Missing Peace

Israelis aren't rejecting the peace process this election season. They're acknowledging that a solution is impossible without a credible Palestinian partner.

Israel votes on Jan. 22, and a remarkable feature of its election campaign has been the way politicians on the left have shunned the peace slogans they passionately promoted in the salad days of the peace process.

"Peace Now!" "Land for peace." "There's no alternative to peace." After Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat sealed the Oslo Accords in September 1993 with their famous handshake at President Bill Clinton's White House, these were proud exclamations of Israel's "peace camp." But for many Israelis, sad history over the last 20 years has discredited such talk.

These elections are expected to keep Benjamin Netanyahu of the conservative Likud Party as prime minister of a coalition government. Left-of-center parties have been campaigning about economic and cultural issues but avoiding talk of peace. Israel's Haaretz newspaper notes that the chief of the Labor Party "has decided to play down her party's position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" and that "issues of peace and the territories have been marginalized in the pre-election rhetoric."

Why has the left changed its tune? Israelis in general continue to crave peace, but the state of Palestinian politics leaves them hopeless. According to recent Dahaf Institute and Smith Consulting polls, more than two-thirds of Israelis support the creation of a non-threatening Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state. If extra security provisions are assumed, support rises to 75 percent. But, as Dahaf reports, many Israelis do not believe "that the Palestinians will uphold the conditions of peace and especially those elements dealing with security."

There are grounds for this skepticism. In the Oslo process, Israel gave governmental power to the new Palestinian Authority (PA), including control over the territories in which virtually all the Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza live. Israeli prime ministers from parties on the left and the right then offered previously unthinkable concessions, including the sharing of Jerusalem and land swaps involving pre-1967 Israeli territory. In 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Likud withdrew completely and unilaterally from Gaza, forcibly removing more than 8,000 Israeli settlers.

Terrorism against Israelis, however, intensified after the Rabin-Arafat handshake, with PA support. In 2000, Arafat, then the PA president, rejected an extraordinarily forthcoming peace offer from Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (of the Labor Party) and launched the Second Intifada, which lasted more than four years and cost more than 1,000 Israeli lives. After Israel withdrew from Gaza, Hamas, an Islamist terrorist organization affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, won parliamentary elections there and seized executive power, forcibly expelling PA officials.

In 2006 and again in 2012, Palestinians provoked wars with Israel by firing rockets from Gaza indiscriminately against Israeli civilians. Palestinian schools, whether run by the PA or Hamas, persist in teaching hatred of Israel and Jews and exhorting children to armed resistance. Rather than move toward compromise to end the conflict with Israel, Palestinian leaders have been competing violently with each other in vowing eternal resistance and rejection. Even PA officials, relative moderates compared with Hamas leaders, demand that Israel accept the "return" of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian "refugees," which would amount to Israel's destruction.

It is hardly surprising that Israelis no longer mass at political rallies to shout "Peace Now" and "There's no alternative to peace." Those slogans reflected the belief that the key impediment to peace was Israeli policy. Israel's Labor Party promoted that idea during Likud's ascendancy from 1977 to 1992. Labor politicians argued that the Palestinians were ready for a land-for-peace deal, but that Likud was more interested in controlling the West Bank and Gaza than in making peace. "Peace Now" was a way of saying that Israel could readily achieve lasting peace simply by electing Labor and changing its own policies. By insisting "there's no alternative to peace," Israelis weren't actually suggesting that they would die or commit suicide if the Arab side refused them peace; rather, they were assuming that peace was within Israel's control and rejecting it was inconceivable.

Those slogans helped elect Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister in 1992. He and other Labor strategists wanted to rid Israel of most of the West Bank and Gaza for Israel's own reasons -- to relinquish "the burden of the occupation" -- but they had long thought they could trade the territories for a peace agreement that would end the conflict. After a year of exasperating diplomacy, Rabin discovered that was not possible. He then decided that "divorcing" Israel from the territories was more important than peace.

Accordingly, Rabin accepted the Oslo Accords, which were dressed up as a land-for-peace agreement but really amounted to a unilateral Israeli withdrawal. Arafat understood from day one that his various peace promises were not really obligatory, and that Israeli withdrawal would proceed whether or not he complied. By and large, he did not comply. When critics of the Oslo process complained that Arafat was cheating and remained an enemy, Israeli officials answered that one must make peace with one's enemies, not with one's friends. This question-begging reply, despite its obvious absurdity, was praised as ironic sagacity by the "peace camp."

But a nation cannot sustain a profound denial of reality forever. Peace is not a unilateral choice for Israel. The notion that Israelis can make peace with people committed to killing them is, not to put too fine a point on it, impractical. Hence the widespread despair in Israel about peace on this election day.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

National Security

Chemical Reaction

How the United States should deal with Assad.

The increasingly bloody civil war in Syria has raised concerns that the regime of Bashar al-Assad will eventually use its stockpile of chemical weapons (CW) against armed oppositionists and civilians or that insurgents and terrorists will get their hands on them. Indeed, in light of recent opposition gains, unless the United States reaffirms and strengthens its previous deterrent warnings, the Assad regime is liable to use CW against its own people, with catastrophic results for Syria and its neighbors.

Syria's CW arsenal is believed to be the largest in the region. It has reportedly produced artillery rockets filled with the blister agent mustard, as well as aerial bombs and missile warheads filled with the nerve agents sarin and perhaps VX. Despite the reputed size and sophistication of this stockpile, it is unclear at this point that the Assad regime could kill many more insurgents or civilians with CW than it is already killing by conventional military means -- though CW has the potential to sicken or injure many thousands and to induce new, even larger refugee flows.

Iraq's use of CW during the Iran-Iraq War showed that large concentrations of agent are generally required to cause heavy loss of life, though even small amounts can injure thousands. Some 10,000 Iranians, half of them civilians, were killed by CW during eight years of war (around 5 percent of the total number of Iranians killed during that conflict), and another 50,000 suffered moderate to severe injuries. More than 45,000 Iranians continue to suffer the long-term health effects of exposure to chemical agents, including skin, eye, and respiratory ailments, birth defects, cancer, and post-traumatic stress.

Two of the best-known Iraqi chemical attacks on civilian targets are the bombings of the Iranian town of Sardasht in June 1987 and the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja in March 1988. In Sardasht, Iraqi aircraft dropped seven 250-kilogram bombs filled with mustard, killing about 100 people and injuring 4,500. In Halabja, more than 50 aircraft dropped some 200 bombs filled with mustard and nerve agents, killing some 5,000 immediately and injuring thousands more.

It took Iraq several years of trial and error before it was able to effectively employ chemical weapons on the battlefield, and its successes were due in part to the fact it used them against human wave attacks and troop concentrations -- ideal targets for chemical weapons. Syria lacks this experience, and the armed opposition tends to operate in relatively small, dispersed formations. Moreover, Syria may lack sufficient artillery and air power to deliver the type of concentrated, sustained bombardments that produce the kind of mass casualties experienced in Halabja and during combat in the Iran-Iraq War. (For instance, Syrian government airstrikes rarely involve more than a lone aircraft against a single target.) And it may initially use CW in a measured fashion, in ways that could be difficult to verify, in order not to provoke an American military response.

Thus, Syria could probably kill many scores of people in individual chemical strikes -- about as many as it has killed in recent conventional airstrikes on gas stations and bakeries -- and produce thousands of casualties that would need immediate medical attention as well as long-term care. While such strikes are unlikely, in the long run, to fundamentally alter the military balance between the Assad regime and the armed opposition, their psychological impact could be devastating, leading to mass refugee flows into neighboring countries and a humanitarian crisis of massive proportions.

For these reasons, the United States has an overriding interest in deterring the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. Accordingly, U.S. warnings of unspecified "consequences" in response to the use of CW need to be sharpened with a threat to use force, backed by the deployment to the region of additional strike aircraft to make this threat credible. Should deterrence fail and should the United States want to disrupt the regime's use of CW (or prevent its diversion by others), it has a number of military options. It could seek to deny access to CW stockpiles by collapsing the structures where they are stored -- or rubbling their entrances -- using reduced-yield bombs, such as the BLU-126/B, and then seeding the area with antipersonnel bomblets or mines. Or it could create a low-grade contamination hazard around CW storage sites by destroying a few munitions using the nonexplosive CBU-107 passive attack weapon (which disperses thousands of tungsten penetrator rods that could punch small holes in bulk storage containers or munitions), thereby hindering access to the area. Or it could use agent-defeat munitions, such as the BLU-119/B, to incinerate CW agents.

It is far from clear, however, that a strike against Syrian CW would succeed. None of the aforementioned munitions has ever been used for that purpose. Moreover, target intelligence may be less than adequate. U.S. intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction has not always been up to snuff (think Iraq and Libya), and reports that the regime has consolidated its chemical stockpiles in a number of secure locations to prevent their capture may make it harder to figure out exactly where they are. And if the United States were to act, the regime might well use CW against its own population and blame the casualties on a U.S. strike that had gone awry.

Moreover, as the United States learned after the 1991 Gulf War, most munitions would likely survive a strike, buried under layers of rubble, though they would probably be inaccessible to anyone not equipped with protective gear. (Even properly equipped individuals might find the task too risky; U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq dealt with some bombed-out CW bunkers by entombing them in concrete.) And it is not clear how much agent would be released into the air, posing a threat to nearby civilians. U.S. government studies determined that most agent released as a result of airstrikes on CW bunkers during the Gulf War was absorbed by the soil, contained by storage crates and facilities, or incinerated in the explosions; only a small amount was dispersed into the air.

It is not clear whether such conditions would pertain in the event of strikes on Syria's CW, though steps can be taken to limit the impact of any agent release by striking when atmospheric and weather conditions are favorable. Windy conditions would hasten the dissipation of any released agent, while rain (it is currently the rainy season in Syria) could preclude the formation of a toxic plume, though it might also create a ground contamination hazard.

Finally, at least some of Syria's sarin munitions are binary weapons, which consist of two precursor chemicals that are stored separately and that become highly lethal only when combined. If targeted prior to mixing, any precursors released into the air would likely have little effect on nearby populations. In this way, some of Syria's most lethal chemical arms could be disposed of before they cause greater harm, if the United States has the intelligence needed for such a strike. However, media reports that the regime has already prepared some binary-type munitions for use add an additional layer of complexity to the targeting challenge, as it may now be more difficult to distinguish those sarin munitions that can be safely targeted from those that cannot.

The United States has made clear that it is likely to act only in the aftermath of a chemical attack. Even then, Washington must be willing to act on the basis of ambiguous reports, in circumstances fraught with uncertainty, if it is to prevent additional use of CW. As experience in Iraq and elsewhere has shown, it can take weeks or months to verify allegations of chemical weapons use. By then, much of the damage will be done. Accordingly, the United States should be prepared to gather, with great urgency, forensic and epidemiological evidence in response to future claims of CW use.

The international community, moreover, must prepare for the worst. Medical supplies sufficient for several mass-casualty events involving chemical weapons should be prepositioned in the region -- if this has not been done already. Arabic- and Kurdish-language guidelines for reacting to a chemical attack (move upwind and seek high ground if in the open; move indoors and create a sealed room using wet rags, plastic sheeting, or other improvised means; and do not use water stored in open containers) should be readied for dissemination by radio, satellite TV, and the Internet.

Through its reluctance to take even modest steps to bolster deterrence and to prepare for the aftermath of a CW attack, Washington risks signaling Damascus that it is free to act as it wishes. And this only increases the likelihood of a humanitarian disaster that will be remembered by the Syrian people and haunt U.S. policy toward the region for many years to come.