As a wise man once said, peace is the illusion that war has ended for a time. A wiser man continued: war never actually ends, it merely transforms—for peace is impossible in the long run. Even in defeat, revisionist powers do not give up their chief aims, and inasmuch as those aims run up against those of the victor in a war, conflict will tend to ensue once again, and often on better terms for the vanquished.
In 2019, we claim this observation as our special wisdom. Witnessing China’s transformation from friendly rising power into outward adversary over the last several years, we mock the Washington Consensus and the “spirit of the nineties” as hopelessly naïve, and rightly so. Seeing the Chinese Communist Party for what it was all along, we say that trade can never be truly free, intellectual and capital flows must always be scrutinized, defense spending should never come down, and unconquered foes can never fully liberalize, even if we bribe them to.
This view—expressed prominently in Washington by freshman Republican Senator Josh Hawley and a growing chorus of China “realists” on the Right and Left—calls the peace dividend out for what it is: a self-defeating sham.
But have we learned the lesson we presume to preach? As regards China, it seems we have, which owes much to the singular effort of the president now in office. Yet has his administration taken this to heart when it comes to our nascent policy toward Israel-Palestine peace? Seemingly not. Premised as it is on the same peace dividend that facilitated China’s revisionist rise, the “Deal of the Century” seems likely to advance Palestinian power more than peace.
“Peace to Prosperity”
Architects of the deal proceed from the basic fact that in its long competition with the Palestinians, Israel has essentially won. They are broadly correct.
On all fronts, Jerusalem is in command of the situation, not unlike Washington’s global position in the immediate years following the Cold War. Israel is stronger and more dynamic economically than ever; it has developed wide and deep ties with the world’s greatest powers, from Russia to China to India to Brazil; and the Israel Defense Forces are as well positioned to defend the country as at any time in its history, even as the Shia Crescent waxes up against its northern border.
On this basis, the Trump administration has launched its latest peace effort, which relies on two final assumptions.
First, closer Israel-Arab ties offer the prospect of a lasting partnership committed to and capable of enforcing a peace settlement with Ramallah. The triangle aligning Washington, Jerusalem, and key Arab capitals in the Trump-Bibi era reinforces this conviction.
Second, given that the political status quo vis-à-vis the Palestinians favors Israel and is poised to improve over time, Israel ought to focus on alleviating Palestinians’ economic woes rather than ceding tangible territorial or political concessions in exchange for promises of goodwill. As the thinking goes, if the Palestinian people believe they have a future and are given a stake in preserving it, they may finally choose butter and trade in their guns, as recent trends seem to suggest. This is the theory of “prosperity for peace,” or, in the administration’s terms, “Peace to Prosperity.”
The Never-Ending Nineties
Presented in this way, the deal sounds promising. Even if no one in Washington is really committed to seeing it through, Israel-Arab photo ops have the advantage of making the Palestinians seem rejectionist when they don’t show up. More importantly, Palestinian intransigence gives Bibi diplomatic breathing room to continue his strategy of expanding settlements gradually over time, which is the real game.
Yet if the deal is more than mere posturing and betrays a serious commitment to peace, then we should take its intellectual arguments seriously. Assuming it isn’t dead on arrival, the Trump administration stands to repeat the central mistake of which it has accused the rosy idealists of peace dividends past.
Investments that help develop (and legitimize) Palestinian high tech, human capital, independent power production, and indigenous manufacturing will create the conditions for bourgeois peace as much as renewed struggle on better terms for Hamas and Palestinian jihad, or a more radical Fatah of the future. Even with commensurate security protections, a planned transit corridor between Palestinian and Israeli territory can carry goods as well as grenades, to which recent Israeli history is a tragic testament.
Of course, Ramallah isn’t Beijing, and Jerusalem isn’t Washington. The capacity for a middle-class Palestine to wage industrial-level competition against Israel will remain necessarily limited. Israeli intelligence will continue to have full vision into Palestinian affairs in a way the Americans never could in China, for example, and Jerusalem’s need to aggressively monitor Palestinian movements will not, for obvious reasons, diminish.
But the fundamental calculus leads to dim conclusions. Any plan that aims to “double Palestinian GDP” without transforming the nature of the regime in Ramallah—or the pathos of the Palestinian street—will strengthen the forces of resistance, not moderate them. Unfortunately, the plan as presented envisages no such transformation and indeed says precious little about facilitating one.
Peace through Strength
If Peace to Prosperity is a false prophet, what then? Perhaps an oracle from the period before the end of history: peace through strength, though with an Israeli twist.
Israel’s sitting prime minister seems intuitively to understand this. Among other things, Bibi’s famous unwillingness to start a war demonstrates rather than contradicts this intuition. He knows that Israel’s long-term trajectory is strong and the Palestinians’ weak: Israel’s borders grow as the Palestinian territories shrink, and Jerusalem’s international prestige improves as Ramallah’s credibility continues to plunge.
Hence it is precisely in avoiding costly wars and sapping Israel’s latent strength that Bibi magnifies his greatest advantage: Israel’s superior national system. Modeling the Palestinian economy along Israeli lines would undercut this decisive advantage, which more than anything has assured the country’s once unthinkable triumph over its neighbors. The principle, alas, is a familiar one: if your enemy’s broke, don’t fix him.
Since Israel’s founding, investing in national strength and allowing the length of history to run its course—rather than protesting it in the name of hollow if well-meaning idealism—has been the key to its success. If history hasn’t ended, why stop now?