Can Israel Change Strategic Course?

In the long-term absence of peace with the Palestinians, better to cease pursuing the unattainable and adopt policies that can strengthen the country at home and abroad.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in the Knesset in 2010. AP Photo/Bernat Armangue.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in the Knesset in 2010. AP Photo/Bernat Armangue.

Last Word
Sept. 21 2015
About the author

Evelyn Gordon is a commentator and former legal-affairs reporter who immigrated to Israel in 1987. In addition to Mosaic, she has published in the Jerusalem Post, Azure, Commentary, and elsewhere. She blogs at Evelyn Gordon.


Many thanks to Elliott Abrams and Amnon Lord for their thoughtful responses to my essay.  Drawing on his own extensive experience, Abrams aptly highlights how the endless pursuit of an unattainable Israel-Palestinian agreement entails costs for the United States as well as for Israel, and also how the chaos currently sweeping the Middle East underlines the importance of preserving the region’s one remaining island of stability—and the folly of embarking on yet another destabilizing grand experiment. Lord, for his part, correctly emphasizes the need to maintain Israeli morale and “the national sense of justice and self-confidence,” a crucial addition to my own list of what Israel must do on the home front. He also reminds us of the hopeful significance of Israel’s burgeoning relations with both Asia and “moderate” Arab states.

Lord points out that Israel’s own early history, before and after the state’s establishment, was characterized by strategies somewhat akin to the “cold war” model I propose in my essay. I agree, and I’d be delighted to see someone draw up a Hebrew-language version of such a strategy for Israel along the same lines, with examples drawn primarily from the country’s own Zionist experience. As Lord suggests, such an exercise, by providing a needed corrective to the course adhered to by Israel’s government in recent decades, might help persuade today’s Israelis that a change is actually feasible.

There is, however, one major issue on which I must respectfully disagree with Elliott Abrams: his insistence that, even though a two-state solution is currently unachievable, nevertheless, for the sake of keeping its Western allies happy, Israel must appear to be striving for that goal. There is no question that abandoning the fiction of an imminent solution will exact a price. But if that price is indeed, as Abrams fears, so high that Israel cannot afford to pay it, then, in my view, Israel has already lost.

My reason is simple: If there’s one thing the 22 years since the signing of the Oslo Accords have proved, it’s that there’s no way to persuade the world Israel is genuinely striving for peace in a situation where peace keeps failing to materialize. There’s very little Israel hasn’t tried over those years: generous final-status offers, unilateral withdrawals, settlement freezes, and prisoner releases. Yet none of this has produced more than a momentary blip in the world’s “blame Israel first” reflex.

A brief recap: after Prime Minister Ehud Barak made a far-reaching final-status offer in 2000, Yasir Arafat not only refused even to make a counteroffer but responded by launching the bloody terrorist war known as the second intifada. Yet it was Israel, not the Palestinians, whose international standing suffered a precipitous slide, as exemplified by the infamous poll in which Europeans deemed Israel the greatest threat to world peace. And though the Clinton administration publicly blamed Arafat for the talks’ breakdown, its own subsequently published plan demanded additional concessions from Israel, thereby implying that Israel, rather than Palestinian intransigence, was the real obstacle to progress.

Similarly, after Ariel Sharon unilaterally evacuated all of Gaza plus four West Bank settlements in 2005, and the Palestinians responded by bombarding southern Israel with thousands of rockets from Gaza, the world didn’t blame the Palestinians for abusing ceded territory in this way; it blamed Israel for defending itself. In the UN vote on the infamous Goldstone report, whose allegations of Israeli misconduct during the first Gaza war were subsequently repudiated even by its lead author, only eight European countries supported Israel. Each later Gaza war further intensified anti-Israel sentiment, anti-Israel boycott efforts, and anti-Israel lawfare.

In 2008, when Ehud Olmert made a final-status offer even more generous than Barak’s, Mahmoud Abbas didn’t even bother responding. Yet the international community not only gave Abbas a pass, but condemned Olmert’s successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, for refusing to keep the offer on the table.

Then, in 2009, Netanyahu agreed to an unprecedented ten-month settlement freeze; for the first nine months, Abbas refused to negotiate, and in the tenth month he walked away after a high-profile White House meeting. Four years later, Netanyahu released dozens of Palestinian killers just to get Abbas to negotiate; in the ensuing talks, Netanyahu, as even chief U.S. negotiator Martin Indyk later admitted, showed so much flexibility that he was in “the zone of a possible agreement,”while Abbas rejected every proposal put forward by John Kerry and Barack Obama. Yet in these cases, too, the world, including the Obama administration, still blamed Israel.

In short, the past two decades have proved that no Israeli effort is ever enough to buy more than a fleeting moment of international credit—a a conclusion unsurprisingly reached by more than three-quarters of Israeli Jews. And Israel is rapidly running out of gestures it can afford to make. To repeat its disastrous Gaza experiment in the West Bank, for instance, would bring Hamas rockets in easy range of the country’s major population centers and main international airport. Nor could any Israeli premier offer more than Olmert did; indeed, many Israelis think Olmert offered too much.

 

Not only has this constant effort to appease world opinion not worked; it has actually worsened Israel’s international standing, as I have explained in detail elsewhere. That’s because, inter alia, such efforts merely feed the perception that Israel must be the guilty party. Otherwise, why is it always the one offering new concessions?

Persuading the world of Israel’s desire for peace is thus a demonstrated impossibility. But consider: no other country in the world is judged solely on its peacemaking. Nobody thinks that India should be a pariah because of its unresolved, decades-old conflict with Pakistan; instead, India is admired for its democracy, its pluralism, and its economic dynamism, and is considered a net asset to the international community. Nor does anyone think South Korea should be declared a pariah because of its unresolved, decades-old conflict with North Korea; it, too, is widely admired. Granted, both India and South Korea face repugnant enemies, but so does Israel: Palestinians have a horrendous record on terrorism, corruption, human rights, and rejection of peace.

As I wrote in Mosaic, the fact that Israel alone of all the nations is judged in these terms represents a colossal failure by successive Israeli governments, whose behavior has nurtured the idea that peace, rather than Israel’s many accomplishments, is the proper yardstick for judgment. It is also a colossal failure on the part of Diaspora Jews, especially Americans, who perversely insist on holding Israel to higher standards than they would ever hold their own countries, and who thereby give cover for everyone else to do the same. In a survey of Diaspora Jewish opinion published by the Jewish People’s Policy Institute earlier this year, over a third of respondents said that when waging war, Israel must follow a higher standard of moral conduct than do other Western countries. But no real-world nation could possibly meet the unrealistic standards so often demanded of Israel, and especially the sky-high bar set for proving its commitment to peace. Thus, trying to measure up to these standards will never be a viable option; the only viable option is to try and change the yardstick. And the only way to do this, as I contended, is by emphasizing Israel’s numerous achievements, thereby giving the world—and especially Diaspora Jews—reasons to admire and defend Israel despite its inability to achieve the unachievable.

This point was driven home to me when I lectured at Limmud UK last December. After a session devoted entirely to Israel’s accomplishments in various fields, the first question from the audience went roughly as follows: “I don’t really have a question; I just wanted to say ‘thank you.’ All the news we hear from Israel is so depressing, and it was so encouraging to hear all the good things you told us!” Others made similar comments. I didn’t feed them any illusions about the peace process; I simply gave them other reasons to be proud of Israel—for which they clearly hungered.

Consequently, I must thank Amnon Lord for providing readers with one more such reason. As he astutely comments, the current global refugee crisis would look completely different if a single Middle Eastern or North African country were willing and able to do today for its fellow Arabs and Muslims what Israel did for Jewish refugees in the 1940s and 1950s.

 

Finally, I’d like to address a question that neither Elliott Abrams nor Amnon Lord raised, but that other readers have: how could I write an entire essay on Israeli strategy toward the Palestinians without once mentioning the settlements? Shouldn’t they be a crucial consideration in formulating any such strategy?

Clearly, any Israeli government must adopt a policy on this issue. But for reasons I’ll explain shortly, I deliberately focused on policies that would be valid regardless of what ultimate solution to the Palestinian conflict one hopes to see, and that therefore could and should be adopted by any conceivable Israeli government.

Settlement policy, by contrast, necessitates choosing an endgame, since any government will obviously want to build mainly in areas it hopes to keep in the event of a final resolution. Within those areas, however, failing to build is generally a mistake.This is not only because building by definition reinforces Israel’s hold on the territory in question (more people are harder to evacuate), but also because no country would accept an international dictate to freeze construction in territory it considers rightfully its own, so not building sends the pernicious message that Israel itself doesn’t really believe it has a valid claim to the territory.

As Elliott Abrams notes, Netanyahu’s settlement policy is roughly what you would expect from someone who favors a two-state solution. Outside of Jerusalem and the settlement blocs, he has authorized only the minimal building necessary to appease coalition members who favor a one-state solution, and even this sop consists primarily of endlessly recycled announcements of approvals for projects that somehow never actually get built. If anything, given the view I’ve stated above, I’d say he has built too little within Jerusalem and the blocs.

Still, for most Israelis, as for Netanyahu, a two-state solution remains the favored endgame—so, again, why exclude settlement policy from discussion and why limit my essay to areas, and to strategies, that can also accommodate other solutions? First, because a non-negligible minority disagrees on the two-state endgame, and my goal was to propose ideas that could command the broadest possible base of support.

More importantly, however (and contrary to Amnon Lord’s supposition that my own preferred endgame is the so-called Jordanian option), I genuinely consider it impossible to predict at this point how the conflict will ultimately be resolved. No matter how desirable any given solution might be, none of the possibilities I listed in my essay looks particularly feasible in the foreseeable future, and that’s as true of the two-state option as it is for all the others. Thus, to the degree possible, Israel must adopt strategies that leave it free to take advantage of any possible endgame rather than closing off its options at what is still, like it or not, a very early stage of the game. All of the strategies I proposed were tailored accordingly.

To some readers, this may sound like a cop-out. But as was pointed out by Israel’s Metzilah Center, headed by Professor Ruth Gavison, in a perceptive introduction to its posting of my essay on the center’s (Hebrew-language) Facebook page, the ability to agree on particular policies even “in the absence of agreement on the outline of a permanent arrangement” may be precisely “how democracy in general, and Israel in particular, has reached all of its accomplishments.”

Indeed, Israel has survived and thrived for 67 years largely by adopting strategies that strengthen the country both at home and abroad despite the absence of either peace or internal consensus on how to achieve it. Barring a miracle, it will need to do the same for many decades to come. My essay aimed to outline a strategy for how this could be done. And if I’ve managed at least to get people thinking seriously about this issue, dayenu.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Peace Process