgiving than the one in which we live, a country that gives up half its capital and renders access to its holiest sites hostage to the good will of a predictably hostile power is asking for trouble, not peace. In leaving Lebanon we learned that even a withdrawal to the last millimeter, signed and certified by the United Nations, did not prevent Hizbullah (with Lebanese and Syrian backing) from finding an excuse for continuing to attack Israel. A final status agreement, even one that claims to bring the "end of the conflict," will have varied interpretations that the Palestinians could attempt to resolve through the use of force. Israel cannot create a situation in which, at the drop of a hat, the Palestinians can turn all of Jerusalem into Belfast, Sarajevo, or even Gilo.

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