by Bruce Thornton
It’s time once again for Trump's boldness, not for business as usual.
This month President Trump will unveil his plan for ending the seven decades of conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. Like his predecessors, the author of the Art of the Deal seemingly can’t resist the chance to close the biggest foreign policy deal since the end of World War II. But he should resist chasing this diplomatic unicorn, and instead use the conflict as an opportunity for putting to rest the foreign-policy paradigm that has skewed and distorted our relations with allies and adversaries alike.
That paradigm holds that all conflicts between states and peoples can be resolved through the give-and-take of negotiations in which each side gives something up in a process founded on “mutual respect,” as the hoary cliché has it. Because peoples don’t understand their own best interests, the paradigm goes, they stumble into disorder and violence, a process exacerbated by poverty, lack of education, religious superstition, historical crimes like colonialism, and irrational traditions, all perpetuated by illiberal and autocratic regimes. Clear away those impediments, promote economic development, replace faith with science, create institutions that promote political freedom, and educate people in rational thought, and warring peoples will find that a negotiated settlement of differences can give them what they really want––peace, freedom, and prosperity.
The colossal delusion at the heart of this paradigm is the assumption that all people everywhere want what we in the West have created: peaceful coexistence and prosperity founded on technological development, and a greater understanding of human nature based on science rather than the superstitions of faith or tradition. But that assumption is reductive and contrary to the evidence of history, which teaches us over and over that peoples are moved by conflicting “passions and interests,” as James Madison put it. And the fiercest of these “passions and interests” are those about creed: the ultimate answers to humanity’s deepest yearning, which is to live in a way that obeys our Creator in this world and unites us with Him in the next.
The answers to these questions, moreover, are not like mathematical equations. They involve the eternal, complex spiritual realities that transcend the material goods of the body. They cannot be bartered away for a mess of materialist pottage. The revelations of God may be debated and even fought over, but they cannot be ignored, or their conflicts settled just by negotiation. History shows us instead that conflicts of creed ultimately are settled by force. Nor is it just religion that spurs such conflicts. In our own history, the passionate debate over the legitimacy of slavery, and the understanding of human nature upon which slavery rested, in the end had to be resolved by a brutal civil war that killed over 700,000 Americans. Compromises and negotiations were unable to prevent that carnage.
Given human nature’s non-negotiable passions and interests constant over space and time, then, diplomacy can be effective only if backed up by a credible threat of force. In the 17th century Thomas Hobbes memorably expressed this eternal truth of human existence:
For the laws of nature, as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to, of themselves, without the terror of some power to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passion, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge, and the like. And covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.The history of just the last century, a time when modernity seemingly had lifted us above the ignorance and brutality of our predecessors, is filled with the truth of Hobbes’ adage.
The epitome of this wisdom––and the folly of ignoring it–– is the lesson that should have been learned from the Munich negotiations of 1938. Despite Germany’s seething resentment of the Versailles settlement, despite its serial violations of the treaty’s terms for two decades, despite the rise of Adolph Hitler and Nazism, despite his program of genocidal conquest and slaughter publicized in Mein Kampf, despite the party rallies at Nuremberg with their spectacles of martial brutality and redemptive violence––despite all these warning signs, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain handed over Czechoslovakia to a ruthless, bloody conqueror, and back in England brandished a worthless scrap of paper promising “peace in our time.” Thus was started the most destructive war in human history.
Chamberlain’s mistake was the same one today’s believers in “negotiated settlements” still cling to: that people all over the world want what we want, think as we think, and value what we value. The great historian of Soviet terror, Robert Conquest, defined this mistake in an essay on Soviet-era diplomacy:
We are still faced with the absolutely crucial problem of making the intellectual and imaginative effort not to project our ideas of common sense or natural motivation onto the products of totally different cultures. The central point is less that people misunderstand other people, or that cultures misunderstand other cultures, than that they have no notion that this may be the case. They assume that the light of their own parochial common sense is enough. And they frame policies based on illusions. Yet how profound is this difference between political psychologies and between the motivations of different political traditions, and how deep-set and persistent these attitudes are.
Because the modern West had made the sovereign nation-state the default political organization, we have assumed that Arab violence is a means for creating a Palestinian Arab “homeland.” Because we value peaceful coexistence and cooperation, we assume that Israel’s enemies do so as well, and that the violence will cease once there are “two nations living side-by-side in peace.” Because we cherish peace and prosperity and freedom above all other goods, we assume that all Muslims make those goods their highest priority as well. Because we have made tolerance the sine qua non of global coexistence, Arabs must agree that confessional freedom and coexistence are desirable and noble. Because we prize human rights, Arabs must do so as well. And because we have constructed this paradigm as the default explanation of all conflicts and their resolutions, we continue to “frame policies based on illusions.”
Worse yet, Israel’s enemies have been consistently frank about their rejection of all these Western goods in favor of those from their own traditions. The umma, not the alien Westphalian sovereign state, is the only collective political organization sanctioned by Allah for the faithful. Peaceful coexistence and tolerance are goods suitable only for the community of believers, not for all peoples just because they are human. Prosperity and comfort cannot come at the expense of piety and obedience to Allah’s commands, and death is to be preferred to a life alienated from Allah. Human rights are defined by sharia law as bestowed by Allah and practiced by the faithful, not by the humanist’s universal “laws of nature and nature’s God.” A life free from want and deprivation is subordinated to a life lived in accordance with Allah’s precepts and Mohammed’s example. And war and violence are a legitimate tool for fulfilling Allah’s commands, which are eternally perfect, and hence non-negotiable and impossible to improve.
Of course, the global dominance of the West has compelled Palestinian Arabs to use tactically the language and institutions, and ideals like the nation-state, important to the West. But attend to their deeds, and the reality of religious belief in motivating the Arabs is obvious, for as both bin Laden and ISIS said, the struggle with the West is one of creed, rather than redress for alleged colonial sins or crimes against Islam.
The evidence for this motivation is obvious in the Arabs’ numerous rejections of a peace settlement with Israel, and in the violence that has followed interim agreements or Israeli acts of conciliation.
The 1994 Oslo Accords, for example, handed over Judea and Samaria to the administration of the terrorist PLO, rebranded as the Palestinian Authority, and delivered billions in euros and dollars for training and arming the PA “security” force, and for subsidizing stipends to the families of terrorist murderers. The reward for this concession was intifadas and endemic terror. Similarly, the withdrawal from Gaza was followed not by peace, but by incessant rocket attacks and attempted infiltrations into Israel in order to commit terrorist murder or kidnap hostages. Every outreach from Israel, every offer of “land in exchange for peace,” has been met with incitement and terror, in fulfillment of the Palestinian Arab aim to cleanse the region of Israelis “from the river to the sea,” and so undo the “catastrophe,” as they call it, of Israel’s birth.
What this long record of behavior makes clear is that a critical mass of Palestinian Arabs does not want “two states living side-by-side in peace.” They want the state of Israel to disappear, just as Hitler wanted Czechoslovakia to disappear. No negotiation that refuses to accept that fact written in the history of the last seven decades will succeed, but only reinforce the dysfunctional paradigm that continues to treat a corrupt terrorist gang like a legitimate government, continues to finance and subsidize the murder of our most critical allies’ citizens, continues to demand from the aggrieved even more concessions to the aggressor, and continues to demonize the victims of terror when they exercise the universal human right of self-defense.
President Trump has taken actions that suggest he recognizes the dangerous folly of that dominant paradigm. He has moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, beefed up military support for Israel, vigorously supported Israel in the U.N., and pulled the U.S. out of the disastrous agreement with Iran that threatened Israel’s security and very existence. These and other actions and policies in support of Israel are welcome, particularly after the eight years of Barack Obama’s cringing appeasement and marginalizing of Israel in order to curry favor with the genocidal mullahs in Iran.
But restarting the endless cycle of fruitless negotiations and toothless agreements will not create peace, but merely validate the outworn paradigm that attributes the conflict to the lack of an Palestinian Arab “homeland,” even as it ignores the role of creedal passions that fuel and justify the violence. And it will reinforce the revanchist hatred and encourage the continuation of the “stages” plan for Israel’s destruction, in which such discussions and agreements are, like terrorist violence, mere tactics.
Instead of breathing new life into the decrepit, senescent paradigm, Trump needs to blow it up by refusing to participate in this bloody charade. He can start by ignoring the same institutional caretakers of the paradigm who told him disaster would follow the move of the embassy to Jerusalem. It’s time once again for boldness, not business as usual. Too much Israelis blood has been shed while the foreign policy mavens counsel our leaders to repeat the same failures.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.
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