The so-called Six Day War took place while I was still working in Iran. I listened with my host on his short-wave radio to reports from the BBC. Hassan was Muslim and felt torn. He was an agricultural engineer who had studied Israeli farming methods and admired them. Iran in those days had a constructive relationship with Israel. I myself was in the Israeli embassy in Tehran.
In a straight up war with its neighbors, it was possible for everyone to come out ahead. Everyone understood Israel had the right to defend itself. Egypt, Jordan and Syria massed for an attack. Israel launched a preemptive strike. And it won some territory – that happens in wars. Little Israel had taken on most of the Arab world and won. Many Iranians admired what they had done. They didn’t much care for Arabs then, even though they were Muslim.
Then the Arab states launched a surprise attack in the so-called Yom Kippur War in 1973 to make up for their losses. It was mostly a standoff but Israel’s neighbors could feel that this time they stood up to Israel. The attack made Egyptian President Anwar Sadat a hero. Six years later he signed the first peace treaty with Israel.
But other than total war with its neighbors, Israel had been pursuing a policy of retaliation to punish and prevent isolated attacks. Palestinians would fire rifles or lob missiles or granades and a few days later the Israelis would launch a retaliatory strike. Even from then relatively friendly Iran, it was clear to me that such a policy of retaliation could not bring peace. But I didn’t have the words to explain my feeling about it.
Something else was amiss. The Israelis seemed to believe that time was on their side. All they needed to do was to defend, retaliate and wait til everyone else came to their senses. But in those days, it wasn’t even clear who the enemy was.
It’s clear enough that the Arab world did not back off. But something else has happened that makes the Israeli gamble unsustainable – demographics. In much of the world, this country included, the Arab and the wider Muslim populations have been growing substantially. The people I know from that part of the world and I agree to disagree. We discuss issues respectfully and within polite limits. But in politics, the question isn’t necessarily whether they are right or I am right. The question is votes. And that calculus is changing. It has clearly changed in Europe. It will inevitably change here.
So what should Obama be saying to Netanyahu? For Israel’s own good, he should be scaring the pants off Netanyahu. There will be no peace, there can be no peace, while Israel is convinced it can wait out the Arab world. Peace, now, is the only path to Israel=s survival. And it had better be prepared to sacrifice a great deal for it. There is no other way.
This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 27, 2010.