To Make Peace, Should Israel First Take Back Land?

Israel was "reeling," said the wire services. "The bloodiest weekend in months," reported The Wall Street Journal. In the space of 24 hours, 21 Israelis were killed last weekend in shootings and suicide attacks. Seven of the dead were soldiers in the West Bank. Five were children in Jerusalem. Israel retaliated on Monday with raids that killed l7 Palestinians, including a mother and her children, in refugee camps. The weekend Palestinian attacks were themselves reprisals for a previous Israeli refugee-camp raid. So it went.

Amazingly, the newspapers are still full of diplomats, politicians, and editorialists insisting that the answer must be for the Bush Administration to roll up its sleeves, fully engage the Middle East crisis, and get the peace process back on track. Good idea! How about an intense, personal, eight-year effort by an American President to forge a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians? How about frequent White House meetings with the principals, tireless hands-on diplomacy, and every imaginable kind of stroking, arm-twisting, map-drawing, cajoling, and pleading?

Oops. Already tried that. Never mind.

Here is one Middle East initiative that would really help: The next diplomat, politician, or editorial writer who declares that the Bush Administration must "fully engage to restart the peace process" should be drawn and quartered. Especially if the offender is a European who risked not one nickel of political capital in the Middle East during the 1990s. And doubly especially if the offender is an Arab who spent the 1990s ducking American pleas to push the Palestinians to make a deal, and who now blames America (America!) for the failure of Middle East peace.

Where to go from here? It helps to think backwards, starting with the desired outcome. That outcome is: a negotiated two-state settlement that both sides have a larger stake in upholding than in breaking. Memo to peace-process editorialists: Please note the word "both." A deal that either side would benefit by breaking is no deal.

Getting Israel to keep its side of the bargain is relatively unproblematic. Israel desperately wants long-term security and calm, for which the majority of Israelis would happily give up the occupied territories and part of Jerusalem. Israel has everything to lose if it reneges on a peace agreement.

For the Palestinians, however, the case is not so clear. Their return to violence since September 2000 has unquestionably cost them dearly. It has strangled their economy and left more than 900 Palestinians dead (three for every dead Israeli).

On the other hand, the embrace of violence has also given the Palestinians a sense of moral heroism and the strategic advantage, both of which they had lost at the bargaining table. Plus, violence serves the interests of Palestinian militants whose power would diminish in peacetime. Many Palestinians also believe that their superior capacity to bleed will eventually force an exhausted Israel to give way. As Reuters reported on Sunday, "Leaders of the Palestinian uprising believe such attacks will eat away at support for [Israel's Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon and encourage a small but growing revolt by Israeli reserve soldiers who have begun to refuse to serve in the occupied territories."

Moreover, even if the uprising has not brought Palestinian statehood materially closer, neither has it pushed statehood materially further away. Indeed, in November, President Bush issued the most explicit American endorsement yet of a Palestinian state, which Palestinian hard-liners understandably took as a sign that violence was paying off.

The most hopeful development of late is a Saudi proposal under which Arab states would fully normalize relations with Israel in exchange for Israel's withdrawal to its pre-June 1967 borders. Very nice of the Saudis, after so many years of hand-sitting and double-talking, to say something constructive. A proposal like this would have been quite helpful in, say, 2000, when the Israelis and Palestinians appeared to be within reach of a bargain if only Yasir Arafat could have been prodded publicly by his Arab allies to take yes for an answer. Ah, well. Better late than never. The land-for-Arab-peace idea is a serious suggestion that deserves a respectful if unillusioned assessment.

Whether the Saudi plan could fly on its own terms is the first hard question. The Saudis do not speak for Iraq, Iran, and other states that have made Israel-hating and Israel-blaming essential political props of their regimes. On cue, Libya doused the Saudi plan with cold water. And Iraq? Saddam Hussein would love nothing more than to be the anti-Zionist stalwart who stands up to the Israelis, the Americans, and the Saudis.

In any case, the Arab regimes, even the moderate ones, have spent the last half-century inculcating their publics with hatred of Israel and Jews. The best Israel could hope for would be the sort of cold, brittle quasi-peace it now enjoys—using the word loosely—with Egypt. Grudging, pro forma normalization would be much better than nothing, but it would also be a far cry from real peace and neighborliness, and it could be easily withdrawn.

The next and even harder question is whether the deal would actually bring peace. The case in favor notes that Israel is now hemorrhaging to defend territory that it doesn't want; if, however, Israel withdrew under fire, it would signal to Palestinian militants that violence pays and so would encourage still more violence. The Saudi plan might give Israel the fig leaf it needs to pull back without losing face. Instead of giving land for nothing, the Israelis would give land for peace with the Arab countries. Then the Palestinians could declare their state. The obligations of statehood, combined with the removal of Israeli forces, would give Palestinian moderates the upper hand. Or such is the hope.

The rejoinder is that the Saudi plan does not realign Palestinians' incentives. It gives little reason for Palestinian militants—who are in the driver's seat-to cease their attacks on Israel. From their point of view, indeed, violence would have paid off spectacularly, so why stop fighting? If they continued bombing Jerusalem in hopes of winning further concessions (say, a right of return for Palestinians) or just to make trouble, Israel would strike back into Palestine. War might ensue, with the Arab countries breaking ties with Israel and rallying to the Palestinians. Back to square one, except now Israel would be smaller and harder to defend.

The problem here is fundamental. One side is ready to settle, but many on the other side believe they can get a better deal by fighting. Until that equation is altered, the war will go on. Cutting deals between moderates on both sides does no good, because Palestinian moderates and Palestinian hard-liners respond to the same incentives in opposite ways: Concessions that mollify the moderates fire up the hard-liners. The sad, nasty, painful truth appears to be that no peace will hold until Palestinian hard-liners are persuaded that war is a losing proposition.

So, thinking another step backward, how to persuade them? Perhaps by seizing the one thing they want: their land. It is time for thoughtful people—peace-loving people, people who believe (as I do) that the Palestinians deserve a state—to consider the case for an Israeli reoccupation of most or all of the West Bank. First take, then give. March into the territories and kick out Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. Then offer it all back, and more, at the peace table.

This would need to be done right. Israel would need to make clear that it has no desire to stay. To establish its bona fides, Israel might voluntarily abandon some of its own settlements, sending settlers out of the West Bank even as it sent soldiers in. Message to the Palestinians: "Violence is counterproductive. Giving it up will get you a better deal." Message to the world: "This action is not an end in itself. It is part of a strategy to make peace."

The risks are enormous. The military situation would get worse before it got better, since the Palestinians would resist Israeli occupation at least as fiercely as they are already resisting Israeli pseudo-occupation (checkpoints and the like). The Arab states would fly up in protest. Israel's domestic politics might be fractured. Whether Israelis have the stomach to send their sons and daughters to patrol sniper-ridden streets of Ramallah is questionable, to say the least.

Still, the time has come for peace-seeking realists to regard reoccupation as thinkable rather than unthinkable, and as a possible element of a peace strategy rather than as a declaration of all-out war. President Reagan understood that sometimes you need an arms buildup before you can have an arms builddown. In the Middle East, now might be a moment when turning up the heat might help put out the fire.