Belmont Club

Missing the Big Brass Ring

The Birnbaum-Tibon megapiece in the New Republic on why the Palestinian peace process failed is as interesting for what it does not contain as much as what it does. Written in “fly in the wall” style it describes how negotiators from the Obama administration, Israel and the Palestinians tried — and failed — to start a peace process. The bricks of the edifice were  prisoner swaps and agreements, which when presumably constructed in some fashion would create a stable modus vivendi.


The drama as related by the New Republic could either have been tragedy or a comedy of errors; viewed with a suspension of disbelief it would appear that some actor somehow missed a brick, misconveyed an impression, reneged on a deal or simply flew off on a tangent so that ultimately the deal was missed for the nth time.  But the last source quoted by the New Republic piece was more cynical. The negotiations were merely a play-within-a-play. The tragedy was external to the negotiations. The hero would never get the girl onstage whatever he said because the roof of the theater was about to fall in.

“I see it from a mathematical point of view,” said Avi Dichter, the former chief of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency. “The American effort will always be multiplied by the amount of trust between the two leaders. So if Kerry’s pressure represents the number five, and then Obama’s help brings the American effort to ten, it really doesn’t matter. You’re still multiplying it by zero. The final result will always be zero.”

That’s mostly what the narrative misses, through no fault of its own. While protagonists in the Birnbaum and Tibon story lived in an world of diplomatic continuity, where formulas and proposals persisted on from one decade to the other, the world in which they lived was discontinuous and had changed out of all recognition.


Thirty years ago Israel was besieged by powerful Arab states backed the superpower Soviet Union. Today the besiegers have largely self-destructed. Egypt is starving and divided. Jordan is flooded with refugees. Iraq and Syria are wracked by civil war. Hamas’s patron, the Muslim Brotherhood, is on the outs in battered Egypt.  And Russia is busy in Ukraine with enough of its own rockets to fire.

The Palestinian negotiators, perhaps encouraged by the attention paid them by UN and John Kerry, were urged by memories of faded glory to make imperious demands, confident they remained world-important. But in reality their old state pals had been hung from gibbets, exhibited in meat lockers or were hunkered down in palace bunkers. Objectively the Palestinians were beggarly nobodies rocketing a country 1,000 times their own military potential in order to scare up some measly donations.

It was an accident waiting to happen.  So they drew their rusty pistola and the IDF drew its minigun.

True this weakness was offset to some extent by increased support for Palestinian causes in the West and the increasing range, accuracy and miniaturization of the missiles it used to bombard Israel. This had the curious effect of appearing to increase their diplomatic leverage while simultaneously restricting them to physical actions that would make negotiated solutions impossible. The Palestinians had a hammer only the problem was to saw wood. Alas for diplomacy the only thing the Palestinians can actually do is fight. The only thing the West demands of them is to stop doing the only thing they can do.


The best alternative to a negotiated settlement for both Israel and Palestine may now be to fight to the finish, because each is surprised to find they have no alternative. To understand why we must mentally go back nearly 70 years, to Okinawa.

Okinawa, like Iwo Jima before it, represented the highest development of tunnel warfare. During the campaign the Americans learned that no amount of conventional weaponry could effectively shut down a network of tunnels and caves bored into the earth. To put the tunnels out of business you actually needed to take and hold the ground.

This was an complicated and expensive proposition, because the approaches to the underground installations were covered by interlocking fields of fire and minefields, and in places by pre-registered fields of fire. The Marines found the only way to take these ant-colony defenses was to bring mobiles “caves” of their own (the M4 Sherman tank) and in their cover suppress the riflemen guarding the approaches to seal off the network of tunnels one by one from the vantage of dead ground which dominated the exits. They gave this the picturesque name “blowtorch and corkscrew”. The Japanese called them “straddle attacks”.

Doubtless the state of military art has advanced since 1945 but the question remains: what possible intermediate objective can the IDF have in Gaza but to take and hold the ground in the face of tunnel warfare? The IDF can hardly bombard Gaza ad infinitum like Sugarloaf Hill. Whereas the Japanese tunnels in Okinawa were covered by 30 feet of rock, the Hamas tunnels in Gaza are protected by three layers of civilians. Which is more permeable? Counterbattery alone cannot stop the missiles, nor can intercepting them with Iron Dome suffice when airlines decide to stop flights into Ben Gurion on the mere threat that the airport can be bombarded.


Each side is backed into a corner. The combination of conventional weakness and Palestinian Western diplomatic strength plus the military impracticability of shutting down Hamas and its missiles will create an almost irresistible incentive for the IDF to continue. The Israelis must be thinking: better to watch the movie now that it’s paid admission than leave the screening in the middle of the showing only to pay again when it returns to finish it.

Because given the slightest window, the Palestinians will rocket again.

This of course, is a recipe for escalation. The time for an easy solution was long ago. The penalty for dragging out a diplomatic solution for too long is that in the end it makes war look almost attractive by comparison.  One way to discredit a good cause is via a bad implementation. Diplomats sometimes fail to see this. They always think there’s water left in the well. When the Tamil Tigers were surrounded by the Sri Lankan military and on the verge of annihilation one Western diplomat reportedly warned Colombo: “if you defeat them, then who will you negotiate with?”

It’s a good question, but one that has no answer within the diplomatic context. Unfortunately diplomacy is not the only context on this sad earth.  The penalty for trying and failing is failing.

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No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
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