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The Arab-Israeli Extortion Process

Anywhere else, the promise to cease attacking another in order to extract something from him is labeled extortion and is properly addressed with some form of overpowering punitive force. Not so with Israel, where repeated concessions made in response to attacks are wishfully reframed as initial steps in a “peace process.”

Once again, Palestinian prisoners and large sums of money have been transferred to Palestinian control. Once again, faith is placed in upcoming grand diplomatic efforts. While the specific narrative this time involves a struggle between Fatah and Hamas and between Gazan clans, the western mindset has stayed the same: these concessions should jumpstart the “peace process.”

For years, the goal of Palestinian leaders has been Israel’s destruction. It has been clearly stated by Yassir Arafat to his people, in the PLO and Hamas charters, and by the Palestinians’ current dominant benefactor, Iran. Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, has demonstrated no credible departure.  Nowhere is “peace,” as understood by westerners, part of the picture.

Yet, the label “peace process” has accomplished the devious task of disguising what has always been simple extortion. While Israel is continuously assaulted with suicide and extra-border bombings, international diplomats engage and resurrect the same construct:  The Palestinians will trade cessation of violence for something extracted from the Israelis — land, money, prisoners, settlement removal, weapons, etc.

As with their goal, this “extortion process” had been clearly described by the Palestinians themselves. Diab Al-Luh, Revolutionary Council of Fatah, once said, “We learned in our struggle that there is a stage of planting and cultivation. The struggle of the gun plants and the diplomatic struggle reaps.”

In these economically “globalized” times, diplomats frequently bring business transaction models into international disputes. Civilized business negotiations take place between parties with assets and liabilities to exchange. It is perfectly appropriate for one party to have and exercise leverage, often tremendous leverage, against another party to extract whatever they might.

Once leverage is obtained through physical force, however, institutions, legal and otherwise, intervene to eliminate the behavior and penalize the offending party. The promise to stop assaulting another is, by definition, one accepted under duress and, consequently, one which does not respect the accepting party. It does not constitute a western idea of fair exchange between mutually respected parties. Simply, “peace” is presumed, not something to be earned or negotiated.

There is, today, an almost irresistible compulsion to approach problems such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as business-like transactions that simply require unique “statecraft” skills. Indeed, both Israelis and Palestinians have much to offer each other. As with Bill Clinton and others, one is easily tempted to fantasize that if only he could sit down with representatives from each side, he could succeed in selling the parties a fair and equitable transaction as a solution to the conflict. And, as always, one would fail.

Failure is inevitable precisely because this is not a transaction but war. We never hear described, for instance, a process in which the Palestinians offer their labor pool and consumer base in exchange for land and an economic interplay to the mutual benefit of both parties. Such a civilized business transaction approach would implicitly and explicitly “recognize” Israel, would appropriately presume “peace” and, most importantly, would reflect an interest in the mutual gains of the parties. Instead, Palestinians only frame tradeoffs acceptable to them as those in which “peace” (perhaps temporary at best) is their offer while all of the focus is placed upon what Israel must forfeit in exchange.

Any time “peace” becomes an asset on one party’s list of desired outcomes or the other’s list of what it will ultimately give, the activity has turned from transactional to criminal — extortion. This conflict is not a long negotiation that experiences intermittent violent breakdowns. Rather, it is a long war that occasionally encompasses periods of “ceasefires” in order, primarily, for the Palestinians to recover. Samir Ashrawi, Central Committee of Fatah, said in similar past circumstances, “We in Fatah say we have to include it all-and to choose the appropriate time for the rifle and the appropriate time for negotiations…We see this period of negotiations as the ‘rest of the fighters’.”

A grave disservice has been and continues to be done by well intentioned leaders and diplomats in languaging the elements of Middle East negotiations as a “peace process.” It gives false hope and feeds wishful thinking that the Palestinian leaders and the parties for whom they act as proxy desire anything other than what they have made clear. This compulsion to view and describe the situation as a deal in “process” overshadows the reality as it is and always has been — extortion that has been repeatedly rewarded rather than punished.

Unfortunately, the long history of failed diplomatic efforts has obfuscated rather than revealed this truth.  Fostering this fantasy that the right diplomatic formula may still be found to complete the “peace process” is one of the Palestinians’ greatest weapons. Israel’s acts of appeasement are reframed as matters of Israeli dignity rather than weakness. Instead, as with other acts of a bully, extortion must simply be overpowered. When one hears “peace process,” he should automatically think “extortion process.”

Just maybe, the hope goes, this time is different. Olmert and Abbas will make it so. References to economic relations with a West Bank Palestinian state establish the business transaction model. Saudi Arabia and Egypt, appeased with U.S. weapons and money to offset Iranian dominance, wish to appear “finally” ready to contribute.
 
tYet, over time, many of Israel’s regional comparative advantages (military, demographic, political will, and, in some sectors, economic) have declined. Ironically, by cloaking extortion, the “peace process” has contributed to the very result it ostensibly seeks to avoid — Israel’s demise. Hopefully, our leaders will soon wake up, disrobe the situation from the entire narrative of a “peace process,” and face the extortion head-on. They’d better do so in the little time left while they still enjoy advantages of strength. Once those are gone, so too, we must realize, may be Israel.

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Mr. Siegel lives in New York.

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