For perhaps a quarter of the world’s population, President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem on December 6 was humiliating. Just for that reason it makes Middle East peace more probable. More than President Jimmy Carter, who brokered the Israeli-Egyptian peace deal of 1979, President Trump is likely to be remembered as the American president who contributed most to peace.
Wars end not when the loser is defeated, but rather when the loser is humiliated. Throughout history, as I argued in a 2016 survey of ancient and modern wars, losers have fought on until they lack the manpower to fill their depleted ranks. Typically that occurs after 30% of military-age men are dead, as in France during the Napoleonic Wars, the South in the American Civil War, or Germany in the Second World War. The losing side will not abandon hostilities until all those who want to fight to the death have had the opportunity to do so — unless it is humiliated before the physical exhaustion of its resources has run its course.
That is why the use of atomic weapons against Japan well may have been an act of mercy. The American fire-bombing campaign had already wrecked most of Japan’s cities and killed far more civilians than perished at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan might have sustained far more damage in a conventional resolution through bombing and an eventual invasion. Atomic weapons humiliated the Japanese by displaying the incomparable superiority of Western technology and the pointlessness of further resistance.
There are some defeats whose memory is too painful to bear. As an executive of Bank of America, I spent considerable time at its Charlotte headquarters. My Carolina colleagues needed only a Bourbon or two to lapse into obsessive rehearsals of Civil War battles which, by rights, they should have won. They sounded goofy, but that’s what happens when you sacrifice nearly a third of your young men.
For the Palestinian Arabs and many other Muslims, the many defeats that Israel has inflicted on Arab armies — in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, as well as in smaller engagements subsequently — are too painful to bear. How is it possible that a Jewish population of only 600,000 defeated five Arab armies in the 1948 War of Independence? Or that Israel crushed the combined might of the Arab countries in a few days in June 1967? Palestinian Arabs refuse to accept their past humiliations, believing rather that the Jewish presence in the region is a temporary aberration, and that the Jewish State will be eliminated before long. Daniel Polisar reviewed some 300 polls of Arab opinion in a 2015 survey, and noted that a full 80% of Palestinian Arabs believe that the Jews have no rights to the land whatever.
Even if the Jews have the Mediterranean coast, they do not have Jerusalem, their ancient capital and the holiest of Jewish sites, the Arabs console themselves. They do not have it because the nations of the world refuse to say that they have it. To state the obvious, namely that Jerusalem is and will remain the capital of the State of Israel, is a humiliating dictum. If the so-called micro-aggressions now abhorred at American universities are pinpricks, the declaration that Jerusalem is Jewish is a stab in the heart.
Israel, to be sure, is more powerful than all its Arab neighbors put together, and in extreme circumstances has between 100 and 300 nuclear weapons, according to the defense agency Jane’s, roughly on a par with Great Britain. The Arab strategy to destroy Israel is indirect. Israel is ringed with missiles aimed at its critical infrastructure and population centers, including 150,000 in the hands of Hezbollah. Anti-missile systems such as the short-range Iron Dome neutralized primitive ballistic missiles from Gaza during the 2014 conflict, but Hezbollah has thousands of precision-guided missiles that are harder to intercept. The objective is to draw Israel into a conflict where the Jewish state causes massive collateral damage in order to suppress missile attacks, and the “international community” reacts with horror and forces a “settlement” on Israel, requiring a withdrawal from the West Bank. That would give Israel’s enemies firing positions closer to its national airport and largest cities. Eventually the debilitating effect of encirclement and rocket attacks would make the Jewish State unviable, or so the Arab side believes.
By fostering the hope that Israel might be defeated and eliminated, the world community encourages the Palestinian Arabs and their sponsors in Tehran and Ankara to pursue a long-term war strategy
This is a dodgy strategy at best, but most Palestinian Arabs simply cannot bear to resign themselves to a small and mediocre state on the border of a far more powerful Jewish neighbor. It should be remembered that the Jewish population accepted a far smaller state in 1948 than they have now in order to gain independence, and would have stayed within its borders had the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon not attacked the infant State of Israel. The Jews simply wanted a state, even a small one with a breadth of just 15 kilometers at its narrowest point. If the Palestinian Arabs had wanted a state, they could have had one from President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak in July 2000.
So intimidated is the world community by Muslim anguish over the State of Israel that it humors the delusion that Israel can be destroyed, specifically by refusing to acknowledge that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. By fostering the hope that Israel might be defeated and eliminated, the world community encourages the Palestinian Arabs and their sponsors in Tehran and Ankara to pursue a long-term war strategy.
President Trump has changed all that, by acknowledging Jerusalem as Israel’s de jure as well as its de facto capital. The humiliation this will occasion in the Arab world cannot be underestimated. But it is the sine qua non of peace. Before they are ready to make peace, the Palestinian Arabs will have to drink the bitter draught of defeat to the dregs, and admit to themselves that their problems are not due to the depredations of imperialists, but are of their own making. The Jews have been doing this for 2,600 years, since the fall of the First Temple in 587 B.C.E. Taking responsibility for their own failings, in fact, is one of the secrets of Jewish success. In the short run, Trump’s declaration may provoke the occasional act of violence. In the longer view, he has indicated the only possible path to peace.