"There is no alternative," says the Barak government, explaining why it plans a return to the bargaining table with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. "In the end, the diplomatic way is what will win out," declares Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.
Similarly, an editorial in Ha'aretz declares that a military power cannot deal with Palestinian violence; the "realistic solution is to move toward coexistence, based on compromises and negotiated agreements." Surveys indicate that a healthy majority of Israelis agrees that there is no alternative to diplomacy.
But there is an alternative - not an exciting or particularly attractive one, to be sure, but one that does address the country's strategic problem.
That alternative, by the way, is not the "unilateral separation" that the Barak government has floated, and which can be summed up as "us here and them there."
Unilateral separation means imposing borders of Israel's choosing between its population and the Palestinians; in Barak's colorful formulation, it sees Israel as "a villa located in a jungle."* Barak's own analogy points to the reason that separation cannot work; a villa in the jungle cannot survive for long. Similarly, Israel cannot find true security in walls. Even if walls did work against the Palestinian Authority (an unlikely prospect - think of southern Lebanon), they do not at all address the threats posed by Israel's many other enemies.
Separation suffers from another flaw: Like the Oslo negotiations, it falsely assumes that Israel can take the initiative to make the key decisions of war and peace. Israelis cannot begin to deal with the threat confronting them until they realize that such decisions are made not in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv but in Cairo, Gaza, Amman, and Damascus. The conflict, in other words, will end only when Arabs accept the permanent existence of a sovereign Jewish state in their midst, not when Israelis decide it should be over.
This fact clearly frustrates Israelis, who are eager to put their century-long conflict with the Arabs behind them. But they cannot do this on their own, they can only try to encourage the Arabs to do so. Israel cannot force the Arabs to reach this conclusion, only attempt indirectly induce them to do so on their own.
Once Israelis reconcile themselves to these unalterable truths, their alternative to diplomacy becomes clear, even self-evident, and it is neither new nor exotic. It consists basically of a return to the approach of the pre-Oslo era, when Israelis understood two facts: (1) The great majority of Arabs want Israel to be militarily destroyed and (2) The only way to change their minds is by demonstrating that this goal has no chance of succeeding. Pursuing it, in fact, leaves the Arabs impoverished and weakened, without severely damaging Israel.
This, called the policy of deterrence, dominated Israeli thinking during the country's first 45 years, 1948-93, and it worked well.
Recognizing Israel's immutability, for example, was what prompted Anwar Sadat to give up military confrontation and fly to Jerusalem in 1977.
The trouble was that even as deterrence visibly wore down the Arab will to destroy Israel, it more subtly but no less certainly also wore down the Israeli will. Deterrence being slow, erratic, and passive, not to speak of expensive and indirect, it is hard to sustain for decades. Eventually, Israelis became impatient for a quicker and more active approach.
That impatience brought on the Oslo accords in 1993, in which Israelis initiated more creative and active steps to end the conflict. So totally did deterrence disappear from the Israeli vocabulary, it is today not even considered when policy options are discussed, leading to the widespread perception that there is "no alternative" to diplomacy.
Israelis will turn to deterrence only when they conclude that more exciting solutions have failed them. Sadder but wiser, they will rediscover the one policy that has stood them well: deterrence. The sooner that happens, the less damage they will suffer.
In retrospect, the 1990s will be seen as Israel's lost decade, the time when the fruits of earlier years were squandered, when the country's security regressed. The history books will portray Israel at this time, like Britain and France in the 1930s, as a place under the sway of illusion, where dreams of avoiding war in fact sowed the seeds of the next conflict.
* Ha'aretz, 3 November 2000.