Wall Street Journal -- December 17, 1999 Commentary

CAPE AND SWORD

By Mark Helprin

Neville Chamberlain's disastrous appeasement of Germany was due neither to cowardice nor lack of fiber, for Chamberlain was a man of extraordinary courage and resolution. He failed not in character but in choosing the wrong framework of appraisal. He and millions of others believed that if German grievances could be addressed, the momentum for war would subside. Germany did have grievances that were real and of great moment, but they were as nothing compared with its ambitions, to which they were merely the preliminary. Thus, as in the case of the bull that sees the cape but not the sword, Chamberlain's conception of events, not his essential qualities, proved his undoing.

The whole world took comfort from the common wisdom that his efforts, nobly pursued, would bring peace. On his return from Munich he stood in triumph with the king on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, and people dropped to their knees in prayers of gratitude. The whole world now is comforted by what appears to be emerging concord in the Middle East, but now, as then, misconception rules. Now, as then, there is a cape, and there is a sword.

Peace in our time? President Clinton walks out of the Oval Office with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, right, and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa Is it not unnatural and disturbing for one of the parties in a peace negotiation to be urged from every quarter to "take a risk for peace"? What is the peculiar nature of this peace that it is seen even by its proponents as a risk? Peace should be, to the contrary, a condition not of risk but of surety and amelioration. This peace comes with more than a hint of annihilation because even those who are in the midst of constructing it realize that it is fraudulent. It is built upon the imagined, unjustifiable and untrue assumption that Israel's opponents have grievances but not ambitions, and that in any case the grievances are somehow confined to the Golan and the West Bank.

This when Arab possession of these territories did not prevent the occurrence of three of the four major Arab-Israeli wars, when Yasser Arafat routinely states that his object is to recover Palestine in its entirety, when deep-set opinion throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds has never wavered from this object and does not now, and when the most striking Palestinian demand in the current negotiations is for the unrestricted return of Palestinians to all of Palestine.

More to the point, the question of Palestine is merely an anteroom in the great palace of Arab aspirations regarding Israel. As the Palestinians themselves continually state, the Arab world does not really care about them.

What it does care about is reasserting itself in relation to the West, making pure the Muslim domain, rolling back what it considers the vestiges of colonialism, defeating modernism in its every guise, and removing from the choke point where Africa and Asia are joined the singular and impassable blockage of the Jewish state that literally divides the two great regions of the world of Islam.

There is a word in Arabic, taqiyah, that Madeleine Albright might well look up. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, a source with no known links to Ariel Sharon, describes it as "the practice of concealing one's belief," in which "the Qur'an allows Muslims to profess friendship with the unbelievers . . .on the condition that their hearts contradict their tongues." This is not merely a religious dispensation but a cultural pattern that debases the value of assurances and treaties.

Yasser Arafat and other Arab leaders have long understood that Western elites are so wanting to believe any kind of assurance that one actually need not hide one's plans as long as even the flimsiest statement in contradiction of them exists for interested politicians and diplomats to grasp. Though these politicians and diplomats may understand the danger in all this, as it is not a danger to them, they unreservedly recommend a "process" in which, they hope, formal acts and declarations will change the fundamental nature of the participants. About risk, trust, and belief in the power of process it is certain that, from his celestial perch, Neville Chamberlain could tell them a thing or two-even the Israeli prime minister, who does undertake the risk, as did his British counterpart nearly seven decades ago.

Which is not to say that the Palestinians should not have a state. Their immutable desire to destroy Israel should disqualify them not from having a state but, rather, from having the kind of state that could advance their immutable desire to destroy Israel. That is, they should have a totally demilitarized, Vatican-style enclave in the West Bank, back from the higher ground in the west, along the lines of the Allon Plan. Such a thing would have fallen far short of Palestinian expectations, as will any interim state that arises, but had Israel advanced it unilaterally the Palestinians would not now have-before the infancy of their state, in contravention of the Oslo agreements, and well in excess of the needs of dictatorial government-an army of 40,000 men.

This is the proud nucleus of a force three or four times its size that, equipped, clandestinely or not, with infantry-carried or truck-mounted antiarmor and antiaircraft missiles, could function within Israeli territory much like the Russian Spetsnaz. Attacks upon communications, parked or rolling aircraft, mobilization centers, supply depots, and the civilian population could greatly disrupt and demoralize Israeli forces preparing to take to the field or already fighting. As an adjunct to a full-scale offensive, Palestinian formations would have two additional tasks. The first would be to cripple, destroy, or contain Israel's nuclear missiles, which if dispersed on the roads would be vulnerable to irregulars, and if kept concentrated for fear of irregulars would be vulnerable to conventional air assault or a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Destruction of its missiles would not deprive Israel entirely of the nuclear option, if only because of the easier and wider dispersal of gravity bombs to nuclear-capable squadrons that have a talent for getting even to remote targets, but it could disrupt future Arab-Israeli nuclear parity and have therefore a decisive effect on the outcome of battle.

The second would be to keep Palestinian territory secure for the reception of conventional formations, whether Egyptian, Iraqi, Syrian, or even a combined Gulf States expeditionary force. Even with possession of the Sinai, the Golan, and the West Bank, Israel's strategic situation in a full-scale war was a nightmare of too many fronts, too narrow a heartland and insufficient strategic depth. The pre-1967 outlines that appear about to emerge once again are for every Arab general an invitation to ponder the feasibility of rapid conquest. Looking at the map shows that Israel was born half conquered to begin with, and that the painful contortions of such borders would be a mortal threat to any nation.

In light of this, the small army of a Palestinian state might have a disproportionate effect, but the sword rests in other hands. Though given the conduct of the peace negotiators you would not think so, Israel's fate depends not upon the mollification of Syria and the Palestinians but, rather, upon the direction of Egypt and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Were Egypt to succumb to the immense economic and demographic pressures that threaten to recapitulate its approximately half-century cycles of radicalization, what is called the "peace of the brave" might be remembered as the peace of the expedient, the temporary, the careless, and the opportune. With ready-made constant support in Iraq, Iran, Libya and other even remoter belligerents, Egypt could easily swing Syria once again into co-confrontation.

In 1973 the Egyptians surprised Israelis who were less overconfident than they are today, crossed the canal, and established a bridgehead in the Sinai after overcoming Israel's first waves of opposition. The way was open for a catastrophic Egyptian thrust beyond the passes and toward an Israel that was not yet mobilized. Rather than taking full advantage, the Egyptians stopped for fear of outrunning their lines of supply and being drawn into a trap. At the highest levels they may also have considered Israel's newly developed nuclear capability. Today Israel has hundreds of warheads and bombs deliverable with great precision by aircraft or intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Because it will be a long time before the Islamic states can field enhanced radiation weapons or count on exceedingly precise guidance, even should they develop credible nuclear forces Israel's deterrent will be protected from a first strike by the Palestinian presence nearby and the direction of the prevailing winds. The issue, however, is not the destruction of these weapons but their neutralization.

One object of the Arab nuclear programs is to offset Israel's capacity to the point where Israel would resort to it only at the very end. So shielded, Arab conventional forces could carefully strike limited targets, in stages, whittling away at Israel until it were reduced to the kind of enclave the Palestinians now only half-pretend to want as an end to their diplomacy. The Sinai has been retrieved, and the West Bank and the Golan seem to be on the way, with hardly a shot. How much preparation, risk, and maneuver, then, would it take to win the Negev? Would Israel make use of atomic weapons, knowing that it would suffer retaliation in kind, to reverse a lost conventional battle for its largely unpopulated desert? What about sections of the largely Arab Galilee, or the forested and remote border with Lebanon?

That it might not triumph in every such battle is certainly something Israel must consider. A comparison of its conventional forces to those of the hypothetical coalition of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia (leaving out Iran, Iraq, Libya, etc.) favors Israel despite an Arab advantage in critical weapons of 2.4 to 1. Israel's interior lines; far better command, control, communications, and intelligence; highly effective integration of its combat arms; flexible and imaginative doctrine; and superior training and technology make disparities in materiel less important. But this was true as well in 1973, when the Egyptians very dangerously displayed talents and discipline they were not supposed to possess. The hypothetical coalition's 1,700 combat aircraft, as opposed to Israel's 700, include 390 first-line aircraft (F-16 or equivalent) to Israel's 335. It would not be impossible to design a strategy of surge and attrition to offset the superiority of the Israeli Air Force, with antiaircraft missiles and guns in support, as in 1973, combined with surface-to-surface missile and unconventional attacks on air force bases and battle management.

Without going into further detail, similar openings exist in regard to armor, etc. Israel has no monopoly on unexpected victory and, to invert Moshe Dayan's famous pronouncement, the road from Tel Aviv to Damascus also leads from Damascus to Tel Aviv. The orders of battle are here not so far apart that, to survive, Israel need not marshal every military advantage to protect against uncertainties and what it cannot foresee. In war, geography is everything, and by relinquishing its more defensible profile, Israel assumes much of its former vulnerability.

In its missionary zeal to teach the world how to behave properly and decently, the Clinton Administration has used the power and influence of the United States not merely to maneuver Israel into a position of its liking but for unprecedented interference in Israeli electoral politics. The president and Mrs. Albright are in this instance replicating their one and only method of operation in international relations: Give away the store. But by superimposing this pattern on Israel they bear a special responsibility, in that Israel has none of the margins of error or the great reserves of power that allow the U.S. to be periodically weepy and generous in foreign affairs without prejudicing its survival. As with most of Mr. Clinton's policies, this one is designed for the moment when its superficial sparkle will illuminate him to best advantage, but after the flash he will move off to another contrived bright spot, and everyone else will be left in the dark.

Despite the automatic repetition, by journalists and diplomats who have no sense whatsoever of the strategic dimension, that superior power insulates it with near-perfection from the consequences of misappraisal and misjudgment, Israel's military reality and long-term prospects are less certain Partly as a result of American pressure, Israel has not been able to ensure that the rising Palestinian state will actually be demilitarized. Apparently it will not even seek a territorial compromise vis--vis the high ground on the Golan, or benefit by some measure of Syrian disarmament. It operates apart from all consideration of the activities and attitudes of powerful and implacable states such as Iraq and Iran. It will be surrendering its last portions of strategic depth. It appears to be accepting a major shift in the correlation of forces, with no provision for contingencies such as the radicalization of Egypt; the unexpected transfer to its antagonists of nuclear weapons from Russia, China, North Korea, or Pakistan; or the sudden rise of a unified Arab coalition following a single galvanizing event, as in 1967 and 1973.

Chamberlain's tragic fault lay not in the fact that he made peace but in the kind of peace that he made. Just as Britain did, Israel is giving away too much, too quickly, with too little caution, too little thought, and too much fervor. After a century of Holocaust and war, it seems finally to be exhausted. Mesmerized by the beguiling undulations of the cape, which moves with softness, comfort, and color, it does not see the sword, which waits with motionless discipline for the cape to fall.

Copyright (c) 1999 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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Mark Helprin is a novelist, contributing editor of the Wall Street Journal and senior fellow of the Claremont Institute.



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