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David Isaac On Netanyahu's Folly

Weak Reeds

By David Isaac

Nazi Troops Enter Demilitarized Rhineland - 1936

Since his

policy speech

at Bar-Ilan University on June 14, 2009, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that Israel be given security guarantees in order for there to be any "real peace agreement." He repeated this insistence at the opening of peace talks on Sept. 2nd, referring to guarantees as one of the "twin pillars of peace."

That Netanyahu would want to build a peace agreement on a foundation of security guarantees is surprising, to say the least, given the long and ignominious history of such guarantees. Whether in the form of peacekeepers, demilitarized zones or promises of aid in times of crisis, security guarantees have evaporated like mist at precisely the moment when Israel most needed them.

Security guarantees have always been no more than a sop given by the U.S. during negotiations to lure Israel into making dangerous territorial concessions. One may add that such guarantees were in turn used by Israel's leaders as a sop to convince a skeptical Israeli public to go along with such concessions.

In his book "Battleground: Fact and Fantasy in Palestine," (Bantam Books, 1973), Shmuel wrote about the history of international guarantees and how they have ill-served Israel's interests.

When Israel's birth was threatened by Arab invasion in 1948 and she repelled the Egyptians, she was browbeaten into withdrawing from Sinai, then cajoled into leaving the Gaza area in Egyptian hands. In return, she secured an Armistice Agreement that turned out to be worthless, a worldwide Arab boycott, and a heavy toll of life from endemic Arab forays across the Armistice lines. In 1956-1957, the pattern was repeated.

Forced for the first time to take preemptive action against the immediate threat of attack, and having then driven the Egyptians from Sinai and the Gaza area, Israel was persuaded by Western guarantees and finally lulled by a United Nations military presence into handing Sinai and the Gaza Strip to Egypt once more.

The threat of the Arab onslaught resounding throughout the world in the spring of 1967, and the Egyptians' closure of the Straits of Tiran, were followed by an incredible international response. The United Nations force in Sinai and Gaza - established as an international "guarantee" for Israel in 1957 - was immediately withdrawn at a word of command from Cairo. The American President could not find in the state archives the record of promises made ten years earlier to insure Israel's freedom of navigation. The American President and the British Prime Minister together were unable to get the United Nations Security Council (including the members who had joined in that promise) to consider the Egyptians' demonstrative flouting of that freedom. Overnight, the gossamer safeguards by which Israel had been deluded were blown away.

In "Peril in Sinai" (The Jerusalem Post, Jan. 22, 1982), Shmuel described how Israel awoke to the danger of relying on guarantees after the Six Day War. Quoting Abba Eban, then foreign minister, in a speech he gave to the UN General Assembly shortly after the war, Shmuel wrote:

"What is the use of a fire brigade which vanishes from the scene as soon as the first smoke and flames appear? Is it surprising that we are firmly resolved never again to allow a vital Israel interest and our very security to rest on such a fragile foundation?"

Eban spoke then for all Israel, and his undertaking was unequivocal: that no government in Israel would ever allow itself to forget what happened in 1967, nor ever again rest any part of the security of the state or the lives of its people on the assurances and guarantees of other peoples.

Unfortunately, the awakening was all too brief. Commenting on the Begin government's determination to evacuate the Sinai, Shmuel added:

That agonized declaration, that bold assurance of future steadfastness in the face of foreign promises, has been swept away like chaff in the wind. In the Israeli Government's headlong rush towards the disaster of the surrender of Sinai, it embraced anew the transparent illusion that an international force would be an effective barrier to renewed Arab aggression.

Today, Netanyahu doesn't talk of an international force (that will come later) but of demilitarization. He said in his Bar-Ilan speech, "We are now asking our friends in the international community, headed by the USA, for what is necessary for our security, that in any peace agreement, the Palestinian area must be demilitarized. No army, no control of air space. ... I told President Obama in Washington, if we get a guarantee of demilitarization, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state, we are ready to agree to a real peace agreement, a demilitarized Palestinian state side by side with the Jewish state."

But demilitarization is of little value. In "Peril In Sinai," Shmuel wrote:

Former chief of staff Haim Bar-Lev - in criticizing the surrender of Sinai on security grounds - pointed out that "all security arrangements, from demilitarization to the presence of UN forces, have one single value: a so-many-hours' warning. Even if all of Sinai is demilitarized, and there are large numbers of UN forces and an infinite number of American early-warning stations, the military value is of half a day, at most a day of warning".

"Demilitarization," Shmuel said, "becomes a fiction precisely when the aggressor decides that he no longer needs it." What's more, the Arabs would never accept demilitarization because it defeats their purpose. As he wrote in "Sharon's Egregious Blunder" (The Jerusalem Post, Jan. 3, 2003):

If Israel were to reach the nadir of political inanity of actually helping to establish a state for the Palestinian Arabs, the Arabs would reject with all vigor the idea that their state would be hobbled by a denial of major armaments. No less emphatic would be the hostile reaction of a large segment of the European and other nations.

Even friends, appalled and distressed, would find themselves bound, albeit reluctantly, to deplore such a limitation of sovereignty. They would find it intolerable.

For the Arabs the military issue is doubly critical. First because the very idea of demilitarization would be regarded as a blow to their honor; second, because a sovereign state has never been the ultimate purpose of Arab policy. The purpose is the destruction of Israel. A state could represent only the penultimate 'phase' in the policy of phases. It could be the staging ground - with a large and variegated arsenal - for the 'final phase.' That is the original Arab game plan.

Netanyahu knows this. It wasn't long ago that he ridiculed the idea of demilitarization himself. In a May 12, 2002 speech to the Likud Central Committee, he argued against then-Prime Minister Sharon's implied support for a demilitarized Palestinian Arab state.

"[I]t [the Palestinian state] will demand all the powers of a state, such as controlling borders, bringing in weapons, control of airspace and the ability to knock down any Israeli plane that enters its area, the ability to sign peace treaties and military alliances with other countries.

"Once you give them a state, you give them all these things, even if there is an agreement to the contrary, for within a short time they will demand all these things, and they will assume these powers, and the world will stand by and do nothing but it will stop us from trying to stop them...We will thus have created with our own hands a threat to our very existence. What will happen if the Palestinians do what the Germans did after World War I, when they nullified the demilitarized zone? The world did nothing then, and the world will do nothing now as well."

Listening to Netanyahu then, one would have felt sure that once in power he would not have adopted the same stance as Sharon. But, alas, in this world, there are no guarantees.

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