Monday, September 26, 2011

Rubin - The ‘unsustainable status quo’ status quo is unsustainable

Barry Rubin
Op-Ed Contributor
25 September '11

Implication of unsustainable status quo is that things are so bad you better jump off sinking ship – into shark-infested waters – before it's too late.

Many people are obviously and understandably frustrated that Israel is so badly treated by the “M.U.G.-gers (Media, University, and government)” complex in much of the Western world. One can fume endlessly against their behavior (double standards, unfair, falsified history) but that accomplishes nothing.

An alternative approach to the issue is to call for “creative new ideas,” with the assumption that these ideas will solve the problem, or at least make things better. This is logical and fits many other situations, but it usually doesn’t apply to Israel’s case. Why not?

The assumption is that if good actions are taken they will be recognized and rewarded. If good things are said, they will be reported and praised in a meaningful way. But while Israel should always do and say the best things, this mechanism doesn’t work. The good actions are ignored or reinterpreted; the good statements are just ignored.

And so the eternal last bastion of those who unintentionally make Israel’s situation harder and the Middle East worse is to say: Why don’t you propose something positive? What’s the alternative? The status quo is unsustainable!

Of course, all status quos are unsustainable in a sense, since change is inevitable. But sometimes the status quo deserves to be kept around for a while until something better comes along, or can be made to happen. The best alternative of all is not to make things worse than they already are. As for the cliché that the status quo is unsustainable, that statement is usually followed by a plan that would make for a status quo even more unsustainable and negative.

There is a one-word description for the idea of the unsustainable status quo: defeatism. Mind you, I don’t mean that nothing should change and that one’s policy should be that of mindless reactionary intransigence. But one can also make one’s own strategy better rather than switching to another.

The implication of an unsustainable status quo is that things are so bad that you better jump off the sinking ship – into shark-infested waters – before it is too late. It might be better to mobilize the crew, start pumping out the water, and steer a good course.

CONSIDER PAST examples of the “status quo is unsustainable” nonsense: The status quo is unsustainable so we must withdraw immediately from south Lebanon.

The status quo is unsustainable so we must have the Oslo accords.

The status quo is unsustainable so we must withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

And what have these accomplished but produce the “unsustainable status quo” we’re in now, as opposed to all of those previous unsustainable situations of the past six decades?

Another thing left out by the unsustainable-status-quo school is its assumption that any change must focus on Israel making more concessions. One could also alter the status quo, for example, by showing more strength, inflicting higher costs on adversaries and sabotaging hostile acts. One can also be creative about defending oneself.

On top of all this, however, Israel has special problems. Here are three examples:

• Turkey: In trying to deal with the current friction with Turkey, Israel’s government proposed that it express regret for defending itself during the Gaza flotilla – or rather, not for defending itself per se, but for the resulting loss of life. It offered to make donations to a humanitarian fund for the relatives of those killed.

The Turkish government responded that it would accept only a full apology, the payment of compensation (an admission of wrongdoing, and based on demands rather than the donors judgment), and an immediate end to the Gaza blockade.

The Turkish demand was ironic, coming as it did immediately after a UN commission determined the blockade is legal.

So despite trying creative ways to end the conflict, Israeli officials could do nothing. Why? Because, for its own reasons, the Turkish regime doesn’t want to resolve the conflict. All Israel can do is to show its respect for the Turkish people and nation along with willingness to be flexible if the other side is reasonable.

• Egypt: What is going to be determining the Egypt-Israel relationship in future is not Israeli actions or words, since radical nationalists and Islamists in Turkey – even relative moderates – are so hostile. Israel’s creative alternative is to try to get along with the military junta and to avoid offending reasonable Egyptian pride and legitimate Egyptian rights. Once an elected government takes over, it isn’t going to be easy.

No verbal formula, no Israeli action will make the country popular among revolutionary Islamists and radical nationalists. This is different from normal international relations, where countries can make alterations in their words or policies to get credit for them and sooth disputes. That’s a point many in the West simply don’t understand.

• Palestinians: What’s Israel to do on this issue? How about withdrawing from the Gaza Strip to show its good intentions? No, did that. Letting a couple of hundred thousand Palestinians return and establish their own government? Been there, done that. Letting them have guns and lots of money? Check. Offering, on almost a daily basis, to negotiate without conditions; to accept an independent Palestinian state; to return basically to the 1967 borders with some alterations and swaps? Oops, done that, too.

IF AFTER all that Western leaders and writers can still say that Israel hasn’t proven that it wants peace, will the next change in the status quo change that? Of course, if Israel elected a left-of-center prime minister, the world would say nice things for a while, even if they had the same basic policy and said the same words as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu does. Yet how long would that last? Don’t believe me? Three words: Rabin, Peres, Barak.

At the same time, let me say something nice about the status quo. Israel is relatively secure and prosperous, given the alternatives. The new idea needed at a time when the regional situation is deteriorating badly because of external factors is how better to defend yourself. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes contacts going on with the Palestinian Authority and others to ease the situation as much as possible, including the promotion of Palestinian prosperity.

Winston Churchill knew something about real-world politics and “unsustainable” status quo situations. He was, after all, prime minister at a time when the Nazis ruled virtually all of Europe and German planes nightly bombed British cities.

Asked once what it was like to be ninety, he answered: Terrible, but consider the alternative! Asked about democracy, Churchill said it was the worst of all political systems, except for all of the others.

So I’m all for creativity and new ideas, as well as flexibility, but anyone who doesn’t understand Israel’s special situation and history in that regard understands nothing. There’s a reason why every concession, risk, and new idea Israel tries out doesn’t create a “sustainable status quo,” and that reason is: the fault does not lie with Israel.

Finally, if the status quo is so horrible, say, for the Palestinians, then let them make a deal for a stable, two-state solution, for peace with Israel to change the situation, rather than public relations campaigns at the UN and patiently waiting another few generations in the hope that violence, martyrs, intransigence, and an Arab or Islamist war against Israel will bring them total victory.

The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center. He is a featured columnist at Pajamas Media and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) journal.

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