Around this time last year I attended a supposedly world-class counter-terrorism conference in Tel Aviv. I was mostly disappointed by the conference’s quality, but I did enjoy gaining some perspective on how Israelis think about their own security. I also enjoyed hanging out with some US military colleagues and using the conference lectures as a springboard for discussion.
I didn’t plan to go back, but with so much happening in this part of the world right now — rapidly mounting pressure to attack Iran, the debate over settlement freezes, the farce of a peace process — I ultimately decided it was worth getting another look at what the Israelis are thinking. I also wanted an excuse to hang out with my American friends in Tel Aviv.
I mostly have the same critiques that I did last year, with one big exception. Last year I felt like nobody wanted to take a critical look at themselves and ask hard questions about Israel’s current policies and future. This year some very distinguished speakers did exactly that. They discussed how Israel’s social cohesion is unraveling and how little consensus there is on many foreign policy decisions. There was a lot of concern about Israel’s rapid de-legitimization around the world. One speaker even brought up Time’s recent article “Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace.“ He criticized those who cry “anti-Semitism!” and suggested that when their friends hold up a mirror, maybe Israelis need to take a look. (I personally think the subject is vital, but thought it was a lousy article)
I was glad to hear this frank talk. It reassures me that many Israelis really are thinking about their future and grappling with the most difficult questions.
I had a few interesting experiences while at the conference. A US Army colleague and I met Lee Smith, author of The Strong Horse — which I had read the week prior. We skipped some conference sessions to talk a couple hours, then went out to dinner and for drinks. Regrettably, after six hours together and entirely too much beer, we did not solve any of the region’s problems. Maybe next time. There’s a lot that Lee and I don’t agree about, but I enjoyed the opportunity to discuss and debate with somebody who has a sharp mind and thinks differently from me. I was sincerely challenged to think more on some issues and consider new perspectives.
I spoke with a few Israelis about my experiences living in Jordan. These conversations were enlightening because they showed me how little the two sides talk to each other. One scholarly Israeli told me that he had never met an Arab who supported a two-state peace deal with Israel — friends assured him that they existed, but he’d never met one. I was shocked to hear that, because almost every Jordanian I know supports a fair two-state solution (the enormous challenge, of course, being how the two sides define “fair” and whether a fair solution is even possible at this point). In fact, I recently attended a conference in Jordan on that very subject. I felt vindicated in my personal mission of trying to understand the two sides, then help them communicate with and understand each other.
I frequently encountered the belief — among both Israelis and Americans — that the Palestinian question isn’t really that important, because giving the Palestinians a state wouldn’t solve anything. I disagree with that logic. A Palestinian state certainly wouldn’t solve all the region’s problems, but it would address the single loudest complaint raised against Israel by the international community. It would allow Israel to regain the moral high ground, and be in a much stronger moral position to fight any future battles. And I personally think a fair deal would be more stable than the Israelis think. The Egypt and Jordan peace treaties have held up remarkably well. Based on my experience in Jordan, at least, really do mean it when they say they want a peace deal based on a two-state solution.
In other respects, I found myself sympathizing with the Israelis more after being in Israel — particularly over the questions of Iran and Hizballah. It’s relatively easy for an American to gamble that Iran won’t actually use a nuclear weapon if it obtains one; even if we’re wrong, life still goes on. But as I explored Tel Aviv — running along the beach, watching children ride their bicycles through the streets on Yom Kippur, dining with my friend’s family on their apartment balcony — I could feel something of what the Israelis must feel: the grim knowledge that all this really could be erased in an instant. I’m not making a policy prescription here; I’m just saying that I can understand why American and Israeli perspectives have diverged on the Iran issue.
On the subject of Hizballah, I read ICG’s recent report on “Israel and the Axis of Resistance” and an excellent WINEP report about what an Israeli-Hizballah war might look (thanks to Exum for the link). I’ll admit it: I’m scared.
I have no answers, but one thing is for sure: the problems in this region are going to get far worse before they have a chance at getting better.