True to his campaign promise to restore diplomacy to its rightful place in American foreign policy, Barack Obama is initiating “discussions” with Syria intended to resolve a whole host of divisive issues, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the conflict with Israel, and the festering problem of the Palestinian Arabs. Presumably, Syria “wants to engage,” according to Martin S. Indyk, Clinton’s Middle East peace negotiator, though The New York Times story did not tell us why Syria should talk now. Nor are we told what boon we can offer that could change Syria’s behavior, which includes murdering Lebanese politicians, funding and supplying Hamas and Hizbollah, and helping jihadists make their way to Iraq.
The implication of this latest news is that the previous administration, filled with unilateralist, trigger-happy neocon cowboys, worsened the crisis in the Middle East by refusing to talk with countries like Syria. This bit of received wisdom, like most liberal dogma, is misleading at best. For decades, Israel and the United States have talked with Syria, all to no avail. As Bret Stephens documents in the latest Commentary, “when it comes to the Syria track, the U.S. and Israel have walked down this road before, again and again, almost always with disappointing results.” Stephens’ survey of these efforts reveals a stark truth: talks with Syria will fail because the whole premise of these talks, that Syria sincerely wants peace with Israel, is flawed, as the record of Syria’s previous negotiations––filled with escalating demands, calculated snubs and insults of U.S. and Israeli politicians, and arrogant dismissals of generous Israeli offers––confirms.
Syria’s behavior is typical of most of the diplomatic activity over the years in the Middle East. We in the West assume that the Arab countries really want peace and coexistence with Israel, if only the Palestinian Arabs get their own state and the “occupation” is ended. So we send folks to talk over these issues, we hear only what we want to hear, we pressure Israel into making concessions and offers, the offers are turned down because of some demand, such as the right of return for Palestinian “refugees,” that would lead to Israel’s suicide, and then the whole process ends with Israel excoriated on the world stage for her stubborn recalcitrance, and the U.S. condemned for not putting enough pressure on Israel to make a deal. (Yes, Israel made “peace” with Egypt, a very cold one. But Egypt after three wars knew it could not defeat Israel militarily, and it was bribed with the Sinai and 2 billion dollars a year in U.S. aid. If you want to test the firmness of that peace, imagine what would happen if that aid should cease.)
Despite this record of failure, few people stop to examine the underlying assumption behind all these conferences and summits and meetings. If we attend to deeds rather than the soothing words intended for Western consumption, we find little evidence that any Arab nation wants real peace with Israel, for the simple reason that to the Muslim Middle East, Israel is an abomination in the eyes of Allah, a nation of despised former dhimmi that has created the richest, most powerful country in the Middle East. If Israel can’t be wiped out with armies in the short term, then tactics can be employed (summits, conferences, etc.) that buy time for the incremental assaults from terrorism, Arab demography, European hostility, Israeli exhaustion, and American failure of nerve, to do their work and make Israel disappear. In this strategy, even Egypt’s “peace” with Israel makes not only sense, but also profit from the various sorts of aid and other bribes extorted from the West on the vague promise that the Arabs accept the “two-state” solution and truly accept Israel’s existence.
In fact, more evidence suggests quite the opposite: Israel’s long-term survival is anathema to the Muslim Middle East. Nor have countries like Syria been reticent about their true strategic aims. In 1999, after yet another conference attempting to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, Syrian foreign minister Farouq al-Shara, as Stephens reports, “delivered a speech to the Arab Writers Union in which he explained that Syria’s interest in a negotiated settlement with Israel had nothing to do with actually coming to terms with Israel’s right to exist, but rather that the recovery of the Golan Heights was merely a stage on the road to the destruction of Israel. Assad’s government ‘believes that regaining the whole of Palestine is a long-term strategic goal that could not be implemented in one phase,’ said Shara. ‘[Our] doctrine draws a distinction between the different phases of the struggle for the liberation of Palestine.’” This same “stages” strategy, of course, has driven the Palestinian approach to Israel, and explains better than does Israel’s stubbornness or the U.S.’s foreign policy errors the documented fact that the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected deals that would have given them what they say they want.
Yet here we are again, sending envoys filled with mistaken assumptions about the aims of the adversary, despite the lessons of history that expose the error of those assumptions. But it’s not just recent history that the Obama team is forgetting. Autocrats and tyrants have always used diplomacy and negotiation as tools for misdirecting their enemies and masking their true intentions in order to buy time. The history of Hitler’s incremental aggression before the 1939 invasion of Poland––the annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia–– is instructive in this regard.
Like the Arabs, Hitler also had a “stages” strategy that depended on Western gullibility and weakness until the time the Wehrmacht was ready for the military phase. The first stage was the manufacturing of an excuse to interfere in the politics of Germany’s eastern neighbors. The pretext for Hitler’s move against Austria and Czechoslovakia was the presumed oppression against the ethnic Germans in those states. Just as the Middle East regimes today claim that their hostility to Israel results from the maltreatment of the Palestinians, Hitler justified his aggression as in fact the liberation of his fellow Germans from alien regimes. His real aim, of course, was to solidify Germany’s southeastern flank before turning against Poland and then France. Thus he was not interested in a diplomatic solution, but simply used these negotiations to mask his real intentions and bluff Britain and France into giving up what Germany at that point could not take militarily. That’s why in 1938 he instructed the German stooge in Czechoslovakia, Konrad Heinlein, “We must always demand so much that we cannot be satisfied.” As Donald Kagan writes in his invaluable history of this period in The Origins of War, “Throughout the ensuing crisis the British chose to accept at face value the claims of Hitler to be concerned only with the legitimate complaints of the Sudeten Germans, refusing to recognize the mounting evidence to the contrary.” The sorry denouement came a few months later in Munich, when England and France––the “little worms,” as Hitler called them later––abandoned a democratic Czechoslovakia to the Nazis.
The record of diplomatic attempts to create peace between Israel and her Arab enemies has followed a similar pattern. The West has acted on mistaken assumptions about the Muslim nations’ motives, and consequently the West has failed to make peace. Meanwhile, a terrorist statelet has arisen in southern Lebanon, another is developing in Gaza, and Iran, the state sponsor of both Hamas and Hizbollah, is ever closer to possessing the nuclear means to take the destruction of Israel to the next stage. Yet the West, hunting the two-state solution that will deliver “peace,” pours billions in Western aid into the region, watches its high-ranking diplomats bamboozled and insulted, and helps to weaken Israel’s security by pressing for more and more concessions. The Western dogs of diplomacy bark, but the caravan of Muslim hatred of Israel moves on.