Israeli Indecision on the Palestinian Issue Is a Sign of Strength, Not Weakness

October 11, 2019 | Haviv Rettig Gur
About the author: Haviv Rettig Gur is the senior analyst for the Times of Israel.

In their recent book Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny, Dennis Ross and David Makovsky—who both have had long careers as Middle East experts inside and outside the U.S. government—analyze the “courageous decisions” made by David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzḥak Rabin, and Ariel Sharon. Not coincidentally, three of these four decisions involved territorial concessions. Ross and Makovsky use the book’s final chapter to compare their profiles in courage with Benjamin Netanyahu’s cautious approach on the Palestinian front. Calling this an “almost cartoonish juxtaposition,” Haviv Rettig Gur writes:

Netanyahu’s indecision on the Palestinian issue is not shallow. Indeed, it may be what his voters like most about him. The optimism that animated the imaginations of leaders like Rabin and Sharon—who imagined peace with the Palestinians, then unilateral separation and deterrence—is now understood by the vast majority of Israelis to be relegated to a more naïve past. The Oslo process in the 1990s ended in the suicide-bombing waves of the second intifada in 2000, and the Gaza withdrawal of 2005 in the Hamas takeover of the territory in 2007, a result that may yet play itself out on a much larger scale if Israel pulls out of the West Bank.

To most Israelis, the shift from the era of Sharon to the age of Netanyahu does not feel like a country somehow grown less ambitious or innovative—witness other fields of human endeavor in which Israelis continue to shine—but rather like a country that has become wiser and more aware of the limits of optimism.

Netanyahu’s refusal to initiate new peace processes is not just about what his rightist flank will say (though of course that is one pressure he clearly feels). It is also due to the simple fact that he is convinced it will fail. . . . He has shown that he can be decisive, courageous, and as rude as any of his iconic forebears when he believes the times require it, as in his brazen and intensive efforts to torpedo the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

But there is another message in this book, a subtler critique of present-day Israeli leadership that begins by rejecting the usual run of the debate. Ross and Makovsky challenge the simplistic declamations of past U.S. administrations and countless foreign observers that the occupation is “unsustainable.” The diplomatic costs, they note, instead “remain manageable” for Israel, as do the military and financial burdens of the conflict, if only because Israelis do not see better alternatives. . . . And that’s the key: Israel’s indecision flows not from decline, but from strength.

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