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Encouraging Aggression by Making it Cost-Free

How Egypt’s economic turmoil and Western positions on the peace process combine to increase the risk of another Arab-Israeli war

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Visiting Fellow


How Egypt’s economic turmoil and Western positions on the peace process combine to increase the risk of another Arab-Israeli war

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Visiting Fellow

Last month, Victor Davis Hanson published a fascinating article on why Iran might nevertheless decide to start a war it can’t win. In it, he analyzed several cases in which countries did exactly that, including the Korean War in 1950, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1982 Falklands War and the 1991 Gulf War, and found three common factors: pressing domestic crises, belief that the West might acquiesce in their aggression, and conviction that even if it didn’t, the Western response would stop well short of regime change. In short, their leaders had something to gain (domestic distraction) and nothing irreversible to lose.

While surely relevant to Iran, Hanson’s analysis is equally relevant to another Mideast powder keg – one created by the combination of Egypt’s revolution and a troubling change in Western attitudes toward the Israeli-Arab peace process. The former left Egypt with a major economic crisis. And the latter has assured Arab states that attacking Israel carries no risk of irreversible losses: Even if a war results in Israel capturing Arab territory, the West will demand that it return every last inch.

This wasn’t always the case. UN Security Council Resolution 242, the original framework for the peace process, was deliberately crafted to ensure that Israel wouldn’t have to return all the territory captured in its defensive war of 1967. While the Arab and Soviet blocs wanted the resolution to require Israel to withdraw from “the territories” or “all the territories,” the final wording merely required an Israeli withdrawal from “territories” captured in 1967. And both sides understood that this omission was “not accidental,” as America’s then UN ambassador, Arthur Goldberg, explained: The West envisioned a “peace settlement encompassing less than a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied territories, inasmuch as Israel’s prior frontiers had proved to be notably insecure,” and therefore, “the resolution speaks of withdrawal from occupied territories without defining the extent of withdrawal.”

As time passed, however, Western attitudes shifted drastically. The European Union has been demanding a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank for years now, and last year, the U.S. joined in: President Barack Obama declared that any future Israeli-Palestinian border must be “based on the 1967 lines,” modified only by “mutually agreed swaps,” meaning Palestinians can veto any proposal encompassing less than 100 percent of the territory. That is a retreat from both President Bill Clinton’s parameters of 2000 (which called for Israel to cede 94 to 96 percent of the West Bank) and President George Bush’s position in 2004 (“it is unrealistic to expect … a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949”).

And on the Syrian front, this change occurred even earlier: Here, even the U.S. has demanded a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights for decades.

It’s sometimes argued that Israel itself set the 100-percent precedent, by returning every inch of Sinai to Egypt under their 1979 peace agreement. This, however, is a flawed comparison. Egypt was the first to breach the Arab consensus against peace with Israel, at considerable cost to its relations with its Arab neighbors (who barred it from the Arab League for 10 years). It therefore deserved a territorial bonus. But there’s no reason why others should receive a similar reward for more than three decades of continued refusal to make peace.

This Western attitude has long been an impediment to Israeli-Arab negotiations: Syria has no incentive to make peace sooner rather than later as long as the West guarantees that 100 percent of the Golan will still be on the table later, while the Palestinians have learned that rejecting repeated Israeli offers of statehood merely results in Western pressure for Israel to offer them more. Had either Syria or the Palestinians thought instead that they had something to lose by holding out – i.e., that waiting would reduce the amount the territory they could ultimately expect to obtain – they might have signed an agreement sooner.

But that issue pales beside the danger posed by the new situation in Egypt. The revolution left Egypt an economic basket case. Tourism, the country’s second-largest revenue source, was down 35 percent in the first nine months of last year, while third-quarter unemployment stood at 12 percent, up from 9 percent a year earlier. Foreign exchange reserves plunged 50 percent in 2011 – a disaster for a country that imports half its food – and last month, a government bond issue flopped, with investors buying less than a third despite yields of almost 16 percent. The chances that Egypt’s new government can produce the economic miracle needed to reverse this decline seem slim, and if it doesn’t, demonstrators are likely to return to Tahrir Square to demand its ouster, just as they did with Hosni Mubarak.

Hence Egypt’s new rulers may soon find themselves in desperate need of something to distract the public from its economic distress. And in a country where 90% of the population views Israel as an “enemy” and a “threat,” they might well see war with Israel as the ideal distraction.

This makes it vital for Western leaders to make it clear that Egypt does have something irreversible to lose by starting another war – namely, that if it loses Sinai to Israel again, the West won’t back Egyptian demands for its full return. But there’s no way to make such a threat credible while the West is simultaneously demanding that Israel return every inch of land captured in an earlier defensive war: Egypt’s leaders will know they just have to wait a few years for the furor to die down, and the West will similarly demand 100 percent restitution for them.

It’s therefore high time for Western leaders to send the following message to both Syria and the Palestinians: You went to war, you lost, and you refused to make peace for 45 years; our patience is exhausted. We will no longer back your demands for restoring the status quo ante; aggression and intransigence have a price.

For only by ensuring that aggression does entail a territorial price can the West deter future aggressors from trying it.

Evelyn Gordon, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a journalist and commentator writing in The Jerusalem Post and Commentary. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.

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