Netanyahu’s government has greeted Palestinians’ Arab Spring protests with bullets. Leslie H. Gelb on the dangers of an Israeli overreaction.
The Arab Spring has come crashing onto Israel’s doorstep. It was bound to happen. Eventually, Palestinians unhappy with their lot would take inspiration from their rebelling Arab brethren throughout the region and turn against Israel, their nemesis. Equally inevitable, Israel is responding, fearfully, with bullets. Arab dictators in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere can get away with force against their protesters. Those dictators can even keep killing until their rebels’ voices are silenced. But for a true democracy like Israel, a country all too familiar with history’s tragedies, shooting unarmed people never sits well and cannot be the answer.
Despite the perils of force, however, extending the olive branch is not the answer either. Offers of conciliation or negotiation would only incite the Palestinian protesters to greater demands and perhaps greater violence themselves. By all previous reckoning, they would interpret Israel’s out-stretched hand as a sign of weakness. Besides, Israel was defending its borders. And those borders with Lebanon, Syria, and others are every bit as “established” as Poland’s now incorporating big chunks of Prussia or France possessing Alsace-Lorraine. These European borders are the product of conquest, just like Israel’s. Further, it would be folly to forget what Israelis can never remove from their minds: the Palestinians crushing against the borders don’t really want to negotiate with Israel; their goal is to destroy the state of Israel.
Thus, it was not surprising that the Palestinian border protests erupted last Sunday on the anniversary of Israel’s founding in 1948. The Palestinians crashed across fences and other barricades on four fronts: Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank. The numbers varied from a hundred or so on the Golan Heights plateau captured by Israel in 1967 to hundreds elsewhere. The moves were obviously coordinated. Hezbollah clearly helped the Palestinians get to the Lebanon/Israeli border, and protesters could not have approached the Golan Heights without the approval of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Estimates put the death toll around 12, with 300 injured. It appears that Israeli troops tried nonlethal measures before resorting to live ammunition as people broke through the lines.
Israeli leaders are not so foolish as to believe they’ve seen the last of these border rushes. Assad may well have incited his Palestinian refugees in order to divert attention from his troops killing Syrians. Or he may be warning Washington and Israel to not oppose his internal brutality too strenuously—for, after all, he keeps the peace with Israel. He might be trying to suggest that the West has more to fear from Syrian rebels than from Damascus itself. And he may well be right. As for Hezbollah, it never worries about tweaking Israel, especially if the costs are measured only in Palestinian lives.
As long as Israel doesn’t kill Palestinians in sizeable numbers, Washington will stay its critical hand. Thus far, the White House has expressed solidarity with Israel’s right to defend its borders and sympathy with Palestinian victims. When President Obama stands before the cameras at the State Department on Thursday, he will unload his first major Mideast speech since the Arab Spring began almost three months ago. In it, he is not expected to go beyond the usual rhetoric urging peace upon Israel and Palestine. Administration officials say the president knows that neither side is ready for concessions, and the White House will not buck this reality once again. If Obama breaks any appreciable new ground in his speech, it will be to shower pails full of sympathy on Arab demonstrators for freedom and democracy. This time, he will make perfectly clear that his heart is with the Arab people. But his subsequent actions will remain case by case and circumspect.
For a true democracy like Israel, a country all too familiar with history’s tragedies, shooting unarmed people never sits well and cannot be the answer.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel will deliver his own Mideast speech on May 24 before a special joint session of Congress. He, too, will protest sympathy with Arabs who fight for democracy. But he will also make plain that it's got to be "real" democracy guaranteed by law, civil institutions, and checks and balances on power. (Obama might say as much as well.) Of course, Netanyahu and Obama will rehearse the Iran menace, perhaps in considerable detail. Finally, Netanyahu's people are still trying to get him to present something dramatic on the peace front, but that remains very much up in the air.
Meantime, Israel has to take great care to protect its borders with an absolute minimum of force. The Arab Spring may lose its bounce in the sweltering summer, under a hail of Arab bullets, or under the prospect of those bullets. Jerusalem has to make sure that Arab democrats are not distracted by Israel and stay focused on their own countries. Israelis don’t want them to turn their populist wrath on Israel. That would not be good for either Israel or the United States.
Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.