Is Israel a House Divided? https://mosaicmagazine.com/response/israel-zionism/2019/04/is-israel-a-house-divided/

Despite challenges to its electoral system, its prime minister, and its relations with Palestinian Arabs, the answer is no.

April 30, 2019 | Haviv Rettig Gur
This is a response to How and Why Israelis Vote, originally published in Mosaic in April 2019

Israelis voting on April 9, 2019. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images.

I’m very grateful to Evelyn Gordon, Daniel Polisar, and Douglas Feith for their stimulating responses to my essay, “How and Why Israelis Vote,” which appeared in Mosaic a week before the April 9 elections. Since each of them tackles the issues from a different perspective, I’ll reply in kind by addressing them one by one, in the order in which they were published.

 

I.

 

In her response, Evelyn Gordon focuses on the question of Israel’s complex and oft-derided electoral system. Agreeing with me that, actually, the system encourages the inclusion and integration into the Zionist mainstream of groups that might not otherwise find a place in Israel’s deeply divided society, she takes my basic argument a step farther.

The current electoral threshold, according to which a party must win a minimum of 3.25 percent of the vote in order to qualify for a seat in the Knesset, should—Gordon urges—be reduced to allow even smaller and more specialized groups to experience a similar inclusion and thus acquire a stake in the wellbeing of the Israeli polity as a whole:

If that electoral threshold were lowered to its pre-2015 level of 2 percent (2.4 seats), or even lower, it would become easier for new Arab and ḥaredi parties favoring integration to get elected, join a government, and be in a position to deliver what their constituents want, and thereby to serve as gateways to further integration. . . .

In the absence of this opportunity, she maintains, three groups in particular—Arabs, Ḥaredim, and “protest voters”—will see their overall turnout plummet, and this would be damaging. “Together, these three groups constitute roughly a third of the country, and all three are to some extent alienated from the mainstream. If they were no longer even participating in elections, that alienation would grow.”

Such alienation is especially dangerous, she concludes, because it fosters violence: “Among Ḥaredim, violent anti-government demonstrations take place in neighborhoods whose residents don’t vote,” and “as for the violent fringe of the settler movement, it doesn’t vote . . . at all. Instead, . . . it seeks to replace democracy in Israel with a religious monarchy.”

All of this is true, up to a point.

Consider, to borrow Gordon’s examples, the minority of Ḥaredim who are avowedly anti-Zionist, or the extremist fringe of the settler movement. Would a lower threshold succeed in bringing into the democratic fold those so profoundly alienated from Israel’s democracy and the mainstream Zionist story? Could such people be convinced to overcome their ideological revulsion by the promise of a chance at sending perhaps no more than a single lawmaker to parliament? More to the point, if they did decide to vote, would their presence in the Knesset be as harmless as proponents of their inclusion must necessarily assume? History, after all, is replete with examples of villainous political movements using democratic institutions as platforms for demolishing democracy.

For Gordon, to be sure, the virtue of a lowered threshold is that it would give voice to wavering or latent pro-integration forces among Israel’s minorities. But such groups now vote for the mainstream parties, or at least for parties large enough to count as “big tents” for their communities. And even in these circumstances the results are not always benign. She herself notes that most Israeli Arabs want to be represented in the Knesset, but the representatives they end up sending there often go out of their way to highlight Jewish-Arab divides and to embrace a vociferous pro-Palestinian politics, usually at the expense of serving their voters’ actual legislative needs and self-professed priorities, according to countless surveys of Arab communities. That is, there appears to be a gap between the representation Arab Israelis say they want and the representatives they routinely send to represent them.

Something complex is at work here, tied to the competing truths that torment Arab Israelis: the value and real benefit to be gained from “Israeliness” (double-digit percentages say they are proud to be Israeli) and the apparent demands of “Arabness” and the Palestinian narrative. That “something” is exacerbated by the failure of Jewish Israel to forge a path for non-Jews into the Zionist story. Even the loyal Druze have reason to complain about what they see as the Jewish state’s longstanding bureaucratic neglect and unnecessary exclusivity.

Yet in the end, the forces pulling Arab Israelis both toward and away from Israeli Jewish society are clear and visible, and to a great extent can be explained by the very real ethnic gap between Arab and Jew—just as the alienation of some Ḥaredim can be explained by a similarly profound gap, in this case cultural. But what about those who, more dangerously, oppose Israeli democracy out of pure principle, such as the extremist edges of the ḥaredi and settler communities cited above? It’s one thing to pave an easier path to power for the largest communities, or for the integration-seeking elements among the country’s minorities; is it really wise to do the same for those with a profound ideological commitment to destroy Israel as we know it?

This is not to dismiss Gordon’s suggestion altogether. Four decades ago, the process of genuine acculturation and accommodation that she describes among large parts of the Arab and ḥaredi communities must have seemed equally implausible. But it is also important to note that hers is an optimistic version of the story, one that discerns in the groups that remain outside the fold of political engagement the kinds of movements that might yet be brought in.

As Gordon notes, the Palestinian-nationalist Balad party is a “significant exception” to her argument, being both anti-Israel and committed to running in Israeli elections. Are there more lamentable exceptions waiting to be discovered to her thesis that inclusion drives integration?

 

Electoral systems are complex machines that mediate the views and identities of millions of people in often unpredictable ways. Change something small at one end of the machine, and you can never really predict what will come out the other end.

Israel experienced this problem first-hand in the misbegotten decision in 1992 to hold a direct election for prime minister. For the next two elections—1996 and 1999—Israelis cast two ballots, one for the prime minister and a second for their party of choice.

The political scientists who proposed the change argued that it would help stabilize governments, since it would settle the question of who actually won an election at the very start of the coalition negotiations, thereby reducing the power of small parties to extort funds and ministerial appointments from a victorious larger party.

The result was the opposite: Israelis who had voted for Likud or Labor in order to ensure the victory of their broad camp now felt they had done their “left” or “right” duty in the prime minister’s ballot and were freed in the party ballot to vote for more sectoral concerns.

In the 1992 elections, before the experiment began, Labor and Likud had together won 59.6 percent of the electorate. Shas, the Sephardi ḥaredi party—which at the time, for many non-ḥaredi Mizraḥi Jews, was an attractive alternative to Likud—won 4.9 percent. In 1996, with the first prime-ministerial ballot, Labor and Likud’s combined share dropped eight points to 51.9 percent, while Shas nearly doubled to 8.5 percent. By 1999, Likud and Labor together crashed to 34.4 percent. Shas won 13 percent, just a percentage point less than Likud.

A move meant to empower prime ministers ended up all but undermining their capacity to govern. In 1992, Yitzḥak Rabin started his coalition talks ensconced atop a 44-seat Knesset faction. In 1999, Ehud Barak was forced to do so at the dismal starting point of just 26 seats.

Tinkering can be costly. In 2001, a final race was held for the prime minister alone before the new system was canceled ahead of the 2003 parliamentary elections.

The story of the electoral threshold is similarly complex. It rose from an initial 1 percent to 1.5 percent in 1988, then to 2 percent in 2003. In 2014, the Knesset raised it to its current level of 3.25 percent. At the last increase, Arab lawmakers railed against the “racist” rationale for this higher threshold, which they insisted was aimed at pushing Arab-majority parties, several of which hovered at the 3-4-percent level, out of the Knesset. This was a convenient conceit, and perhaps the Arab parties believed it. But it completely misrepresented the proposal’s origins and purpose.

The 2014 increase actually began on the left, among proponents like Isaac Herzog, the former Labor party chief who once urged a threshold as high as 5 percent. In the March 2014 vote that secured its passage, similarly, the lawmakers who delivered the bill its majority came from the center and center left, convinced that, as was its stated purpose, it would “improve governance.”

And so it has done. But just as it took two election cycles—1996 and 1999—to absorb fully the vote-scattering potential of the direct election for prime minister, so it took two cycles from the threshold increase—the elections of 2015 and 2019—for its effects to be felt. In the April 9 vote, Likud and Blue and White, now the mainstays of center-right and center-left, together drew 52.6 percent of the vote, a figure for the two frontrunners unseen in an Israeli election since 1992.

As for the four Arab parties, in the 2015 race they briefly united in a “Joint List” whose constituent parties shared nothing in common other than the Arab identities of their voters and a desperate desire to pass the newly-raised threshold. The move successfully (and predictably) garnered the biggest-ever showing for Arab parties, at 10.5 percent of votes cast. For this year’s vote, the parties split into two factions, more or less divided on ideological and social lines, and lost nearly a quarter of their voters, many of whom abandoned the re-splintered Arab factions for the Zionist left of Meretz and Labor.

Here, then, is another way to tell the story of the rising electoral threshold. It has encouraged the participation of groups big enough to threaten the mainstream body politic if excluded from it—Arabs, Haredim, religious Zionists—while bolstering the mainstream center by forcing voters to revisit their long-forgotten commitment to vote for a mainstay party. It also drove new levels of Arab participation, transforming the situation in which several tiny and quarreling Arab factions, mostly campaigning against each other, had depressed Arab turnout while remaining too fractured in parliament to deliver legislation for their constituents. Indeed, some of those new Arab voters seem now to be losing their inhibitions and voting for Zionist parties.

 

And this brings us back to Evelyn Gordon’s argument that lowering the threshold would encourage a new moderation among the margins of Israeli society. She points to the Arabs of eastern Jerusalem and the more radical northern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement, two parts of Arab society that both reject participation in Israeli elections and have produced relatively high levels of political violence. To some important degree, she contends, the lack of a meaningful say in the national discussion granted by parliamentary representation has driven that violence.

But it’s not clear that this argument correctly identifies which element is a cause and which an effect. Arabs in eastern Jerusalem are more likely than Israeli Arabs to view themselves as Palestinian in nationality and to say they are committed to Palestinian nationalism for two straightforward reasons: first, that Israel itself has consistently neglected them in a way not experienced by Arab Israelis, and second, that, being Jerusalemites, they inevitably see themselves as custodians of the religious anchor of Palestinian identity in the al-Aqsa compound on the Temple Mount. Aren’t those reasons enough for their rejection of Israeli claims to the city, the violence launched from their midst, and their resulting refusal to vote in Israeli elections?

Similarly, the Islamic Movement’s northern branch is more antagonistic to Israel’s existence in part because it is based in a very different and better-educated Arab populace in the Galilee, and thus draws on a more ideologically-inclined discourse than is the case with its southern counterpart, whose roots and much of whose organization lie with the generally more pragmatic and accommodating Bedouin populace. Would a Knesset seat rein in the movement’s deep and intellectually rigorous extremism, or bolster it?

I honestly don’t know whether Gordon’s optimism on this score is a better bet than my preference for the high-threshold status quo. The answer depends on the ultimately unknowable cumulative effect on the country of millions of voters’ responses to subtle changes in the rules that govern their election-day loyalties and calculations, and on how very different kinds of groups on the margins of society might respond to the experience of political engagement with the larger body politic. Above all, though, and to repeat, mine is a plea for humility before undertaking to amend underlying rules that have so far proved their merit.

 

II.

 

In the recent election, as Daniel Polisar demonstrates in “The Common Sense of Israel’s Voting Public,” Israelis largely stuck to their broad political blocs even as they shifted between ideologically adjacent parties. Indeed, this consideration also shaped the pre-election campaigns. It drove Benjamin Netanyahu rightward to siphon votes from New Right and Zehut (while also engineering the controversial and morally lamentable union of Jewish Home with the racist Otzmah Yehudit). It also led Blue and White’s Benny Gantz to turn rightward early in the campaign in hopes of drawing Likud’s centrist wing to his banner—and, when polls showed this wasn’t working, leftward by hinting that he desired separation from the Palestinians and by slamming Netanyahu as a leader who retained power by campaigning against hope itself.

Similarly, as Polisar rightly notes, Netanyahu’s long-term accomplishments in office are not only undeniable but also hew closely to the prevailing Israeli consensus on the country’s most significant challenges and the best policies for meeting them. He writes:

[T]he leaders and supporters of both [Likud and Blue and White] favor continuing the policies pursued by a succession of Netanyahu-led governments over the past ten years, policies seen by the Israeli mainstream as largely successful. Among those policies, the foremost involves relentless action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons or establishing a stronghold in Syria. Both parties also believe Israel should retain the Golan Heights permanently. Both agree that, at present, Israel lacks a Palestinian partner for peace; that it should avoid fruitless bilateral negotiations or unilateral withdrawals; and that in any future scenario it should retain a united Jerusalem, settlement blocs, and a defensive border in the Jordan Valley. At the same time (and notwithstanding an eleventh-hour nod in a different direction by Netanyahu), neither party has favored annexation of parts of the West Bank. They also concur on the broad strokes of a growth-oriented, market-based economic policy that has proved consistently successful.

No wonder, then, that one must look to the far left or the far right to find meaningful challenges to the mainstream. And Polisar is again justified in thinking of this apparently divided mainstream as a “bloc” of its own, distinct from the fringes to which either party must cleave to secure a coalition. This, as he points out, explains why “the two largest parties had little reason to argue over the issues. Rather, they competed over who was best qualified to implement the agreed-upon policies.”

Finally, it is also true, as Polisar writes, that voters chose Netanyahu the successful policymaker despite Netanyahu the man. They were hardly oblivious of his failings, but neither were they so foolish as to abandon successful national-security and economic policies because of such failings.

 

And yet—and this is scant criticism indeed of an essay with which I entirely agree—there is more to say about Netanyahu’s personality, and specifically about the part exhibiting, in Polisar’s words, his “manifest deficit of personal virtues.”

Even in the upper echelons of Likud, one perceives alarm at what some party figures see as a burgeoning culture of self-adulation and self-justification—and the thin-skinned jealousy of the plunderer. One disturbing example will suffice. Once, a half-generation ago, Netanyahu could be relied upon to stand fast and resolute against racism. But his 2019 campaign, in its bid to depress turnout for Gantz, leaped headfirst into anti-Arab campaigning with the slogan “Bibi or Tibi”: a reference to the Arab lawmaker Ahmad Tibi whom the campaign thereby mindlessly equated with former IDF chief Benny Gantz.

What had begun in 2015 as a desperate last-minute gambit—Netanyahu’s election-day warning of a nonexistent Arab rush to the polls—became by 2019 the heart of the Likud campaign. It reached a crescendo in a large-scale secret effort to film Arab polling areas.

Afterward, Likud would argue that this effort, which involved deploying cameras in the shirt pockets of Likud ballot-watchers at over 1,200 Arab voting stations, was aimed at preventing massive voting fraud. This claim is important because it cannot be true—for reasons that reveal the danger of Netanyahu’s personal failings bleeding into Israeli political life.

When it comes to one-off events like an election, you don’t deter by hiding your deterrence measure. Nor, if deterrence was the object, would Likud need to flood so large a majority of Arab polling stations with cameras when a small sampling would have served the same purpose.

And why Arab polling stations in particular? As prime minister and chairman of a party that controls the public-security ministry, which oversees the police, Netanyahu would had little difficulty announcing new fraud-deterrent measures, including visible cameras, at all polling stations nationwide to prevent the inevitable attempts at identity theft or double voting that always attend an Israeli election at the margins—including (needless to say) in areas not frequented by Arab voters.

Instead, and reportedly at his instigation and explicit direction, the party decided on a privately-funded effort aimed at Arab voters alone. To many observers, including some of those whom Polisar refers to as Netanyahu’s most enthusiastic champions on the policy front, the only plausible explanation is that the party hoped to catch a handful of fraudsters and hold the footage as an insurance policy against an election loss.

That is, Likud needed video footage to bolster a post-election campaign alleging massive fraud by large numbers of Arab Israelis. To obtain that footage was the job of the 1,200 cameras.

This is an important enough point to dwell on for a moment longer: Israel’s ruling party, led and inspired by Netanyahu himself, planned a hail-mary gambit that, building on the “Bibi or Tibi” campaign, would question the validity of the results, and would be able to deploy video footage of a handful of examples of such fraud to serve as ammunition to demand, if nothing else sufficed, a new vote. And it would do so on the backs of Israel’s Arabs. The very fact that the campaign believed it would take a multi-million-shekel effort with 1,200 cameras to obtain such footage is another sign of the underlying lie. Likud’s campaigners, with Netanyahu at the helm, knew they were looking for a needle in a haystack—and indeed we have no reports that Likud found any significant fraud through this effort.

There are ample reasons to vote for Netanyahu, as Israelis well know. But the greatest reason to abhor and fear his leadership is that a growing component of his political presence is the new science of campaign manipulation, the burgeoning social psychology that knows the suggestibility of human minds and the power of negative, tribal, fright-inducing images. He has demonstrated (and reportedly said aloud in closed forums) that he is willing to burn any bridge, cross any line, make any misleading promise to secure a victory at the ballot box, making his excuses, if necessary, after that victory is assured.

None of this is decisive evidence that the man has become on balance a liability to his country, as Gantz claimed during the campaign. Yet by his own actions, for example his introduction in the anti-Arab campaign of a new form of predatory exploitation and demonization into Israeli political life, Netanyahu has made it increasingly difficult to dismiss such talk. It is not only on the left that some are starting to ask about the extent to which those famous personal failings are imposing a burden on Israel’s less quantifiable but perhaps no less vital bulwarks of social cohesion and collective resilience.

 

III.

 

Douglas Feith’s response, labeled “an American perspective,” mainly concerns the significance of April’s election for the Mideast “peace process.” At the very least, his fine analysis will reassure Israelis that their own confusions and frustrations vis-à-vis the Palestinian conflict are at least understood in Washington, if not in other capitals around the world.

With much command of nuance, Feith lays bare the repeated failure of peace efforts as Israel experienced them. A palpable irritation arises from his words as he rehearses the Palestinians’ stubborn refusal to make good on the bargain they struck by signing the Oslo Accords in 1993: that Israel would concede to them both land and independence on the condition that they end the conflict, for which deed they would be rewarded with the international community’s friendship and largesse.

One vital nuance, however, is missing from Feith’s telling of this story—not because he is unaware of it, but possibly because, as an American, he is congenitally indisposed to let go of the hopeful certainty that to every problem there is a solution. In Feith’s reasoning, what is holding back the Palestinian capacity for advancing a serious, realistic strategy for independence is the corruption and incompetence of the leadership of the Palestinian Authority (PA). That corruption and that incompetence are incontestably there. But so is another factor: the active, persistent, unappeasable enemy of Palestinian agency that goes by the name of Hamas.

Without going into an examination of Hamas’s Islamist ideological underpinnings, it is sufficient for our purposes to consider Hamas as what, in addition to its Islamist identity and commitments, it claims to be: an anti-colonial resistance movement.

In the group’s rock-hard ideological conviction, nations are absolute, organic things that can be graded by their levels of authenticity and validity. Jewish Israel, a foreign transplant in the Arab Middle East, lacks the authentic roots needed to survive over the long term (a comparison is sometimes made in this context with French Algeria); therefore, Israel’s presence in the region is merely provisional, an aberration, a rebellion against the divine plan for history; and therefore, any accommodation with it beyond the narrowly tactical is a betrayal not only of the Palestinian cause but of the meaning and purpose of history itself, and of Islam’s divinely ordained mission within it.

It is no accident that in recent decades, each time a peace process between Israelis and Palestinians got under way, Hamas struck out as brutally as it could, targeting Israeli buses and pizzerias with suicide bombers bearing shrapnel-laden explosive devices. This was seen by the terrorist organization as having produced two desirable outcomes, seemingly disparate but in fact unified.

First, at critical junctures, it cut into Israelis’ support for peace efforts. The bombings in February and March 1996 decisively turned the election that May away from Shimon Peres and toward Benjamin Netanyahu, who ran on a campaign critical of the Oslo process and accusing Palestinian leaders of encouraging terrorism, and who won on election day by a margin of fewer than 30,000 votes. During the much more murderous second intifada beginning in September 2000, Hamas decimated Israelis’ faith in any peace process by helping to launch nearly 140 bombings over a four-year period. At its end, the Israeli peacenik left was reeling and devastated; today, twenty years on, it is far from having recovered.

The second boon for Hamas was that even when peace efforts did continue in the wake of terror attacks, those attacks allowed it to assert that its bombings caused Israel’s subsequent concessions and withdrawals. That is to say, in this reading, that by targeting Israel’s civilians, Hamas had brought powerful Israel to its knees, thereby demonstrating the truth of its basic premise: real power and resilience come from authenticity and moral validity, not from military and economic might. Israel possessed the latter, but not the former, and therefore was by definition defeatable.

At once reducing the likelihood of peace and painting Israel’s peace moves as evidence of cowardice, frailty, and impermanence, Hamas endowed Palestinians with a vision of themselves as engaged in a redemptive struggle. By effectively implanting in the Palestinian psyche the choice between a degrading accommodation with an unjust Zionism and the exalting dignity of an identity of resistance, it reinterpreted the reality of present-day Palestinian weakness as a necessary element in a divinely engineered salvation that must eventually come to fruition.

 

It is thus important to give Hamas its due, not only because of its significance as an institution—it rules Gaza, after all, and pollsters tell us that it would win an election in the West Bank—but because of its special allure as bearer of the only real argument currently available to proud Palestinians that their haplessness is not permanent or irreversible.

To be sure, it should be easy enough for both outsiders and, especially, Israelis to see a contradictory truth lurking behind these redemptive Islamist assurances. Hamas pretends to be—and even believes it is—a formidable enemy of Israel. It is not. It is, in fact, the greatest enemy the Palestinians themselves have ever known. In its three decades of existence, it has managed to achieve only minuscule tactical successes against Israel through suicide bombings, the occasional capture of an IDF soldier, rocket attacks on Israeli cities, and the like. It has achieved them, moreover, at the cost of disastrous and possibly decisive setbacks to the Palestinian strategic position.

Western governments in the 1990s, controlled by Democrats in the U.S. and by liberals in Europe, yearned to hand the Palestinians a state. Israelis themselves elected governments susceptible to pressure in this direction. Thanks to Hamas, it never happened. Although the peace process survived the 1996 bombings—which the Israeli left could blame on Arab “anti-peace elements”—by the second intifada, with Yasir Arafat signing the checks and Fatah’s own Tanzim organization recruiting and training bombers, that excuse no longer sufficed. The Hamas idea, even if not the organization, had taken control of the Palestinian body politic.

It is fascinating to me that so many pro-Palestinian analysts, from erstwhile Israelis like Avi Shlaim and the “new historians” to outsiders like, most recently, Nathan Thrall in The Only Language They Understand, manage sedulously to ignore the second intifada and the sophisticated ideas driving Palestinian terrorism and brutality—to ignore, in essence, the ideological legacy in Palestinian politics of Hamas’s still-reverberating promise of redemption.

This lacuna is not accidental. To accommodate the deeper contours of the Palestinian predicament, pro-Palestinian Israelis and Western liberals would have to bend too far outside the comfortable sureties of distrusting powerful Israel or railing against arrogant America. To contend with the self-inflicted blindnesses at the heart of the Palestinian tragedy should not necessarily involve exonerating Israel; but it might. Why run the risk?

 

Douglas Feith is different, admirably so. Still, faced with the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, and reluctant to pronounce it unbreakable, he urges us instead to “expand the problem” of a corrupt and intransigent Palestinian leadership by allowing a broader array of Arab actors a seat at the table. He is right to note that these actors, from Egypt and Jordan to the Saudis and even, on occasion, the Hamas-funding Qataris, have vital interests that align with Israel’s but might still be trusted by the Palestinians to look out for their interests.

But Hamas is still there. Boxed in by Israel and Egypt, despised by many in the Palestinian street for delivering only misery and pain in its twelve-year rule in Gaza, it stands tall not as an institution but as an idea. Its greatest achievement—in the long view, probably its only achievement—remains the simple fact that it is the only party to supply a narrative of dignity and validation for a people that has come to be defined by its history of powerlessness, failure, and dispossession.

The relevance of that narrative to the broader Muslim encounter with Western modernity also ensures that Hamas will always have allies in the region—from the Muslim Brotherhood that gave it its founding ideology and identity to regimes in Ankara, Tehran, Doha, and elsewhere that provide it with financial and geopolitical backing.

Thus, just as Hamas-the-idea thwarted the Palestinian capacity to reciprocate Israeli withdrawals with normalization and peace, Hamas-the-idea will continue to thwart any broader Arab effort to reach accommodation with Israel, which, it insists, can come only at the incomprehensibly steep cost of surrendering the hope for divine redemption and, ultimately, the very belief in a just history overseen by a benevolent God. As Hamas retorts in debates with Arabs who urge moderation and compromise: if the conflict with Israel isn’t a testing ground for the belief in a just history that lies at the heart of Islam, what is?

The impulses that prevent the Palestinians from reaching an accommodation with Israel are not surprising. It is more surprising that so many in Israel and the West cannot see the depth of their struggle, or grasp that their political behavior is driven by needs and demands far more significant than the motives—either uplifting or dastardly—assigned to them by outsiders. In light of those needs and demands, however, is it any wonder that they have stubbornly declined to be swayed by the policymaker’s pallid promise of economic improvement or a gentler and more distant Israeli security regime?

Although it is beside the point here, it’s worth mentioning that Israeli Jews, too, have shown themselves vastly more complex, resilient, and cohesive in their shared identity and narrative than the Palestinians’ own cartoon narrative of Israel ever allowed for. Each time Israelis have failed to retreat in the face of terror, Palestinian ideologues have shown themselves bereft of explanation. Nor, to this day, has any Palestinian account of Israelis really explained why so many Zionist Israelis have so often voted for peace and withdrawal.

 

There is a bottom line here: a more nuanced view of the Palestinian predicament must lead to a more pessimistic policy appraisal. There is nothing the Egyptians, Jordanians, or Saudis can bring to the table that Hamas—whether as an organization or as a mobilizing idea—cannot stymie by driving Palestinian actions that will yet again render Israelis unable to retreat.

But—to conclude—there is also, in Douglas Feith’s proposal, the germ of a response to this trap, although one whose contours are not easily summoned to mind or realizable even in fantasy. What the Palestinians need from fellow Arabs is neither political support nor economic aid. They need a story, one as authentic to Sunni Muslim history, as believably redemptive, and as practicable as is the stalwart pious rejectionism of Hamas.

Is there a Muslim and Palestinian truth that can be reified alongside a Jewish Israel? That’s hardly a question an Israeli writer, at least this one, can properly articulate, much less begin to answer. But it is this and not the ordinary run of political processes that the real, struggling humans in these two warring societies need most from their neighbors and friends.