Solutions to the Israel-Arab conflict have proven illusive. Even formal peace accords, complete with formal ceremonies and treaties, whether the Camp David Accord or the September of 1995 agreement, are generally understood as gestures of hope. At best, progress is painfully slow and fragile; optimism is a government prescribed policy, not a genuinely felt emotion. Every president since Harry Truman has had a plan, offered his good offices, even held out various bribes; each met with limited success, at best. Nor have four major wars, over a dozen changes of leadership and endless diplomatic negotiations created the permanent dull normal state of peace. Liberal solutions, conservative solutions, hard-line solutions, and pie-in-the-sky solutions have only served as palliative resolutions. Far too much depends on shaky coalitions, unstable personalities and unpredictable events such as terrorist attacks. Perhaps only fools or well-meaning academics believe that a lasting peace and normalcy can be secured with yet one more conference, concession or proclamation.
The situation is not, however, hopeless. Indeed, when examined from a wholly different perspective, the problem is quite solvable without a decisive war, bitter enemies learning to love one another, billions in bribes, or Messianic intervention. It is even a solution that has been tried and perfected within the United States on occasions too numerous to count. There is no new technology needed, no disputes over who really represents whom and, most important, it is a solution with no economic or political losers. Everybody from the Party of God to followers of Our Lady of Perpetual Dialoguing will be pleased.
The solution begins by recognizing the essential character of the Israel-Arab dispute. Reduced to its core, it is the familiar one of demand for land outstripping the available supply. Israel, Syria, Jordan Lebanon, and, of course, the Palestinians all want the same land and are not willing to renounce their claims. In a rational capitalistic system, this problem is solved by the market: one party outbids all the others, and this is accepted by the losers as legitimate. Disappointed bidders do not take up arms; their reaction is the familiar, "if those idiots want to pay over a $1000 a foot, let them have it." Unfortunately for the cause of peace, this rational bidding process does not work when sovereign nations contest land rich in historical and religious significance. It is difficult to imagine any Israeli government even contemplating auctioning off East Jerusalem or Jordan putting the West Bank on multiple-listing.
If land is so valued that marketplace transactions are impossible, and promises worthless, what is to be done? The answer is obvious -- reduce the value of the land and let economic forces do their magic. If the West Bank, Golan Heights, Gaza, and all the other disputed territory were just about worthless, the Israel-Arab conflict would cease to exist. The real tasks, then, is not how to divide-up over-priced land or reach worthless agreements. The solution lies in restoring realistic prices to a dangerous game in which too much treasure chases too little of noneconomic value.
W.C. Fields used to say that forsaking booze is easy -- I've done it a thousand times. The government in Washington likewise has no problem devaluating land. They, too, have done it thousands of times. The "secret" is public housing. Just as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, putting a massive public housing project on any piece of property will dramatically lower the value of surrounding land. The record here is unequaled and unquestioned: there are no "maybes" nor must we hope that the gods will smile on our plans. When massive public housing projects filled with top-of-the-line underclass Americans are strategically positioned in the Middle East, land values will return to their pre-Roman days while the passion for thy neighbor's real estate will go limp.
This new and improved resettlement of the occupied territories will be a snap compared to the older diplomacy. First, Israel and its neighbors will be offered a wonderful package -- the U.S. government will take out a long-term lease, with a nice yearly payment, on border land presently occupied by land mines, barbed-wire fences, and security posts. Land will also be leased near belligerent settlers and professional malcontents. Hundreds of thousands of modern, high-rise housing units will be constructed for future Americans residents using local labor and companies to be paid on a U.S. wage scale. This economic windfall will be hard to resist, and the political opposition will also be minimal since Jews will not be moving into Arab territory and vice versa. Nor will anyone be displaced save some border guards. The prospect of a large permanent colony of "rich Americans" will also appeal in a region famous for its ability to separate tourists from their money. Between all the construction money and the wait for the rich Americans, the mood will beone of euphoria.
Meanwhile, residents permanently on welfare and living in depressing, dreary Soviet-style housing projects in New York, Chicago, and Detroit will be given color brochures about life in the sunny Middle East, the original Paradise, the Garden of Eden, the land of milk and honey, where it never gets cold and the beaches are just minutes away. "Why live in Detroit and pay rent when you can live like a Sheik for free in the land of Cleopatra?" A extra-special effort will be made to recruit anti-social types and those with long criminal records. Perhaps resettlement will be offered as an alternative to prison. Ads will play up the Exodus theme, a chance to begin life afresh in the land of the Bible, and the possibilities of economic growth in an area famous for it vast wealth. Yahweii Ben Yahweh and his black Israelites will be encouraged to become community leaders. At least a half-million or more public housing residents addicted to the dole will quickly be signed up for the Promised Land, perhaps more.
Within a year's time, one of the world's great feats of emigration will be complete. The media will be filled with stories of former slum dwellers with no prospects of employment in the U.S. singing and dancing with joy as they enter the Promised Land. Once desolate security zones will be packed with laughing children and happy mothers. Those left behind in America will no doubt try to join their more fortunate friends and relatives, even risking clandestine immigration, and the population of the NewDetroits and the NewPhiladelphias willmultiply.
At first glance, this plan seems like yet another outlandish waste of tax money -- the cost of the housing, the lease on Middle East land, transportation and the marketing may run a few billion a year. It also smacks of foreign aid to a region that has already absorbed a disproportionate share of assistance. Perhaps even worse, the presence of U.S. citizens could easily involve us even more deeply in the region's bizarre politics or a war. Surely, our goal should be disengagement, not permanent physical involvement.
These are reasonable objections, but they are far outweighed by the benefits -- economic, political and military. First, it is inevitable that conditions in these new Middle East housing projects will soon return to the familiar pristine state -- street crime, drug dealings, random violence, and general physical deterioration will occur despite the best efforts of the authorities and handsome social welfare budgets. Documentaries on "The Dream That Became a Nightmare" will become a staple on PBS. The New Detroit will soon look just like portions of the old Detroit.
Equally predictable, all the governments in the area will suddenly discover that these housing projects sit on land historically belonging to someone else. Talmudic scholars in Israel, for example, will uncover new maps of ancient Judea depicted a somewhat diminished Kingdom. Hamas, in a remarkable display of moderation and vision, will proclaim that a Palestinian homeland in the south of France is acceptable. Various Sheiks and dictators will suddenly announce that because of their own needs they will refuse to finance hair-brained schemes to drive Israel into the sea; the Zionists can keep their ill-gotten gain.
In short, a diplomatic problem that has occupied an enormous amount of our energy will be solved. No need for shuttle diplomacy, regional peace conferences, and expensive but transitory bribes to get parties to act more reasonably. All territorial claims will be renounced, U.S. Congressmen will no longer have to have a Mideast policy and the whole area will sink into obscurity. One less permanent military and financial headache for Washington.
Second, Israel will now have the military security that it has always wanted at an incredibly cheap cost. No Arab army or band of terrorists, now matter how well-armed or fanatical, would dare seek to penetrate 20 miles of U.S.-style public housing. A Syrian incursion to reclaim the Golan Heights would get mugged while their Soviet tanks would be quickly reduced to spare parts to be sold back to the government. Roving gangs of teenagers are taken far more seriously than lightly armed UN peace keepers from Ireland or Norway. Indeed, a prudent Hezbollah will never risk keeping soldiers within ten miles of the border, and these troops would mutiny if ordered into night combat. Their rockets will be vandalized. The Israeli Army could be cut in half and its citizens would no longer fear invasion. Israeli politics would become more civil and a quarter of the GNP would no longer have to be spent on military protection.
Third, the quality of urban American life would be much improved. Huge areas of the city once "off-limits" to decent citizens now would become available for housing and industry. Parks and public transportation would again become public. Middle class families would again find city life attractive. The costs of doing business -- insurance, security, the paying of combat zone wages -- would fall. Entire urban neighborhoods would now become idyllic. Expenditures for police, fire protection and the like would be reduced substantially since the cost of maintaining the urban underclass in the Middle East would surely be a fraction of what it is in the US. Far more important, the psychological benefits of fewer gangs, drug dealers, and muggers are profound. Once again, city life would make one free.
In sum, what we have is a classical instance of what is terrible in one context is wonderful in another. In the United States the reduction of land value is unfortunate; in the Middle East it is like the Messiah bringing peace. In the U.S. public housing is an urban blight with far reaching negative consequences; in the Middle East it is a boon, bringing economic benefits, security and a cession of hostilities once believed incurable. Our solution is also cost-effective -- it is not just cheap, it is dirt cheap.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Rothbard-Rockwell Report in November, 1997.