From Bush to Netanyahu

Only after a catastrophe arrives will the politicians on both sides be able to sit down and sign off on painful concessions.

Nine years have passed, but the pain has not dulled. It was clearly visible on the faces of the thousands of Americans who attended memorial ceremonies for the victims of the September 11, 2001, attack on Saturday.

Opening of peace talks Sept. 1, 2010 AP

Indeed, this terror attack - the largest in history, killing some 3,000 people - stunned the United States. The terrorists succeeding in hitting two of the nation's preeminent symbols: its main financial center (the World Trade Center ) and the center of its military might (the Pentagon ). And they came very close to hitting its symbol of government, the White House, as well.

This week, the Fox television network reported that the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency was trying to prevent publication of a book revealing that a year before the attack, U.S. intelligence had unearthed threats by Mohammed Atta, the man who led the September 11 hijackers, to carry out huge, spectacular attacks in the United States.

This report teaches us the power of what could be called the Catastrophe Law, which states that no politician will ever take action to prevent a looming catastrophe. That's not because the politician is evil and we are good. Rather, he will refrain from acting because in order to prevent this future catastrophe, he will necessarily have to cause at least a minor crisis right now: He will have to make tough decisions, agree to painful concessions, launch an operation, cut benefits, or otherwise hurt people in some way.

But the minute he does any of the above, the public will blame him for the minor crisis he has caused and he will be made to pay with his job. He will never be able to prove that his brave action prevented a future catastrophe, because the catastrophe will never happen.

That is what happened with the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. It turns out that then-president George W. Bush had received reports from America's intelligence services indicating that Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden intended to carry out suicide attacks in the United States. A month and half before the attacks, Bush received a report from the Central Intelligence Agency containing a precise intelligence warning about Al-Qaida's intention to send terrorists into the country. The report said Al-Qaida was even looking into ways of hijacking airplanes and warned that the threat of an attack was both imminent and grave.

Bush read all the documents and heard all the assessments, and did nothing. He knew that if he took forceful action against Muslim organizations in America - preventing their members from attending flight school, not allowing them on airplanes without stringent security checks - and want to war in Afghanistan to attack Al-Qaida, he would never be able to persuade the American public that his actions had prevented a catastrophe. Nobody would believe him. He would be branded an ultra-nationalist who hates Muslims, and might even be impeached.

And therefore, Bush decided to sit quietly and do nothing. Only after blood had been shed did he begin to take forceful, even drastic, steps - things he would never have dared to do previously.

The Catastrophe Law also operates in this country. A peace agreement with Egypt was signed only after the blood-drenched Yom Kippur War, even though Anwar Sadat had offered Golda Meir a similar deal eight months before war erupted in October 1973. Yitzhak Rabin agreed to shake Yasser Arafat's hand and sign the Oslo Accords only after the first intifada. Similarly, the withdrawal from Gaza followed the second intifada and Qassam rocket fire on Sderot.

That's why there's only a slim chance that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will reach an agreement on two states for two peoples with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. For in order to end the conflict, Netanyahu would have to spark a mini-crisis: He would have to remove settlements, withdraw from most of the territories and make compromises regarding Jerusalem.

But Netanyahu will not do any of the above, because he is very well acquainted with the Catastrophe Law. He knows he would never be able to persuade the majority of Israelis that his actions were preventing a future catastrophe, so he would be attacked from every side, and his survival in office would be threatened.

But if so, when will we finally be able to sign an agreement? Only after the catastrophe has arrived - after a "strategic terror attack" or another war. Only then will the politicians on both sides be able to sit down and sign off on painful concessions. For only then will the nation understand and accept them.