I am in Israel -- my first time -- to cover the Herzliya Conference, the country's premier national security forum.
(Full disclosure: My trip, as well as that of several other journalists, was underwritten by the Emergency Committee for Israel, which seeks "to educate the public about the serious challenges to Israel's security." The views here are my own.)
One of the few things that critics and friends of Israel can agree on is that Israel is different, a special sort of nation representing a special idea. That's true whether you subscribe to the heroic narrative, popularized by Leon Uris, of Israel's birth or the sadly more familiar anti-colonialist fable so popular among the campus left and the anti-Israel industry.This is especially so for America's so-called realists. Whether they are sympathetic to Israel or scornful, they are convinced U.S. support for Israel fuels hatred and instability. Hence their obsession with the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
For instance, last night here in Herzliya, former Obama National Security Advisor James Jones said that if God were to have visited Barack Obama in 2009 with instructions on how to "make the world a better place and give more people hope and opportunity for the future," it would involve finding a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian issue. In 2009, when Jones was still Obama's NSA advisor, he told "J Street" -- the "pro-Israel" lobby that isn't very pro-Israel -- that if he could just solve one problem in the world, it would be the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the "epicenter" of U.S. foreign policy.
Such thinking falls somewhere between wild exaggeration and dangerous nonsense. Iran's pursuing nuclear weapons. Al-Qaeda remains dedicated to our destruction. Turkey, a once-staunch ally, is Islamifying. Russia is careening toward autocracy and China is on the march. Oh, and the United States is fighting two land wars. But the national security advisor's No. 1 priority was keeping Israelis from building houses in East Jerusalem? Really?
Also, how would a two-state solution bring more hope and opportunity to the world's poor? Or to those dying from AIDS or living under the yoke of dictatorship?
This, too, is the product of treating Israel like an abstraction. Obviously, the Palestinians' plight (real and imagined) contributes to the Middle East's problems. But it's not the source of those problems, and it is not the key to solving them either.
In Egypt, the popular uprising unfolding is not about Israel, but about autocratic brutality, economic stagnation and skyrocketing prices. The same goes for Tunisia as well as the popular protests brutally crushed by Iran's mullahs in 2009. Turkey isn't Islamifying because of the Palestinians. Al-Qaeda surely hates Israel, but its roots lay in hatred of the Saudi royal family and the Islamist ambitions of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
And yet the "realist" fantasy that an Arabs-first (or Muslims-first) foreign policy will yield rich rewards endures. The French went that route. They nurtured the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in exile. They pander to Arab sensibilities. And what has it gotten them? A lot of burning cars but few lucrative oil deals.
As we've recently been reminded, Israel is the only truly democratic regime in the region, and therefore the most stable. But, somehow, if we were more conciliatory to dictators and more sympathetic to the "Arab street," the region would be more stable? Please.
No doubt this is what the solons of American foreign policy hear from their Arab and Muslim interlocutors. Because that's what the autocrats want everyone to believe, starting with their own subjects. Tyrants always want to focus on scapegoats, insults to national honor and shadowy enemies. Why apologize for skyrocketing bread prices when you can demonize the "Zionist entity"?
As one very prominent Israeli here explains, the international community is like the man who only wants to look for his wallet where the light is good. The real problems in the region are just too hard, particularly when any effort to take attention off the Palestinians is greeted with outrage from an anti-Israel industry that singles out Israel as the worst human-rights abuser in the neighborhood. Israel puts Arab critics in the Knesset. Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia put them in jail -- or in an unmarked grave.
All of this would be just as true if Israel retreated to the 1949 armistice lines tomorrow.
Israel's realists know this because they can't afford the self-indulgent abstractions and the cynical lies that pass for "realism" outside its borders.