Mitchell Bard: Will Israel Survive? (Interview)

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Mitchell Bard, the Executive Director of the non-profit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) and one of the leading authorities on U.S.-Middle East policy. Dr. Bard is also the director of the Jewish Virtual Library. Bard holds a Ph.D. in political science from UCLA and has written and edited 18 books, including Myths and Facts: A Guide to the Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict and 1001 Facts Everyone Should Know About Israel. He is the author of the new book, Will Israel Survive?

FP: Mitchell Bard, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Bard: It's a pleasure.

FP: What inspired you to write this book?

Bard: I have been increasingly frustrated by the simplistic coverage of the media and the policy prescriptions of former officials who had records of failure when in power and now are viewed as having special insight. I also wanted to summarize in one place what I believe to be the most important elements to understand Israel's challenges and opportunities.

FP: Who is one former official who comes to mind who had a record of failure when in power and is now viewed as having special insight? Can you talk a bit about what his failure was and what you think of some of his recent “insights”?

Bard: I don't think I want to single out any one person. You can choose just about anyone who worked at the State Department, which has had a perfect 60 year record of failure in the Middle East.

I would say the one general consistent failure is the belief that a U.S. peace plan is required to settle the conflict. Every administration has offered a plan and they have all been failures primarily because the continuation of the conflict is not a result of a lack of a formula, it is a product of the unwillingness of the Arabs to accept Israel.

When Egyptian President Sadat and Jordan's King Hussein were prepared to coexist with Israel it was possible to reach peace agreements. In neither case was it an American peace initiative that brought about those agreements.

Ok, this makes me bring up one particular individual who deserves singling out for being consistently wrong and that is Jimmy Carter. I have a long analysis of everything he got wrong in his book on the Jewish Virtual Library web site, but the key point that few people understand is that Sadat went to Jerusalem and broke the psychological barrier that made peace with Egypt possible because he believed Carter's policy was so wrong-headed that he could never achieve his goals if he did not take independent action. Carter certainly helped facilitate hammering out the details of the treaty, but Israel's agreement with Egypt was achieved despite Carter rather than because of his policies.

FP: Aside from the terror threat, what are some other realities that make Israel’s survival very precarious?

Bard: The principal danger to Israel's existence is Iran's nuclear ambition. Israel can live with the other dangers, such as internal divisions, water shortages and even the demographic imbalance, but it is less certain that Israel can survive if an enemy has both the will and ability to use nuclear weapons against it.

FP: What are your thoughts on U.S. Middle East policy?

Bard: Unfortunately U.S. policy is largely driven by the State Department whose principal goal is to placate the Middle East oil producers. Iraq is a separate issue, but when it comes to Israel, President Bush has been on the right path for the most part, but is constantly tugged by the State Department into engaging in futile diplomatic gestures that usually make the situation worse. This is the case now with the effort to bolster the incompetent, weak and corrupt Abbas regime.

FP: With the Hamas-Fatah struggle in front of, what alternative is there to supporting Abbas? It is clear the Abbas regime is also a terrorist regime, but some would argue it is the lesser of two evils. What other options are there?

Bard: Israel always should pursue whatever opportunities are available to achieve agreements with its neighbors. The Israeli people crave peace and that is why they have been prepared to make often risky compromises dating to the days of the mandate and including everything from accepting partition to Sadat's mere promise of peace in exchange for the Sinai to the disengagement. I am not an opponent of talking as it rarely does any harm, but I know that from the time Abbas first became prime minister under Arafat no one in Israel had any faith in his ability to deliver. Khaled Abu Toameh, a journalist for the Jerusalem Post, also made the keen observation that the more Israel and the United States try to help Abbas, the weaker they make him because in the eyes of many Palestinians he is seen as a collaborator rather than as a strong independent leader.

FP: Can you talk a bit about the complexity of the conflict that Israel’s faces?

Bard: If the conflict were just political, it would be relatively simple to resolve. You could say it's two people fighting over one land and divide it. But it's not just about politics. It's about psychology, history, religion, geography and politics. You can't understand the obstacles to peace, for example, unless you examine the Arab feelings of shame and humiliation associated with the repeated defeats at the hands of the Jews. Similarly, you can't understand Israel's position without taking into account the trauma of the Holocaust or the surprise and near defeat in 1973.

FP: In terms of the Arab feelings of shame and humiliation associated with the repeated defeats at the hands of the Jews, many Arabs till this day are still in denial that this actually happened, no? There is some kind of pathological mindset here isn’t there? Many Arabs simply cannot accept that Allah would allow a defeat at the hands of the Jews and yet that is exactly what happened. This leads to all sorts of psychological pathologies, correct?

Bard: Psychology is crucial to understanding the situation in the Middle East. As you say, one issue is the inability of many Muslims to believe the Jews or any infidels could defeat the warriors of Allah. They must avenge their defeats before it is possible to even consider coexistence. In terms of Egypt, one of the keys to making peace possible was the success of the Egyptians in surprising and nearly defeating Israel in 1973. That allowed them to regain their honor after the humiliation of 1967 and allowed Sadat to pursue peace. Remember Sadat was assassinated at a parade commemorating the "victory" in 73. Some Muslims cannot believe that Israel is not a threat to them because they cannot conceive of a powerful country that would not use its strength to expand its territory. And this point about psychology does not just apply to Israel. Look at Iraq. Much of the killing going on is between Shiite and Sunni Muslims that has to do with the desire to exact revenge on each other for various wrongs committed over centuries.

FP: Crystallize for us how geographical factors play a role in all of this.

Bard: People who have never been to Israel usually can't appreciate these factors. I took a helicopter from the airport on the beach in Tel Aviv and flew across the entire width of Israel - it took 7 minutes. You can stand in the almost mythic land known commonly as the West Bank and be 15 minutes outside Jerusalem and stand on a hill where you can look the other direction across the country and see the coast. It's as if someone came to visit me here in Washington, DC, and I took them to the top of the Washington Monument and said, "Look, there's San Francisco!" In Jerusalem, the Muslim holy places on the Temple Mount are literally on top of Judaism's holiest site and the Christian Church of the Holy Sepulcher is just around the corner. If you don't take into account the geography and topography of Israel, you cannot appreciate what is involved in establishing the secure and defensible borders called for in UN Security Council Resolution 242.

FP: For the sake of some readers that might not know, can you define what UN Security Council Resolution 242 is?

Bard: This is the resolution adopted after the Six-Day War in 1967 that has been accepted by all parties as the basis for peace. It is often misunderstood and mischaracterized. Put simply, Israel is expected to withdraw from territory it captured in exchange for peace. The resolution's framers made clear that Israel was not expected to withdraw from all the territory because the pre-1967 boundaries were indefensible. Since the end of the war, Israel has repeatedly expressed a willingness to make territorial concessions and when it found an Arab partner willing to give peace in return, agreements were signed. Israel has said it will give up most, if not all of the Golan Heights for peace with Syria, but Syria still refuses to say it will accept Israel under any circumstances. Similarly, as recently as the 2000 Camp David negotiations Israel offered to withdraw from 97% of the West Bank, evacuate most settlements and allow the Palestinians to establish a state with its capital in a part of Jerusalem and the Palestinians rejected the offer. If a Palestinian leader ever emerges who is prepared to end the conflict with Israel and has the strength to carry out his promises, then an agreement will be reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

FP: So Israel can never really have the peace that many of us wish for can it? Then what kind of peace can it have?

Bard: I don't believe Israel can have the type of peace with its neighbors that the US has with Mexico and Canada because, as Benjamin Netanyahu likes to say, Israel lives in the Middle East, not the Middle West. The Middle East is different primarily because of the presence of radical Islamists who will never accept the existence of a Jewish state in what they consider the Muslim heartland or the idea that Jews could rule over Muslims. If Israel withdrew tomorrow from 100% of the disputed territories, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah would not be satisfied because they demand Israel withdraw to the borders of the Mediterranean Sea.

FP: And so with terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah etc. growing in strength, how will Israel be able to protect itself from them indefinitely?

Bard: Israel can handle the terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. They are dangerous, but not a threat to Israel's survival. Today, the arms build-up of Hamas is worrisome, as is the ongoing Kassam threat, but very few Israelis have died since the disengagement. Similarly, Hezbollah has rebuilt its arsenal, but the UN force has created a much wider buffer zone and, as serious as the war was last year, it was never a threat to Israel's existence.

FP: How about the Iranian threat?

Bard: As I noted earlier, Iran is different. If it acquires nuclear weapons it will have the capability to destroy Israel. I believe deciding what to do about Iran is the most difficult decision for both Prime Minister Olmert and President Bush. Can you allow Iran to have nuclear weapons? If not, how do you stop them? Will sanctions work? How long can you afford to wait before Iran passes the point of no return? If you decide to attack, can you be sure you will destroy or even slow down Iran's program? Whether you fail or succeed, what will be the consequences in terms of provoking Muslim hostility and more terrorism? I don't believe Iran will be stopped without military action, but I'm not convinced that it will be successful. I would not want to have to make the call.

FP: What are your thoughts on leftist Jews like Noam Chomsky who reach out in solidarity to entities such as Hezbollah? How do you read their mindset?

Bard: I hate to try to psychoanalyze people whose views seem so divorced from reality. Some people recognize that by being the Jew who attacks Israel it's often a route to fame and sometimes fortune. It's man bites dog. Others just seem incapable of looking rationally or objectively at the various elements in the conflict I discuss in Will Israel Survive? They prefer to ignore or rewrite history. It's like some self-described "progressives" who are pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel even though the values they supposedly espouse such as freedom of the press, speech, religion and assembly, as well as women's rights and gay rights, are respected by only one country in the Middle East -- Israel -- and trampled on by the Palestinians.

FP: What do you make of the terror state that Hamas has instituted in Gaza? What lessons do we draw from this happening? What does it tell us about the Palestinians and Palestinian society?

Bard: What happened in Gaza is a function of many factors, including the corruption and weakness of Fatah. Hamas are true believers. They think they are acting upon the will of Allah whereas the Fatah are primarily motivated by money. When the money stopped flowing, they weren't interested in fighting. On another level it reflects the mafia-like tendencies of Palestinian society. It is very clan-based and so you have groups that carry out revenge killings, use violence to intimidate the population and respond only to strength. Leaders in other Arab countries understand this and that is why they play by what Tom Friedman called "Hama rules." This was a reference to 1982 when Syrian president Hafez Assad had a problem with Muslim fundamentalists and simply destroyed the entire city where they lived and killed 20,000 people. As we saw in the Lebanon war last summer, Israel isn't prepared to play by those rules and so the terrorists can use civilians as shields and Israel is hamstrung in its responses by its morality.

FP: I find it very hard to be optimistic about Israel’s ability to deal with all of these threats, yet you remain optimistic. Tell us why.

Bard: The history of the Jewish people is one of survival. Think of the ancient powers that conquered the Jewish state that have disappeared while Israel remains. Think of 1917 when the Balfour Declaration was issued calling for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. That same year, the Russian Revolution led to the creation of a new world power. Ninety years later, the Jewish state is thriving and the Soviet Union is gone. Even after all the wars, the population continues to grow, the economy thrives. I believe that the creation and prosperity of Israel is a modern miracle, but you do not need to accept the supernatural to believe that Israel will survive. Israel will endure because of the strength of its people, the support of Jews in the Diaspora and the belief of non-Jews that the Jewish people are entitled to a state in their homeland.

FP: I pray and hope your optimism for the future will translate into reality. Thank you for joining Frontpage Interview Mitchell Bard. And thank you for your courageous and noble fight for the truth and for your defense of a modern miracle that represents freedom and prosperity in a sea of terror and totalitarianism.

Bard: Thank you.

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