Interview'Everyone had bigger territory at some point. Be practical'

I believe in compromise, says hawkish pundit under fire for opposing annexation

With seemingly dovish NYT op-ed, Daniel Pipes angered many former allies on the right. He’s not backing down, but stresses his goal is still Israel’s victory over the Palestinians

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Daniel Pipes at the American Freedom Alliance conference at USC. (CC-BY-ASA:
Daniel Pipes at the American Freedom Alliance conference at USC. (CC-BY-ASA:

Daniel Pipes caused a serious commotion last week among fellow right-wing pro-Israel pundits by arguing — in the opinion pages of the New York Times, no less — that Jerusalem’s plan to annex large parts of the West Bank was misguided and counterproductive.

Yishai Fleisher, the international spokesperson for the Jewish community of Hebron, wrote an article arguing that Pipes’s piece was “entirely founded on needlessly fearful conjecture.”

Less courteous, the heads of the hawkish Zionist Organization of America penned a nearly 3,000-word piece rebutting a “fallacy-filled” text column that, they argue, “sounds like it came from the hostile-to-Israel far left.”

And hard-right columnist Caroline Glick wondered why Pipes abandoned his principles and decided that Israel must “surrender its rights and strategic interests in the hopes of appeasing people who wish us ill.” Addressing him directly on Twitter, she wrote: “But alas, buried your principles you have. And we just have to accept that you switched sides.”

However, Pipes, the president of the Middle East Forum, a hawkish think tank based in Philadelphia, insists that he’s as pro-Israel and principled as ever but simply believes the planned annexation does Israel no favors.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivering a campaign address next to a map of proposed areas of the West Bank for annexation on September 10, 2019. (screen capture: Facebook)

“I was surprised that my usual allies and friends didn’t read [my op-ed in The New York Times] more closely. I think they just read the headline,” he told The Times of Israel in a phone interview Sunday.

Pipes said he did not expect so much umbrage from otherwise like-minded people over what he characterized as a relatively minor question about the right path forward to  Israel’s ultimate victory. “You can think [annexation] is a good idea, fine. We agree on the basics; we disagree on this, no big deal. That’s why I was surprised that all these people are jumping up and down over this purely tactical thing,” he said.

“What’s particularly annoying is that they’re attributing [ulterior] motives to me, which is just nasty. No, I am giving my opinion, as I’ve done 4,000 times in articles and 9,000 times on Twitter. That’s what I do for a living. I analyze and I give opinions. So you don’t like this one, fine. You know, I don’t like everything you do either.”

The Middle East is rife with philosophical, ideological, emotional, legal and moral issues. “One gets very excited about them. One gets very annoyed with people who disagree,” Pipes said. His cost-benefit analysis about a possible West Bank annexation was no reason to cancel his membership in the club of conservative Israel supporters, he contended.

“I am not saying Israel is an apartheid state and should disappear, am I? All I’m saying is, I don’t think it’s a good idea right now.”

In the contentious Times op-ed, which was similarly condemned by far-left and pro-Palestinian pundits, but welcomed by some in the center-left, Pipes laid out various reasons why he “strongly” opposes Israel applying sovereignty to any part of the West Bank at the current time.

“In short, annexation of the West Bank would probably damage Israel’s relations with the Trump administration, the Democrats, Europeans and Arab leaders, as well as destabilize the region, radicalize the Israeli Left, and harm the Zionist goal of a Jewish state,” he wrote.

He is also worried about Israel having to grant citizenship to thousands of Palestinians living in the areas slated for annexation. “This is essentially a population that does not want to be part of the Jewish state,” he said.

“And what does annexation actually achieve? It is a symbolic move, a gesture toward Israelis living on the West Bank in legal limbo. But annexation does not extricate them from that limbo, since it is likely that no important government in the world would recognize their change in legal status.”

Toward the end of the piece, Pipes, who is not an Israeli citizen, says that Jerusalem “must assert itself against the Palestinians; but that assertion must be strategic, fitting into the larger campaign to compel Palestinians to give up their goal of eliminating the Jewish state.”

Unilateral annexing is merely “a self-indulgence that has the opposite result” in that it “buoys the anti-Zionist cause and renders a resolution of the conflict more distant.”

Unsurprisingly, some left-wing pundits and journalists liked the piece. But Pipes suspects they didn’t read beyond the headline either. “They wouldn’t have been so happy had they look at the entire piece,” he said. From their stance, “I came to the right conclusion for the wrong reasons.”

My goal is to force, compel, coerce the Palestinians to understand that in this century-and-more-long war they have lost

Amid the wave of criticism that he has faced from his usual allies — some fellows at his own think tank argue in favor of annexation — Pipes said he stands by the basic premise of his argument.

“It’s not worth it,” he said. Declaring sovereignty over the West Bank changes nothing on the ground but rather is a “nominal, theoretical, abstract game” that could result in painful repercussions for Israel, he posited.

“It all boils down to one simple equation: Is this a good idea? Does this advance Israel’s victory or not? I think, between the Israelis who will be disgusted, the outsiders who will be upset, the Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, Saudis, the UAE and who knows who else [who are expected to react angrily] — there are all these potential negative consequences. What is there in favor? Symbolism.”

Palestinians wave national flags as they take part in a protest against US President Donald Trump’s Mideast initiative in the West Bank city of Ramallah, February 11, 2020. (Majdi Mohammed/AP).

Pipes, who founded the Middle East Forum in 1994, has written 16 books, many of them warning the West against radical Islamism. On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his main position can be summed up in two words: Palestinian surrender. Or, as he calls it, “Israel Victory.”

“My goal is to force, compel, coerce the Palestinians to understand that in this century-and-more-long war they have lost. They need to understand that. And they have to come to terms with the Jewish state,” he said.

He only reluctantly discussed how this goal is best achieved, and what the contours of a final outcome should look like. “I stay away from this. I believe that whatever your goal is — to leave the West Bank, or to rule the entire West Ban, whatever it is — you’re better off with a Palestinian population that understands that it has lost, and that they’re losing every single time, and that it’s time to give up.”

Is that an achievable goal? Pipes, who holds a PhD in history from Harvard, believes that if the Allies could defeat the Germans and the Japanese, there is no reason why the Israelis couldn’t stare down the Palestinians.

All that Israel needs to do is to define victory as its main objective, he posited. “Until 1993, you had more or less this goal. But in 1993 you changed radically to appeasement,” he said, referring to the land-for-peace paradigm that characterized the Oslo Accords.

“The next policy was unilateral withdrawal. Give them everything they want to leave us alone. Very smart,” he said ironically.” Then, serious again, he added: “First victory, then peace. If you don’t win, you lose. I have all sorts of slogans.”

A partial view taken on March 31, 2017, shows dismantled caravans from the Amona outpost placed in the West Bank settlement of Shiloh. (AFP/ Thomas Coex)

What distinguishes Pipes from other right-wing Israel supporters appears to be his indifference toward the emotional value many Israeli right-wingers ascribe to the West Bank. The area other hawks insist on calling Judea and Samaria may be the biblical heartland of the Jewish people, but this argument leaves Pipes cold.

“I’m a historian. And as a historian you learn that everyone had some bigger territory at some point. There is no way to reconcile everybody having all they had at their maximum a thousand or two thousand years ago. You have to be practical.”

There has been no substantial Jewish habitation in the West Bank for centuries, he added, an assertion likely to further scandalize his erstwhile allies.

“I believe in compromise,” he said. “But, I also believe in convincing the Palestinians they’ve lost. I want to go for the jugular. I want to go for the kill.”

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