The standard narrative about Israel these days goes like this: The current government is the most right-wing ever, the public is increasingly racist and anti-democratic, and the prime minister is either a right-wing zealot or a coward afraid to challenge his right-wing base. But the most remarkable part of this narrative is how durable it has proven despite all evidence to the contrary.
The latest such evidence comes from today’s Jerusalem Post report about a massive drop in construction in the settlements. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, housing starts in the settlements plummeted by 53 percent in the first quarter, compared to an 8.1 percent decline in housing starts nationwide. Needless to say, one would expect settlement construction to soar under Israel’s “most right-wing government ever” and a prime minister captive to his right-wing base. Yet in fact, as I’ve written before, the “right-wing” Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently built less in the settlements than any of his left-wing predecessors–a fact that never seems to disturb proponents of the “far-right extremist” narrative.
Even more noteworthy was a pair of reports in the left-wing daily Haaretz earlier this month about two unprecedented moves to boost equality for Israeli Arabs. The first report noted that the Council for Higher Education, chaired by Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the right-of-center Jewish Home party, is advancing plans for Israel’s first ever BA-granting college in an Arab town. Until now, the only institutes of higher education in Arab towns have been teacher’s colleges. But a tender to set up a BA-granting college closed on May 31, and the CHE is now reviewing the five bids it received. The winner is expected to be announced in another few months, and the new institution is slated to open next year. To help it succeed, the government has promised millions of shekels in start-up funds plus an annual budget of 20 to 40 million shekels (depending on enrollment).
The new institution is expected to significantly increase the number of Arabs, and especially Arab women, obtaining BAs, because many will now be able to live at home and commute to college. Not only will this eliminate the expense of renting apartments near campus, but it also solves the access problem for women from conservative Arab families who are barred by social norms from living away from home.
The second report described two moves to ease the housing shortage in Arab communities. First, a government planning committee decided to build a new neighborhood in the Arab city of Taibeh, which “will be one of the largest building plans in the Arab sector to have been approved for many years,” the report noted. Second, the Interior Ministry approved a decision to take land from the Jewish jurisdiction of Misgav and give it to the Arab town of Sakhnin. The report also noted that these decisions are merely the latest in “an increasing number” over the past year and a half intended “to accelerate development in the Arab sector, after many decades of neglect and inaction.”
Like the drop in settlement construction, these efforts on behalf of Israeli Arabs don’t exactly fit the narrative of a government and public mired in right-wing extremism. Indeed, they contradict it so blatantly that even Haaretz reporter Nimrod Bousso couldn’t ignore it. “One cannot help but wonder why this change is finally taking place under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man who never seems to miss a chance to demonstrate hostility toward the group that makes up a fifth of Israel’s population … and whose government has a significant number of members with nationalist views,” he wrote in his news story on the Taibeh and Sakhnin decisions.
The answer, of course, is that the narrative is simply wrong on every count. Diplomatically speaking, as I’ve noted before, this government is actually one of the more left-wing in Israel’s history: Though Netanyahu doesn’t consider a two-state solution achievable right now, he does accept the idea in principle; in contrast, during Israel’s first 45 years of existence, all governments from both left and right considered a Palestinian state anathema. And Netanyahu’s policy of restraining settlement construction – which, contrary to his “cowardly” image, he has maintained despite considerable opposition from parts of his base – is consistent with his stated commitment to a two-state solution.
Moreover, as the examples above show, his past three governments have actually been among the most progressive in Israel’s history in terms of their practical efforts to improve Arab integration. And unlike his settlement policy, his efforts to advance Arab equality have sparked no significant opposition from either his cabinet or his electorate, even though Israeli Arabs overwhelmingly vote for his political opponents. The reason is simple: Any government which considers Israeli-Palestinian peace unachievable in the foreseeable future has no choice but to invest in Israel’s internal development, in order to ensure that the country is strong enough to survive without peace. And improving Arab integration is crucial to the country’s internal development because Israeli Arabs, currently underrepresented in both higher education and the work force, represent one of the main potential sources of future economic growth.
But proponents of the “far-right-extremism” narrative seem utterly impervious to the facts. So they can only scratch their heads in puzzlement over why Israel’s “most right-wing government ever” is precisely the one that’s taking far-reaching steps to improve the lot of Israeli Arabs.
Originally published in Commentary on June 20, 2016
That Israelis are still arguing over the soldier who shot a wounded terrorist in Hebron three weeks ago isn’t surprising; the very rarity of the case naturally makes it the talk of the country. What is surprising, however, is how many left-wing pundits have used comparisons to the famous Bus 300 affair of 1984 to accuse today’s Israel of moral degeneration (two examples here and here). For by any reasonable standard, what this comparison actually shows is how much higher Israel’s moral standards have become over the last 32 years.
The Bus 300 affair began when Palestinian terrorists hijacked a civilian bus, Bus 300, and threatened to kill all the passengers. Israeli troops eventually stormed the bus, killing two terrorists and capturing two others. The Shin Bet security service then took the bound, captured terrorists to an isolated spot and killed them. It subsequently claimed all the terrorists were killed when the bus was stormed, but that claim was disproven a few days later when an Israeli daily published a front-page picture of one captured terrorist being taken off the bus, clearly very much alive. Thus ended Act I; we’ll get to Act II later.
Last month’s incident in Hebron, in which the soldier killed a terrorist who was already lying on the ground wounded, has some obvious similarities. But consider the differences:
First, in the Bus 300 affair, the extrajudicial execution was perpetrated by the highest ranks of the defense establishment: It was ordered by then-Shin Bet chief Avshalom Shalom – who would later be lionized by leftists for denouncing Israel’s presence in the West Bank in the documentary film “The Gatekeepers”– and carried out by the agency’s then-chief of operations, Ehud Yatom. In contrast, the Hebron shooting was the private initiative of a single, relatively low-ranking conscript, a sergeant.
Second, the defense establishment did its best to cover up the Bus 300 killings, and they would probably have succeeded absent that newspaper photo. In contrast, according to every media account of the Hebron incident thus far, the ranking officer on the scene reported the shooting up the chain of command less than 10 minutes after it happened, and his superiors promptly decided to open a Military Police investigation. That decision was made even before B’Tselem published its famous video of the incident.
Third, after the Bus 300 photo was published, the Shin Bet tried to frame an innocent man for the killing. That man, army officer Yitzhak Mordechai, stood trial but was ultimately acquitted. As far as we know, nothing remotely comparable happened in the Hebron case.
But the contrast becomes even starker when we consider Act II of the Bus 300 affair. It opened two years later when three senior Shin Bet officers told then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres that Shalom had ordered the killings. Peres – who also later became a leftist icon (and Nobel Peace Prize laureate) for his role in the Oslo Accords – not only refused to order an investigation but kicked the three out of the Shin Bet. They subsequently took their information to then-Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir, who did order a criminal investigation. But the government told him to drop it, and when he refused, he, too, was kicked out of office.
In the Hebron shooting, by contrast, not only has no one been fired for pursuing a criminal investigation but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, both from the center-right Likud party, publicly demanded a full and thorough probe. That probe is currently underway, and an indictment is expected shortly.
But the crowning glory of the Bus 300 affair occurred soon after Zamir’s dismissal, when then-President Chaim Herzog – like Peres, a member of the left-leaning Labor Party (which his son, Isaac Herzog, currently heads) – forestalled any further attempts at investigation by issuing a preemptive pardon to Shalom and four other Shin Bet officers. This is the only preemptive pardon in Israel’s history; usually, pardons are granted only after someone has been indicted and convicted. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court upheld it, so nobody ever stood trial for the killings except the innocent man who was framed.
In contrast, barring some unexpected development, the Hebron shooter almost certainly will stand trial, most likely for manslaughter.
So how can anyone comparing these two incidents possibly see evidence of moral deterioration? It boils down to one claim: The Israeli public was “shocked” by the Bus 300 affair, whereas the Hebron shooter enjoys strong public support. That claim, however, ignores two important facts.
First is the fact that social media didn’t exist in 1984; if it had, it would have shown plenty of anti-Arab racism then, too. This isn’t mere speculation; 1984 is the year Meir Kahane’s subsequently banned Kach Party first entered the Knesset, and his supporters used to chant racist slogans in the streets.
The more important fact, however, is that most of the Hebron shooter’s support stems not from anti-Arab racism, but from three elements that didn’t exist in the Bus 300 case.
First, whereas the Bus 300 terrorists were already bound and harmless, the Hebron terrorist was still unbound and free to move his hands. Since wounded terrorists in similar situations have used that freedom to kill – for instance, by detonating explosive vests – many Israelis felt the soldier might well have been justified in opening fire if, as he claims, he saw a suspicious hand movement.
Second, the initial evidence against the soldier – before testimony had been taken from his comrades – consisted mainly of Palestinian video footage disseminated by B’Tselem. Since it’s hardly unknown for Palestinian videos to be edited in ways that distort the truth (for instance, by showing a soldier’s response to some Palestinian action but not the action itself, thereby making the response seem unprovoked), many Israelis were unwilling to condemn the soldier based solely on the video.
Third, many Israelis felt the soldier was badly wronged when Defense Minister Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot did immediately condemn him, without awaiting an investigation of the facts. And frankly, any self-respecting liberal ought to agree. Since Ya’alon and Eisenkot are the people who must approve every senior officer’s promotion, this constituted gross interference in the course of justice. Military prosecutors have already decided they can’t win a murder conviction, but with their bosses having publicly declared the incident a crime, they might well feel compelled to charge the soldier with something even if they would otherwise deem an indictment unwarranted.
In short, the different public reactions stemmed from serious substantive differences in the cases rather than from any major change in Israelis’ moral values. In contrast, the establishment’s behavior reflected a real change in moral values – and that change was entirely positive.
Three decades ago, an extrajudicial murder was ordered by the highest levels of the defense establishment, covered up by the highest levels of government and ultimately never investigated or prosecuted. Last month, a manslaughter (at most) was committed by a low-level soldier acting alone and immediately investigated by the military itself, with full support from the highest levels of government.
How any sane person can call that evidence of moral degeneration is beyond me. But then, as I’ve shown before, claims of Israel’s moral deterioration rarely hold up well under scrutiny.
Originally published in Commentary on April 13, 2016
The Israeli media were virtually unanimous yesterday in headlining a new Pew survey of Israeli opinion. All highlighted the finding that nearly half of Israeli Jews support expelling Arabs. The only reporter who thought to ask an expert what this figure really means was Haaretz’s Ofer Aderet. But to understand the expert’s answer, one other fact is helpful: Just a day before Pew published its survey, two of the Knesset’s three Arab parties publicly condemned the Gulf Cooperation Council for declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization, on the grounds that this declaration might benefit the country in whose parliament they serve.
Aderet queried Professor Sammy Smooha about the Pew finding because he’s Israel’s leading expert in Jewish-Arab relations, having tracked the subject since 2003 through a series of comprehensive annual polls. Smooha said Pew’s results disagreed with his own polls, which consistently found that about three-quarters of Israeli Jews support coexistence with Arabs. He offered two explanations for this divergence.
First, the Pew question was vague and confusing. Respondents were asked simply whether they agreed or disagreed that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” That’s easy to answer if you believe that Arabs should either always be expelled or never be expelled. But what if, like many Israelis, you believe the answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no?
Many center-rightists, for instance, favor expelling Arabs who openly support terror or seek to undermine Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, but not other Arabs. Many center-leftists believe East Jerusalem Arabs (most of whom are permanent Israeli residents but not citizens) should be forced to become part of the Palestinian Authority whether they want to or not, but not other Arabs. Thus for these respondents, the answer would depend on whether they interpreted the word “Arabs” in Pew’s question to mean “all Arabs” or “some Arabs.”
Smooha argued that most respondents who agreed with the statement interpreted it as meaning “some Arabs,” because if you read it to mean expelling all Arabs, the idea “is unrealistic and unfeasible.” Indeed, no Israeli party advocates expelling all Arabs, and very few individuals do; even diehard anti-Arab racists tend to make exceptions for the Druze, for instance.
His interpretation is reinforced by looking at voting patterns. According to Pew, rightist and religious Jews overwhelmingly support expelling Arabs. But the only right-wing party that actually advocates expelling sizable numbers of Arabs – Yisrael Beiteinu, which wants to swap certain Arab towns for the major settlement blocs under a final-status deal with the Palestinians – won a mere six seats in the last Knesset elections; the other rightist and religious parties, which advocate no such thing, won a combined 51.
In contrast, Pew found little support for expelling Arabs on the left. Yet the leading center-left faction – Zionist Union, with 24 seats – is also the one Israeli faction that advocates expelling large numbers of Arabs right now, as opposed to under some distant final-status agreement: The Labor Party, which accounts for most of Zionist Union’s seats, recently adopted a plan to unilaterally hand East Jerusalem over to the PA, thereby removing hundreds of thousands of Arabs from Israel.
In short, Pew’s results don’t fit actual voting patterns at all unless you conclude that most center-leftists interpreted its question as meaning “all Arabs,” and therefore disagreed, while most rightists interpreted it as meaning “some Arabs,” and therefore agreed.
This brings us to Smooha’s second explanation: He believes Pew’s finding primarily “reflects alienation and disgust with the Arabs more than it attests to agreement to grant legitimacy to the government to expel them.” In other words, many Israelis chose to interpret the question as meaning “some Arabs” – a position they could support – because they wanted to demonstrate their “alienation and disgust.”
But why would Israeli Jews want to do that? And why would they want to expel “some Arabs” to begin with? First, because they’re sick and tired of hearing Israeli Arab leaders openly support anti-Israel terror. And second, they’re sick and tired of ordinary Arabs – the ones who claim to support coexistence, and who I believe in many cases genuinely do – not only refusing to disavow these leaders, but reelecting them to the Knesset year after year.
The Hezbollah controversy, which broke after Pew’s survey was conducted, is a perfect example. Hezbollah has killed thousands of Israelis and tens of thousands of non-Israeli Arabs. Yet the Balad and Hadash parties both condemned the GCC for declaring it a terrorist organization, because Balad thought the decision “serves Israel and its allies in the region” and harms “anyone acting against Israeli aggression,” while Hadash thought it serves Israel’s interests, helps maintain the “Israel occupation” and “proves that Gulf states are totally loyal to neo-colonialist and Zionist forces, the enemies of Arabs.”
All this was too much even for the far-left Haaretz, which usually defends Arab MKs’ every outrage. In a blistering editorial, it pointed out that Hezbollah attacks also kill many Israeli Arabs (most of whom live in the north, which is Hezbollah’s primary target) and demanded, “Could it be that the representatives of the Balad and Hadash parties are willing to accept this, just as long as Jews are killed too?” It then lambasted “the absence of diplomatic logic” in claiming that Hezbollah fights the “Israeli occupation” when it actually does no such thing, being too busy dominating Lebanon and helping to slaughter hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
Finally, it wrote, these parties, “with their own hands … are crushing Israeli Arabs’ struggle for equal rights and recognition of their unique status in the Jewish state” by lending support to the claim “that Israeli Arabs are enemies of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.” Memo to Arab MKs: When even Haaretz won’t support you, you’ve really lost every last Israeli Jew.
I’ve explained before why Israeli Arabs keep reelecting these parties despite claiming that they don’t reflect the voters’ priorities. But however justified the explanation, the combination of ever more outrageous behavior by Arab MKs and the growing “alienation and disgust” reflected by the Pew poll clearly creates a combustible situation. And at some point, if a new and different Israeli Arab leadership doesn’t emerge, it’s liable to explode.
Yet rather than helping to cultivate such a new leadership, both American Jews and Israeli leftists have been enthusiastically supporting the very Israeli Arabs who are doing the most to destroy coexistence. Hadash chairman Ayman Odeh, for instance – who condemned the GCC for declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization, but won’t condemn Palestinian knife attacks because “I don’t think it’s my place to tell the people how to resist” – was feted by Jewish groups when he visited America last year.
Thus, it’s high time for Arabs and Jews alike to realize that supporting arsonists like Odeh is no way to foster coexistence. Otherwise, the “alienation and disgust” reflected in the Pew poll will only keep growing.
Originally published in Commentary on March 9, 2016
The global firestorm that has erupted over Israel’s “NGO transparency bill” can’t be understood without knowing one crucial fact: Israel’s leading left-wing “nongovernmental” organizations are actually wholly-owned subsidiaries of the European Union and its member states. This fact, which was incontrovertibly demonstrated by a new NGO Monitor study, explains both why the bill is so important and why it is so fiercely opposed by the organizations themselves and their European funders.
As I noted in Tuesday’s post, the study examined the financial reports filed with Israel’s registrar of nonprofit organizations by 27 prominent organizations from 2010-2014. The groups include B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Adalah, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and many others actively engaged in trying to tarnish Israel’s name overseas. Overall, these groups raised more than 261 million shekels during those years; at current exchange rates, that comes to $66 million.
Of this total, fully 65 percent – some $43 million – came either directly or indirectly from foreign governments, primarily European ones. Foreign governments provided 20 of the 27 groups with over 50 percent of their funding, and three groups (Yesh Din, Terrestrial Jerusalem and Emek Shaveh) received over 90 percent of their funding from foreign governments. The largest donor was the EU, followed by Norway and Germany.
Moreover, this high level of European funding is absolutely unique, as demonstrated by a previous NGO Monitor report analyzing the years 2007-2010. That report found that the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights spends more on promoting “democracy and human rights” in “Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories” than in every other country of the Mideast combined. Indeed, the EIDHR spends more in Israel alone – excluding all the grants given jointly to “Israel and the OPT” – than it does in every other Mideast country, every Asian and Pacific country, all but one African country and all but one American and Caribbean country; grants to “Israel and the OPT” together exceed those to every other country worldwide, by a very large margin.
The “transparency bill” would require any NGO that gets more than 50 percent of its funding from foreign governments to state this clearly on any report or publication it issues, and also in any written or oral contacts with public officials. The government-sponsored version would not require representatives of these groups to wear special nametags in the Knesset; that idea was raised in a private member’s bill, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said it won’t be in the final legislation.
The bill’s supporters say it is similar to America’s Foreign Agents Registration Act. The U.S. Embassy in Israel disputes this, insisting that FARA applies only when groups engage in activities “at the order, request, or under the direction or control, of a foreign principal – not simply by receiving contributions from such an entity.” That claim, however, is patently false.
FARA’s actual text says a foreign agent need not be directly controlled by a foreign principal; he can also be acting “under the direction or control” of a third party “whose activities are … financed, or subsidized in whole or in major part by a foreign principal.” In other words, he could be employed by a local NGO financed “in whole or in major part” by a foreign government. Moreover, FARA says explicitly that no formal contractual relationship between the agent and the foreign principal is necessary.
Thus receiving substantial contributions from a foreign entity actually could be enough in itself to make someone a foreign agent, as long as he also engages in one of four actions specified by the law, of which the relevant one in Israel’s case is the first: engaging “within the United States in political activities for or in the interests of such foreign principal.”
The EU and its member states make no secret of the fact that getting Israel out of the West Bank is one of their top foreign policy goals. That contradicts the Israeli government’s position, which opposes further territorial withdrawals under the current circumstances.
The 20 NGOs in question similarly make no secret of the fact that getting Israel out of the West Bank is a top policy goal. B’Tselem, for instance, unambiguously titled one of its fundraising appeals “Help End the Occupation: Support B’Tselem.” Yehuda Shaul, the foreign relations director for Breaking the Silence, explicitly defined the organization in a 2014 article as “Israeli veterans who work toward ending the Israeli occupation.” And so forth.
In other words, these organizations are conducting political activity in Israel aimed at pressuring the elected government to adopt a key European policy goal, all while being financed “in major part” by European governments. That’s precisely the situation FARA’s provisions are meant to cover, and for good reason: When certain donors provide more than half an NGO’s funding, no explicit contract is needed to ensure the NGO’s compliance with its donors’ wishes; the threat of losing funding is sufficient.
But lest there be any doubt, even the explicit contractual relationship sometimes exists. Just this month, for instance, an EU-sponsored organization gave B’Tselem €30,000 to lobby the Knesset against the NGO transparency bill, which the EU openly opposes. In other words, it paid B’Tselem to lobby the Knesset to enact the EU’s preferred policies.
There’s also no doubt that these European donors are hostile to Israel. Norway – the largest individual government donor – is remarkably honest about this; its Foreign Ministry says explicitly, for instance, that it funds UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, because it is “a guarantor that the rights of Palestine refugees, including the right to return, are not forgotten.” The “right of return,” needless to say, is Palestinian code for eliminating the Jewish state demographically by flooding it with millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees.
But the rest of Europe isn’t much more subtle. For instance, the EU recently adopted discriminatory labeling requirements that apply only to “Israeli-occupied” territory, but not to territory occupied by any other country. It gives higher priority to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than it does to other conflicts that are not only far bloodier, but have swamped it with an unprecedented refugee crisis. And the funding it pours into Israeli NGOs – more, as noted, than it gives the rest of the Mideast combined – isn’t because it thinks a 67-year-old democracy actually needs more help with democracy promotion than the world’s dozens of dictatorships; it’s because this money isn’t aimed at promoting “democracy and human rights” at all, but at subverting the policies of Israel’s democratically elected government.
By now, I doubt there’s anyone in Israel who doesn’t know these NGOs are wholly-owned subsidiaries of European governments; indeed, the main reason they conduct so much of their activity overseas these days is that they have little credibility left in Israel. But abroad, these groups are still viewed as Israeli organizations representing an authentic Israeli perspective, and they also benefit from the NGO “halo effect.”
That is why the transparency bill is so critical, and also why both the organizations and European governments are fighting so hard to kill it: Once these groups are required to state openly, on everything they do, that they’re primarily funded by European governments, it will be possible to expose them for what they really are – not independent Israeli NGOs with Israel’s best interests at heart, but agents of a hostile foreign power that is obsessed by Israel, discriminates against it and wishes it nothing but ill.
Originally published in Commentary on January 22, 2016
Ever since an arson attack apparently perpetrated by Jewish extremists killed three members of a Palestinian family last July, the left has used it to launch a sweeping assault on religious Zionists in general and religious settlers in particular. The perpetrators weren’t mere “wild weeds,” leftists asserted, but a product of systematic racism and incitement in the religious community. And as long as the perpetrators remained unknown, this claim was hard to refute: Without knowing who they were, it was impossible to know their motives. But with the suspects having finally been indicted this week, it’s now clear this assertion is bunk. Nor is that my verdict alone: It’s the verdict of none other than the reporter covering the case for the far-left daily Haaretz – a paper that can’t be accused of any sympathy for either settlers or the religious community.
Last week, when reporters already knew who the suspects were but the rest of us were still in the dark due to a gag order, Haaretz ran a front-page analysis by settlement reporter Chaim Levinson titled “Jewish Terror Doesn’t Happen Because of Radical Rabbis, but in Spite of Them.” It’s worth reading in full, but here’s the gist:
Today’s Jewish terror doesn’t happen because of the rabbis. It is a protest against the rabbis, staged by young Jewish extremists … They regard the rabbis as too moderate and willing to compromise. They consider rabbis Dov Lior and Yitzchak Ginsburgh – whose names are whispered in the television studios as the arch-terrorists of our generation – as moderates because they don’t back violence.
The problem with the Jewish extremists of today is not the places they study, but the fact that they don’t study. If they were students in Lior’s much-maligned Nir Yeshiva in Kiryat Arba instead of wandering the hilltops of the West Bank, probably they wouldn’t have gone out and set fire to a family home in the dark of night.
The proof is crystal clear: None of Lior’s students are involved in the current terror activities. If he were to teach this, his students would probably follow his teachings. But that is not his way…
Yosef Haim Ben-David, who burned Mohammed Abu Khdeir to death in July 2014, did not grow up in the religious Zionist movement. Nor did the minor who stabbed several Palestinians in Dimona last October. Neither did Shlomo Pinto, who mistakenly stabbed a Jewish man in Kiryat Ata that same month.
Ginsburgh and Lior’s students, who imbibe their racism with gusto, may share their worldview but understand that burning and killing Arabs is not the way.
This week, after the gag order was finally lifted, Levinson published a profile of the main suspect, Amiram Ben-Uliel. And the profile proves his point. Ben-Uliel actually is the son of a mainstream religious Zionist rabbi and grew up in a settlement. But he dropped out of school as a teenager, left his family’s home, and largely severed contact with them. In fact, he largely severed contact with the entire mainstream religious community, as evidenced by what I personally consider the profile’s most telling detail: When he married a fellow extremist two years ago, the only guests at the wedding were the couple’s parents.
That might not sound shocking to American ears, since private weddings aren’t unheard of in America. But Orthodox Jewish weddings are massive community affairs. Guest lists typically number in the hundreds, and it’s considered a mitzvah to attend and help the bride and groom rejoice. Nor does community involvement end there: A traditional Orthodox wedding is followed by seven nights of parties, the sheva brachot, at which the newlyweds are the guests of honor. Each is typically hosted by a different relative or friend, and each must include at least one guest who didn’t attend the wedding or any of the earlier parties.
In short, in Jewish tradition, weddings aren’t private affairs; they are communal events deliberately designed to welcome the young couple into the community. Thus, by having a private wedding, Ben-Uliel and his bride were explicitly and pointedly turning their backs on their community and its religious traditions.
Other alleged members of this hardcore radical group have similar profiles. Mordechai Meyer, for instance, also grew up in a mainstream religious home in a mainstream settlement. But like Ben-Uliel, he dropped out of school and abandoned his family home as a teenager.
Indeed, these radicals are the antithesis of mainstream religious Zionists and settlers, who view the Israeli state as “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption” (to quote the prayer for the state), and therefore as something to be cherished. The radicals, in contrast, view the Israeli state as “The Kingdom of Evil” – the title of a tract written by one, Moshe Orbach, which details their methodology: using terror to sow such chaos and create such deep internal rifts that it will eventually destroy the state, clearing the way for them to build a religious kingdom in its stead. It’s the methodology embraced by every terrorist organization in history. But it has nothing to do with either the tactics or the goals of mainstream religious Zionism.
In fact, “inciting rabbis” have never had anything to do with Jewish terror. As Levinson correctly noted, this “is a cliché that took root in the 1990s after the assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.” What he didn’t note is that it was wrong then, too. Michael Ben-Yair, the attorney general at the time, investigated the matter thoroughly and concluded that assassin Yigal Amir wasn’t influenced by any rabbi or by any broader “climate of incitement.” And like Haaretz, Ben-Yair can hardly be suspected of rightist sympathies; he’s a radical leftist who accuses Israel of “apartheid” and urged the European Union to recognize a Palestinian state even without an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty.
As Levinson aptly concluded, “The way to deal with terror is to stop terrorist activity. Investigating rabbis might make Meretz chairwoman MK Zehava Galon happy, but it is not connected to today’s reality.”
Yet unjustly smearing an entire community isn’t simply irrelevant; it’s downright counterproductive. The only thing it will ever achieve is to further deepen Israel’s internal divides. And that’s exactly the outcome the Jewish terrorists are seeking.
Originally published in Commentary on January 7, 2016
I admit to getting a kick out of seeing anti-Semites inadvertently help the very Jewish state they dream of destroying. And it happens more often than you might think, as was driven home by three very different news reports this week.
The first is that some 8,000 French Jews moved to Israel this year, topping last year’s all-time high of 7,000. Immigration is always good for Israel. Not only does each group of immigrants bring its own ideas and strengths that contribute to making Israel a better place, but the country simply needs a critical mass of people to survive as a Jewish state in an Arab region. Indeed, had it not been for the millions of Jews who immigrated since 1948, Israel might not have survived.
Most immigrants to Israel are Zionists; they genuinely care about the Jewish state. But even so, most of them wouldn’t have left comfortable lives elsewhere had there not been a push factor as well as a pull factor; that’s why most American Zionists still don’t come. And usually, anti-Semitism has been part of that push factor, just as it is for French Jews today.
So thank you, anti-Semites, for turning a country of 800,000 people into one eight million strong. It would never have happened without your help.
The second news item was the announcement of a planned trilateral summit between the leaders of Israel, Greece, and Cyprus. For most of its history, Israel’s relationships with Greece and Cyprus were chilly; in contrast, it had close ties with their longtime enemy, Turkey. It was only when Turkey, under the leadership of the virulently anti-Semitic Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, turned against Israel that a rapprochement with Greece and Cyprus began, since all three countries now had a common enemy.
In other times, this might have seemed a poor strategic bargain. Greece and Cyprus have weaker militaries than Turkey, offer smaller economic markets, and don’t provide diplomatic entrée to the Muslim world. But in a month where the West has just given Iran a pass on two major violations of its shiny new nuclear deal – failing to come clean on its past nuclear work and conducting a banned missile test – it’s a godsend.
Why? Because Iran now knows for certain that it can cheat its way to nuclear weapons with impunity, which means Israel will someday face a choice between bombing Iran or letting Iran get the bomb. But bombing will be harder than it would have been before the nuclear deal because the deal gave Russia a green light to finally supply Iran with its advanced S-300 aerial defense system. And Israel lacks experience with the S-300; the allies its air force traditionally trained with, including Turkey, mainly use American weapons platforms.
But Cyprus, which has long had close ties with Russia, bought an S-300 back in 1997, which it later transferred to Greece. And since Israel, Greece, and Cyprus are now friends that conduct joint military exercises, Greece reportedly let the Israel Air Force practice against its S-300 this spring to devise ways of defeating it.
So thank you, Erdogan, for enabling the IAF to get the training it will need if it ever has to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. It wouldn’t have happened without your help.
Finally, there’s the annual UN Human Development Index, which was published this week. Israel ranked 18th on this index, which is based on income, education and life expectancy; that puts it above both the EU average and the OECD average, and also above several individual countries (like France, Belgium, and Austria) that have higher per capita incomes, have been around much longer, and haven’t been at war for the last seven decades. Inter alia, Israel has the world’s second-lowest infant mortality rate (though since Belarus ranked first, I admit to wondering about the veracity of some of the UN’s data); it ranks fourth in life satisfaction; and it has the highest fertility rate of any country in the “Very High Human Development” category (2.9 births per woman), compared to fertility rates below replacement rate in every EU country, and even in America.
What do any of these statistics have to do with anti-Semitism? Two things. First, Israel has benefited tremendously from the generosity of overseas Jewry; in particular, many of its hospitals and universities were built with help from abroad. All these donors were obviously motivated by Zionism; they wanted to contribute to building the Jewish state. But the fact that Israel’s very existence has been under threat since its inception served as an additional spur. Helping fellow Jews in a very powerful Jewish impulse, and even today, overseas donations to Israel spike whenever there’s a war. In other words, had it not been for the constant threats, the Diaspora Jewish generosity that has helped Israel grow and thrive so impressively might not have reached the proportions that it did.
Second, precisely because of those constant threats, Israel simply couldn’t afford mediocrity in certain areas. To fight wars against enemies who were vastly numerically superior, for instance, it needed the very best military technology, and its investment in weapons development ultimately spurred a civilian high-tech boom. Similarly, for decades it was unable to import agricultural produce from its neighbors, so it had to be able to grow food despite having very little water; hence, innovations like drip irrigation and wastewater recycling (in which Israel is the undisputed world leader) were born.
In short, without the constant hostility, Israel probably wouldn’t have come as far and as fast as it has since 1948. So thank you, anti-Semites, for spurring Israel to become a pretty amazing place to live. We couldn’t have done it without your help.
Originally published in Commentary on December 17, 2015
The fact that several perpetrators of Friday’s terror attacks in Paris were French citizens ought to pose a serious logical dilemma for all those liberals who blame terrorism on Western behavior. After all, it has become accepted wisdom on the left that Israel severely oppresses its own Arab citizens. But if terror is truly a response to oppression and Israel truly treats its Arab citizens worse than other Western countries do, how do you explain that while French Muslims have repeatedly committed terror attacks against their own country, Israeli Arab involvement in anti-Israel terror is negligible? In the latest wave of anti-Israel attacks, for instance, only two out of almost 100 perpetrators were Arab citizens of Israel – and one was a woman with a history of suicide attempts who was apparently just trying to achieve her own death by brandishing a knife in a crowded bus station and ignoring police orders to drop it.
Fortunately for liberals’ cognitive dissonance, there’s no need to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable axioms, because both of them are nonsense. I debunked the theory that terror stems from “relative deprivation” last week. And the accepted wisdom about how Israel treats its Arab citizens can be debunked simply by examining some of the findings of the Israel Democracy Index, a sweeping annual survey whose 2015 edition was released last week.
Unsurprisingly, the IDI didn’t show that Israel has become the first country in history to eliminate discrimination or racist attitudes; both still exist, just as they do in every other Western country. Indeed, a majority of Jewish respondents readily acknowledged that Israeli Arabs still face discrimination, which is clearly a necessary step toward reducing it.
Nevertheless, an overwhelming majority of Arab respondents evinced no desire to live anywhere but Israel when asked the following question: “If you had the opportunity to become a citizen of the United States or any other Western country, would you prefer to move there or to remain in Israel?” Fully 83.4 percent said they would rather remain in Israel – virtually identical to the proportion among Israeli Jews (84.5 percent). That strongly implies that Israeli Arabs don’t consider their situation to be too bad; if they did, more would express interest in emigrating.
This conclusion was confirmed by a question asking how respondents viewed their personal situation. Almost two-thirds of Israeli Arabs – 65.1 percent – characterized their personal situation as “good” or “very good.” That’s lower than the Jewish rate (76.5 percent), but hardly consonant with liberal claims of severe oppression.
Attitudes toward state institutions were also noteworthy. Arabs and Jews expressed virtually identical levels of trust in two key law enforcement agencies, the police, and the Supreme Court. Even more surprising, Arabs outpolled Jews – often by large margins – in their level of trust for many other state institutions, including the Knesset, the media, political parties, the National Insurance Institute, and the health maintenance organizations. Only three institutions – the army, the executive branch, and the state president – won higher levels of trust from Jews than Arabs.
Needless to say, if Israeli Arabs were really suffering severe oppression and discrimination, one would expect them to have much lower levels of trust in state institutions than Jews do. The fact that this isn’t the case indicates that Arabs, on the whole, don’t see themselves as getting a raw deal from the state.
Nevertheless, one question ought to set off alarm bells among anyone who supports a Jewish state where minorities live with equal rights. That question asked whether respondents agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “Most Arab citizens of Israel have not reconciled themselves to the state’s existence, and support its destruction.”
Though majorities of both Jews and Arabs disagreed, almost a quarter of Arab respondents deemed this statement true. That indicates that while “most Arab citizens” is almost certainly an exaggeration, a non-negligible minority of Israeli Arabs do indeed support Israel’s destruction. One could dismiss the fact that a large minority of Jewish respondents also deemed the statement true as mere prejudice since many Jews have little firsthand acquaintance with Arabs. But Arab respondents are presumably reporting the attitudes they actually hear among their own circles. This supposition is reinforced by the fact that the proportion of Arabs who agreed with the statement was more than twice as high among those who voted for the Joint Arab List – a party that refuses even to condemn anti-Israel terror – as it was among those who voted for Zionist parties, and who therefore presumably inhabit more integrationist circles.
There are two lessons here for liberals concerned over the situation of Israel’s Arab citizens. First, that situation is much better than you think. But second, if you want it to continue improving, it’s time to stop supporting “authentic” Arab voices like JAL, which oppose integration, and instead start supporting those who truly favor being part of the Jewish state.
Originally published in Commentary on November 17, 2015
It’s hard to find any silver lining in a situation where Palestinians are perpetrating multiple stabbing attacks against Jews every day, and most of the “international community” is siding with the perpetrators. Yet this dismal situation may finally have produced something Israel desperately needs: An Israeli Arab political leader who represents his community’s sane majority. The 65 percent who are proud to be Israeli, the 55 percent who identify with the Israeli flag, the ones who genuinely want to live in peace with their Jewish neighbors.
For decades, Israeli Arab leadership at the national level has been an unmitigated disaster. The community’s current Knesset members, elected on a joint ticket called the Joint Arab List, span the gamut from the “moderate” Ayman Odeh to the “firebrand” Hanin Zoabi, to borrow the media’s favorite misnomers. The former merely refuses to condemn Palestinian terror, saying, “I cannot tell the nation how to struggle … I do not put red lines on the Arab Palestinian nation.” The latter may face criminal investigation for actively inciting it, having allegedly told a Hamas publication that the current terror needs more “national support,” because “If individual attacks continue without national support, they will be extinguished within the next several days, and therefore hundreds of thousands are needed to start a real intifada.” In between are MKs who spew a wide variety of anti-Israel libels; my personal favorite was Ahmed Tibi’s 2014 op-ed in The Hill claiming that Israeli Arabs are subject to Jim Crow treatment – signed, without a trace of irony, by his then-title of deputy speaker of the Knesset.
Clearly, this is terrible for Jewish-Arab relations, and the Arab community suffers doubly: Not only do their MKs spend most of their time and effort promoting such libels rather than trying to solve their community’s real problems, the antagonism they generate among the Jewish majority actively hinders solutions. First, it’s hard to lobby the government for, say, better bus service while simultaneously accusing it of apartheid and genocide. Even worse, such rhetoric encourages many Jews to view all Israeli Arabs as enemies to be shunned: After all, Israeli Arabs have overwhelmingly voted to reelect these same MKs for decades, giving this conclusion an obvious logic.
But in recent years, this logic has increasingly been contradicted by other polling data, like the figures I cited in the first paragraph. Particularly telling was a poll published in February regarding Arab attitudes toward their own MKs. It showed that 70 percent wanted their MKs to focus on their own community’s socioeconomic problems instead of the Palestinian cause. Additionally, 61 percent wanted their MKs to join the government, where they would have more influence over such issues, and almost half that figure favored joining regardless of who became prime minister (the Joint Arab List, by contrast, vowed before the election not to join any government). Unsurprisingly, therefore, almost half the respondents weren’t happy with their own MKs.
So why do they keep reelecting them? It’s classic minority identity politics. Whereas the well-integrated Druze vote for, and serve as MKs from, parties across the political spectrum, Israeli Arab integration is still nascent. Consequently, however much they loathe their own MKs, most Arabs don’t feel comfortable voting for a non-Arab party; they’re skeptical that Jews could understand or really care about their community’s special problems.
What’s desperately needed, therefore, is home-grown Arab leadership that not only wants to represent the sane Arab majority and advance its integration, but also has the guts and the political power to take on the existing Arab parties. And despite a growing cadre of local leaders who indeed favor coexistence over confrontation, none had been willing to publicly challenge the national leadership – until Nazareth Mayor Ali Salem erupted on the stage this week.
Last March, Salem ousted Nazareth’s long-time mayor in a landslide, winning 61.5 percent of the vote in an election with record turnout of 83.8 percent. The former mayor, a Christian, belonged to the abovementioned Ayman Odeh’s party and toed its anti-Israel line. Salem, a Muslim, also began his political career in that party, but later quit in disgust and ran for mayor as an independent. The fact that he was both willing and able to challenge the Arab political establishment proved a harbinger of things to come.
This week, when Odeh visited Nazareth, Salem confronted his inflammatory behavior head-on – and on live TV. “Get out of here! Go back to Haifa, and stop destroying our city,” Salem yelled. “Jews don’t come here anymore because of you! … You’re burning the world down. … Shut up and get out!”
When Odeh, embarrassed, demanded that the television crew stop filming, Salem promptly demanded the opposite; he wanted his remarks to be widely heard. And lest there be any doubt, he gave several follow-up interviews reiterating his views.
“I blame the [Israeli Arab] leaders,” he told Army Radio. “They are destroying our future, they are destroying coexistence. We need to find a way to live together. We cannot fight like this. We are damaging ourselves.”
And in a conversation with reporters, he explained, “It infuriates me that Arab politicians come here, incite violence, and leave us to clean up their mess … We invest a great deal in coexistence and tourism. We want to develop our city. I want peace and quiet. … We used to have thousands of Jews and tourists visit Nazareth over the weekends. They don’t visit anymore. This seriously hurts our image and our livelihood, and we won’t allow it.”
Other prominent Arab Israelis are also speaking out. Television presenter Lucy Aharish, for instance, gave a must-see interview with Channel 2 television in which she demolished the idea that the terror had any conceivable justification and accused Israeli Arab political and religious leaders of fanning the flames: “You are inciting thousands of young people to go the streets. You are destroying their future with your own hands!” She and other Israeli Arab notables have also signed a petition denouncing terror and promoting coexistence.
But a real turnabout in Jewish-Arab relations will require a different Israeli Arab political leadership. And Salem offers hope that such a leadership might finally be emerging.
Originally published in Commentary on October 16, 2015
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
Note: After Mosaic published my essay “The Two-State Solution Is in Stalemate. Here’s What Israel Can Do to Prevail” in early September, the magazine invited two people to respond to it, Elliott Abrams and Amnon Lord. The piece below is my response to their responses.
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.
Originally published in Mosaic on September 21, 2015
For two decades the Jewish state has sought, fruitlessly, to negotiate an end to the conflict. Needed is a new, viable strategy for coping with reality and winning out
It’s a longstanding truism of international relations that “everyone knows” the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet today, after more than two decades of negotiations under several different Israeli, Palestinian, and American governments have repeatedly failed to produce the two-state agreement whose terms “everyone knows,” it is past time to put this false idea to rest. In fact, what the talks have shown is that even when there’s agreement on general principles, the remaining gaps are insurmountable—and often there isn’t even agreement on principles. What this means is that, for now and for the foreseeable future, a final peace is not achievable.
To most Israelis, this isn’t news. Repeated polls have confirmed that while a stable majority still favors a two-state solution, an even larger majority doesn’t believe an agreement can or will be signed anytime soon—or that the Palestinians are serious about reaching one.
And little wonder. After all, every proposal made by either Israel or international mediators in the past 20 years has met with summary rejection. Yasir Arafat turned down offers by Prime Minister Ehud Barak and U.S. President Bill Clinton in 2000-01; Mahmoud Abbas never even responded to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s offer in 2008; and last year, according to a senior American official, Abbas first “rejected all of [Secretary of State John] Kerry’s ideas” and then “refused” an American proposal personally presented by President Barack Obama.
No less telling, each territorial concession by Israel has produced not a decrease but a dramatic increase in Palestinian terrorism. In the two-and-a-half years following the Oslo Accords in 1993, when Israel withdrew from most of Gaza and parts of the West Bank, more Israelis were killed by Palestinians than in the entire preceding decade. The second intifada, which erupted in 2000, produced more Israeli casualties in four years than all the terror attacks of the previous 53 years combined. Since 2005, the year in which Israel evacuated every last soldier and settler from Gaza, Palestinians there have fired over 16,000 rockets and mortars at Israel’s civilian population. People who are serious about making peace generally don’t use every bit of territory ceded to them in order to attack their “peace partner.”
Even the issue of the future borders between Israel and the Palestinian state, supposedly the easiest of all to negotiate, has proved intractable. Several Israeli premiers, including Benjamin Netanyahu, have reportedly accepted the “everyone knows” principle that these must be based on the 1967 lines with territorial swaps. But there’s a reason why both Israeli and international proposals to this effect, from the Clinton parameters onward, have repeatedly failed to win Palestinian concurrence: they envision land swaps for about 6 percent of the West Bank to minimize the number of Israelis who would have to relocate, but the Palestinians insist on much smaller swaps that would require evicting hundreds of thousands of Israelis from their homes. In 20 years, the Palestinians haven’t budged on this; kicking Israelis out of their homes is evidently more important to them than ending the hated “occupation.”
The same irreconcilability is even more evident on the “hard” issues like Jerusalem and refugees. Both Barak and Olmert offered to cede the Temple Mount on condition that the agreement include some kind of recognition of Jewish religious and historical ties to the Mount. Arafat rejected Barak’s proposal; Abbas rejected Olmert’s.
This unwillingness even to acknowledge Jewish ties to Judaism’s holiest site encapsulates the heart of the problem: the Palestinian refusal to accept that Jews have any right to any part of the land of Israel. Until that changes, the conflict will likely remain unresolvable.
Consequently, a kind of stalemate has taken hold, periodically interrupted by brief, fierce skirmishes but so far containable: a cold war, if one likes, that may be destined to endure as long as the obdurate Palestinian refusal itself. Hence, after two decades in which it has sought fruitlessly to negotiate an end to the conflict, what Israel needs in order to emerge victorious from this war is a new, realistic strategy for coping with the situation as it actually exists.
What would such a strategy look like? How have other countries navigated conflicts with seemingly no foreseeable end? Is there any model in political or diplomatic history that would suggest a feasible way forward?
It is tempting to answer no to that last question, given certain glaring differences between this conflict and almost all others. Most notably, the Palestinian-Israeli “problem” attracts international attention greater by several orders of magnitude than other conflicts of similar size—like, say, the one over Northern Ireland—or even of larger size. Many long-running international struggles drag on for months or even years without generating a single international media report or peacemaking initiative. Even when particularly bloody flare-ups attract global attention, the outside world quickly loses interest.
By contrast, the Palestinian-Israel conflict is under a relentless global microscope. Even when no active fighting is occurring, scarcely a day goes by without some international outlet sensationalizing one or another aspect of the struggle or an international diplomat proclaiming the urgent necessity of resolving it once and for all. Indeed, world leaders routinely declare this conflict the most important issue on the planet—not the equally long-running conflict over Kashmir that pits India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed powers, against each other; not the bloody Syrian civil war, which in four years has killed more than ten times as many people as the Palestinian-Israel conflict has in seven decades; and not the conflict in Ukraine, which raises the specter of a new cold war between Russia and the West.
Another difference is that despite being vastly superior to the Palestinians both militarily and economically, Israel faces constraints far more severe than those encountered by the stronger party in most conflicts worldwide. First, with a mere eight million people, Israel is minuscule compared with the surrounding Arab world, whose population numbers roughly 370 million. True, Israel has won all of its wars against Arab states; true, too, no Arab state in decades has tried to destroy Israel, and today, with many of those states collapsing, the possibility of a renewed attempt seems remote. But Israel is still widely loathed in the Arab world; the temptation to go to war always exists for Arab regimes eager to divert attention from their own failings; and, for Israel, war with an enemy so numerically superior and so fundamentally unpredictable remains an existential risk. For that reason alone, Israel has always sought to prevent its tactics vis-à-vis the Palestinians from provoking broader Arab engagement.
The more important constraint, however, is the global microscope. By trumpeting every Israeli flaw while ignoring far greater evils elsewhere, media and human-rights organizations have enabled anti-Israel activists to paint the Jewish state as uniquely evil and hence uniquely deserving of sanctions and delegitimization. Israel isn’t North Korea; it’s an advanced economy that depends on trade with the outside world. Localized boycotts like those promoted by the BDS movement have so far had limited impact, and most Western governments remain reluctant to impose truly threatening sanctions. But Israel must ensure that its actions are sufficiently defensible to allow these governments to continue disregarding the relentless pressure to punish the Jewish state.
What all this means is that while most local conflicts require only a local strategy, important parts of Israel’s strategy must of necessity be global—and must be effective despite the constraints Israel faces in using its military and economic power. Still, despite these unique features of Israel’s situation, history does have some lessons to offer. In what follows, I’ll consider four key components—political, diplomatic, military, and economic—of what a viable strategy might look like. In the end, I’ll point to one model in which such a strategy proved historically successful.
I. The Politics of Negotiation
Given the futility of all Israel-Palestinian talks to date, one might ask why negotiations should have any role at all in a new Israeli strategy. The answer is that everything depends on the kind of negotiations being held.
Let’s start with the wrong kind. Israel and the Palestinians have spent the past 20 years talking endlessly about issues on which agreement has repeatedly proved unachievable. Not only has this done nothing to lower tensions; it has actually increased them.
First, when it comes to “core issues” like Jerusalem or the Palestinian refugees, each side views the other’s position as negating its own identity. On the refugees, for instance, Israel sees the Palestinian demand for a “right of return” as an attempt to destroy the Jewish state demographically by flooding it with millions of Palestinian Arabs. Meanwhile, for Palestinians, who for generations have taught their children that even pre-1967 Israel is stolen land to which they have a right to return, abrogating this demand means abandoning their foundational narrative. Thus, every time issues like this are discussed, both sides’ attention is directed to precisely what each finds most objectionable in the other, which in turn reinforces its view of the other as an irreconcilable enemy.
Second, failed peace talks always end with each side feeling it has already conceded something important without receiving anything commensurate in exchange. To take one example from the latest round of talks, Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly proposed letting Israel keep troops in the Jordan Valley for ten to fifteen years—a term far longer than the Palestinians deem tolerable but far shorter than Israel considers essential for its security. Both sides now fear that this proposal will serve as the starting point for additional concessions in the next round. With each party now feeling it is in a worse position than when the talks began, each has become even more resentful of the other.
Hence it’s no surprise that failed negotiations have frequently been followed by armed conflict. The second intifada broke out two months after the Camp David summit collapsed in 2000; last summer’s war in Gaza erupted shortly after Kerry’s talks collapsed. It’s a basic fact of human nature that when tensions are high, any spark can become a conflagration. And that’s especially true of this conflict, in which terrorist groups like Hamas are usually happy to provide the spark.
What’s the alternative? Instead of pleading for yet another round of final-status talks, as every recent Israeli government has done, Israel should instead seek to negotiate over smaller issues on which agreement is reachable. This won’t resolve the underlying conflict, but it can reduce tensions and improve life—on both sides, and especially the Palestinian one—until such time as the conflict becomes more tractable.
Numerous areas present themselves: Palestinian economic development, sewage treatment and other environmental issues, even the resettlement of some Palestinian refugees. On all of these, progress would be beneficial no matter what resolution to the conflict one ultimately hopes to see, and none precludes such a resolution. Just as an independent Palestinian state would clearly benefit from having more gainfully employed citizens or suffering fewer environmental hazards, so would a Palestinian-Jordanian federation, a Palestinian-Israeli federation, a one-state solution, or any other conceivable outcome.
Moreover, many Palestinians would assuredly welcome such a shift in focus—not because they have given up their political aspirations but because they, too, recognize that the conflict isn’t currently solvable and would like a better life in the meantime. After last summer’s war, a Palestinian physician from Gaza summed up this attitude succinctly: “I wish Israel never existed. But as it does not seem to be going away, I would rather be working in Israel like I used to before the first intifada [in the late 1980s], not fighting it.”
Of course, Israel can’t shift the focus of negotiations on its own; it needs cooperation from at least one of the two other main players: the Palestinians and the major Western powers. The former would obviously be the better choice, but since the Palestinian Authority (PA) has thus far refused to discuss mundane issues like improving the daily lives of its people, the more plausible path would be to convince Western nations, the PA’s main financial backers, to bring their client along.
Although most Western countries still publicly advocate an immediate final-status deal, privately many Western diplomats admit its unlikelihood and might be open to such an alternative approach if Israel made a persuasive case for it. Instead, Israel has done the opposite: every Israeli government—even the current one, which openly doubts a deal is achievable—has publicly called for more final-status talks. As long as Israel continues on this path, it won’t be able to persuade anyone else otherwise; you can’t win an argument you don’t even try to make.
Thus, in addition to advancing the case that more final-status talks will not only fail to solve the conflict but will actually worsen it, Israel would do better to advocate smaller-scale negotiations that could create tangible improvements on the ground. Indeed, even some hardcore Israeli leftists now say, as one put it, that in today’s circumstances the emphasis should shift to seeing “what can be done to improve the lives of people until there is a chance of making peace.”
Most important, immediately after the next U.S. presidential election, Israel should strive to reach a consensus with Washington on the futility of peace negotiations and the desirability of an alternative strategy. A few prominent policy thinkers, like the former Bush-administration official Elliott Abrams and Clifford May of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, are already promoting this idea. And as Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, has noted, major American reassessments are usually possible only with a new president and secretary of state who aren’t yet committed to pre-existing policies.
II. Public Diplomacy
The fact that Israel needs international help even to shift the focus of negotiations with the Palestinians underscores why diplomacy, especially public diplomacy, is a vital part of a new strategy. It is also essential for preventing damage to Israel’s economic ties with the West and ensuring a degree of Western support for military action against Palestinian terror.
Few would dispute that Israel is currently failing in this arena. For starters, according to a recent Foreign Ministry report, Israel spends less than half as much as the Palestinian Authority does on its foreign service, despite having a GDP per capita more than 20 times that of the PA. Moreover, Israel maintains an embassy in fewer than half of the countries with which it has diplomatic relations. Even most European nations spend a considerably greater percentage of their budget on foreign relations than does Israel, and those nations aren’t engaged in a global diplomatic battle crucial to their future.
As for the public-diplomacy (or hasbarah) front, Israel makes very little effort to get its story out. Its public broadcasting authority has slashed English-language programming; Arabic-language programming remains limited; and in 2008, the authority was even poised to shut down broadcasts in Farsi, the language of Iran, before they were rescued by a last-minute government intervention. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the government hasn’t even coughed up a measly $12 million a year to bring 3,000 non-Jewish campus influentials to Israel, despite the proved effectiveness of letting people see the country for themselves.
Obviously, therefore, Israel needs to invest more. But no amount of money will help if it doesn’t have a compelling narrative to sell. And as the dramatic decline in Israel’s international standing clearly shows, the story the country has marketed for the last two decades is anything but compelling.
The main story Israel tells about itself is that it wants peace. This story did generate global enthusiasm at the time of the Oslo accords; peace, after all, is an attractive value. But two decades later, Israel still hasn’t achieved peace. In other words, Israel has failed to deliver on the promise at the heart of its own narrative about itself—which suggests that, judged on its own terms, Israel is a failure. And there is nothing compelling about a failure; on the contrary, it is off-putting.
There are, however, numerous other stories Israel could tell that are no less attractive and inspiring, and on which it really has delivered: the Jewish people’s rebirth from the ashes of the Holocaust, the return to Zion after 2,000 years and the dramatic ingathering of exiles, the only Mideast country that protects human rights and maintains a genuine democracy, the start-up nation, the West’s front line against Islamic extremism, and so forth and so on. Each of these stories is potentially attractive to one or more diverse audiences.
Indeed, very few of Israel’s friends support it primarily because it seeks peace; they admire it for its successes, not its failures. Americans, for instance, see it as the Middle East’s only democracy and an ally against Islamic terror. Evangelical Christians support it because the Jews’ return to Zion is biblical prophecy come true. Many Chinese and Indians admire its high-tech prowess. All of these qualities have far more to do with Israel’s raison d’être than its failure to achieve peace does. Peace is obviously desirable, but Israel doesn’t exist to achieve peace; it exists to create a thriving Jewish state in the Jewish people’s historic homeland. By encouraging the world to judge it on its peacemaking credentials rather than on the myriad positive goods it provides, Israel has invited the perverse and false conclusion that the Jewish state has been a failure rather than a resounding success.
But selling yourself is only half the public-diplomacy battle; the other half is discrediting your opponent. You’ll never hear Palestinian officials talk about Israel’s peacemaking bona fides, let alone about Israeli rights; Palestinians talk only about their own rights, while consistently accusing Israel of every crime known to mankind. Once again, however, Israel frequently does the opposite. Israeli leaders speak constantly of the need to “end the occupation” and the Palestinians’ “right” to a state; they also routinely laud PA President Mahmoud Abbas as a “partner for peace.”
This habit has badly undermined the credibility of Israel’s own case and has inevitably led much if not most of the world to place blame for the lack of peace on Israel’s doorstep. After all, if both sides agree that the PA wants peace, the Palestinians must be right to point the finger of blame at Israeli malfeasance. And even when Israel does try to call out the PA’s misbehavior and repeated bad faith, its inconsistent messaging makes it hard for people to take it seriously. Why, for instance, would anyone believe the (accurate) contention that Abbas has fled every proposed deal when Israel itself has repeatedly proclaimed him sincere in his desire for peace?
Similarly, and more damagingly, most of the world now regards Israel as occupying stolen Palestinian land. And why not? For two decades, Israel has downplayed its own legal claim to the West Bank and Gaza in order to promote Palestinian statehood there. This is a critical issue, because if Israel is a thief, it has no right to retain any of its stolen land or impose conditions on the return of that land to its rightful owners. By contrast, were it to be seen, rightly, as generously offering the Palestinians some of its own territory for the sake of peace, it would be in a better position to defend its right to retain certain areas for the sake of its security or impose conditions on their transfer.
As it happens, Israel’s claim to the West Bank and Gaza is strong. The League of Nations assigned these territories to the Jewish national home in 1922, and the UN Charter preserved that decision in Article 80. The UN’s 1947 partition plan was a nonbinding recommendation that the Arabs rejected. The UN-brokered agreement that determined the 1949 armistice line, also known (wrongly) as the “pre-1967 border,” explicitly states that this was not a final border and did not prejudice any party’s territorial claims. Israel captured both the West Bank and Gaza in a defensive war in 1967, at a time when neither was under the rule of any recognized sovereign. UN Security Council Resolution 242, which ended the 1967 war, was explicitly worded to allow Israel to retain at least part of these territories.
And this is far from being an exhaustive list. If, outside of Israel, few people know any of it, that is because Israel rarely talks about it. And even when it does, its contradictory message about “ending the occupation” and Palestinians’ “right” to statehood undermines its credibility. After all, people have a “right” to statehood only on their own land; if Palestinians have that right, Israel must have stolen their land. Nor can any country “occupy” its own land; if Israel’s presence in the West Bank is an occupation, the land must belong to someone else.
Add to all this that whereas the Palestinians in general relentlessly accuse Israel of various crimes, Israel has failed to be equally relentless in highlighting the PA’s constant incitement to violence, let alone its internal corruption, lack of democracy, and suppression of basic human rights. In light of this, is it any wonder that the world sees the Palestinian cause as far more deserving of support than it actually is? Only if Israel stops acting as the Palestinians’ defense attorney and instead explains, clearly and consistently, why its own case is worthy of support, as well as why the Palestinian case is not, will it have any hope of winning the public-diplomacy battle.
One final point to keep in mind, however, is that public diplomacy is a means, not an end. The primary end isn’t winning the world’s love, but winning the war. And that means it’s sometimes necessary to disregard global public opinion. Even if Israel were vastly to improve its public diplomacy, some decisions would still bring out the anti-Israel mobs, especially in Europe. If those decisions are important to Israel’s strategic ends, then Israel cannot be deterred by their global unpopularity.
For example, Israel was right to ignore the hundreds of thousands of Europeans who protested last summer’s war in Gaza; stopping the rocket fire from Gaza was more important. By the same token, it would be wrong to capitulate to global demands for an immediate pullout from the West Bank; fleeting public approval can’t compensate for the loss of strategically vital territory. As in any other war, Israel must weigh competing strategic considerations against each other and try to pick its battles.
III. Military Strategy
One area in which Israel has been relatively successful at such a balancing act is the realm of military action. If one thing is clear about the Palestinian-Israel conflict, it is that, militarily, the two sides are not evenly matched. Israel has the capability to destroy both the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. But so far, it has always deemed the costs of doing so too high, despite the significant benefits it might gain. In Gaza, for instance, a long-term takeover would almost certainly enable Israel to suppress the rocket fire; not one rocket has ever been fired from the West Bank, where Israel remains in military control, although the same terrorist groups with the same motivations are present. Its reasons for holding back include reluctance to resume full responsibility for Palestinian civilian affairs, fear of damaging the peace with Egypt and Jordan, concern about international backlash, and the potential cost in Israeli lives.
Instead, Israel has opted for a series of limited engagements whose goal is to reduce anti-Israel terror without sparking a broader regional conflict or too great an international reaction. Depending on how you count, there have been at least four such engagements over the 20 years since the PA was created, and there will certainly be more. The Israeli term for these periodic operations is “mowing the grass,” which has the depressing sound of a never-ending activity. But as Doron Almog, former head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Southern Command, noted in a 2004 study, that impression is misleading.
Citing the analogy of Israel’s own early history, when Arab states launched five conventional wars in 25 years before finally concluding that the price of fighting Israel was too high, Almog argues that the goal of “mowing the grass” is ultimately to bring Palestinians to the same conclusion. After three wars in Gaza in less than a decade, one might wonder if this is wishful thinking. Yet even in Gaza, there have recently been some signs of progress. During the year after the first Gaza war ended in 2009, Palestinians fired 217 rockets at Israel from that territory. By comparison, only nine rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza in the first eleven months after the end of the latest war a year ago.
For the most part, Israel is well-placed to maintain this strategy. The country understands the importance of military preparedness and invests significant resources in it. It has repeatedly found ways to defeat new Palestinian tactics, from suicide bombers to rockets. It has managed to keep both its own casualty tolls and the damage to its economy relatively low. And it has avoided any regional fallout; no Palestinian-Israel war of the past two decades has prompted overt involvement by other Arab states or threatened Israel’s peace with Jordan and Egypt.
The one real challenge to this strategy has been the so-called lawfare campaign aimed at indicting Israel for “war crimes.” But even here, Israel has begun adapting. It has successfully lobbied several European countries to amend universal-jurisdiction laws that were enabling activists to threaten Israeli officials with legal action during official visits. After last summer’s war, the IDF also granted unprecedented access to former senior officers and legal experts from various Western countries; this resulted in several blue-ribbon reports concluding that Israel’s efforts to prevent civilian casualties have regularly met or surpassed Western standards, and these documents can be used to counter the predictably biased UN report.
IV. The Home Front
Any successful foreign policy must ultimately reflect a broad internal consensus, and as I noted early on, such a consensus has already developed in Israel. The irony is that although most Israelis—as many as 80 percent in some polls—agree that a two-state solution is currently unrealistic and unattainable, that view is not yet fully reflected at the political level. Israel’s main opposition party, Labor, still publicly insists the conflict is solvable right now, and while this stance helps explain why Labor has lost the last six elections, it undeniably hinders Israel’s ability to persuade the world otherwise.
The good news is that in democracies, public sentiment often percolates upward. For instance, the centrist Yesh Atid party spent the last Knesset term demanding final-status talks with the PA; today, it candidly judges such talks a dead end. But while waiting for other politicians to catch up, the government should make sure that it preserves the existing public consensus. In particular, this would mean being careful not to push beyond what that consensus can bear. Once again, last year’s war offers a salient example: reoccupying Gaza, despite the clear benefit in countering future terrorism, would have been a mistake; too many Israelis opposed the idea. Internal unity is a major strategic asset, and sacrificing a strategic asset for tactical gain is rarely wise.
Any successful foreign policy also requires a home front that is economically, politically, and socially strong enough to sustain it. This means Israel must be economically strong enough not only to outperform the Palestinians, which it already does by a very large margin, but also to weather the damage caused by periodic wars, to sustain an army capable of meeting the ever-growing challenges of asymmetric warfare, and to withstand any boycotts or sanctions that conventional diplomacy, public diplomacy, and legal action are unable to avert—all while providing its citizens with a reasonable standard of living.
Israel also needs to be socially cohesive enough to cope with both repeated wars and relentless international opprobrium, which means ensuring that, in addition to their security concerns, its citizens’ economic, social, and political concerns are addressed. In this respect, efforts to promote its own internal development necessarily constitute a crucial element of Israel’s foreign-policy strategy.
Israel has an impressive track record in this area, but like all countries, it has domestic problems that require attention. These include the high cost of living, an underperforming education system, and two sizable communities that are insufficiently integrated: Arabs and ḥaredi Jews. Indeed, large majorities of Israelis have told pollsters for years that they want their government to focus on domestic issues rather than the peace process; in 2011, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to reinforce the message.
For much of the past two decades, successive governments prioritized the peace process over domestic issues on the theory that ending the conflict with the Palestinians would make it that much easier to address Israel’s domestic problems. But in reality, the opposite is true: addressing domestic problems will ultimately make it easier to solve the conflict. Only an Israel that can continue growing and thriving—despite all the lawfare, economic warfare, and terror that its enemies can throw at it—will in the end convince the Palestinians that their dream of defeating Israel is unachievable.
V. The Paradigm
I began this essay by suggesting that the current stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians might be thought of as a kind of cold war. The choice of terminology was deliberate: to my mind, not only are there certain clear similarities between this conflict and the decades-long cold war between the West, particularly the United States, and the Soviet Union, but I believe that the ultimately victorious strategy adopted by the U.S. provides a template for Israel’s own approach to its long struggle with the Palestinians.
Thus, the U.S. negotiated repeatedly and sometimes even productively with the USSR throughout the cold war, but there were no fantasies of a grand final-status deal resolving all of the core issues dividing them; both sides realized that was impossible. Instead, the talks focused on smaller issues, including arms-limitation or trade, where it seemed actually possible to reach agreement and thereby ease tensions.
By means of public diplomacy, the U.S. largely succeeded in maintaining the support of fractious allies under difficult circumstances, while also convincing millions of Soviet subjects that the American model was economically, politically, and morally superior to their own. It achieved this not merely by investing heavily in selling its own narrative (for instance, by establishing Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to broadcast to Communist countries), but also by adhering to two important principles.
First, its narrative stressed the positive goods America really delivered on, like freedom, opportunity, human rights, and economic growth; by contrast, the Soviet Union was ultimately unable to deliver on its counternarrative of economic development accompanied by equality and social justice, which for decades continued to attract legions of adherents and admirers worldwide until its failure became incontrovertible. Second, while not all American leaders were as blunt as Ronald Reagan in dubbing the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” most were clear that there was no moral equivalency between the two countries; with a few exceptions, the generally consistent message was that America was a force for good in the world while the Soviet Union was the opposite.
On the military front, where the nuclear threat made it imperative to avoid a direct clash, Washington instead adopted a strategy of limited engagements, often fought by proxies. In this way, it sought to further its own influence, contain Soviet expansionism, and sap Soviet resources while avoiding the unacceptable costs of all-out war.
Finally, at home, despite sometimes vehement internal disagreements over specific policies, America was able to lead the free world’s resistance to Soviet aggression thanks in great measure to a bipartisan consensus on the need to do so. And it was able to sustain and ultimately to win the cold war largely because it was an economic success while the Soviet Union became an economic basket case, forcing the USSR under Mikhail Gorbachev to give up its dream of defeating the West.
Granted, the American paradigm I’ve sketched here was pursued over the years with imperfect consistency, varying degrees of emphasis, and occasional outright backsliding. Granted, too, a worldwide conflict between two nuclear-armed superpowers differs in significant respects from a local conflict between two mere specks on the map. Those differences need to be taken into account. But while they should properly influence the way certain cold-war attitudes and policies can be applied to the Israeli situation, they do not impugn the justice or appropriateness of the strategy itself.
Today, with the benefit of hindsight, America’s victory in the cold war might seem a foregone conclusion. But it certainly didn’t seem that way to anyone on either side at the time. There were many moments when Americans genuinely believed the Soviets were winning, and right up until the end, when the Soviet Union collapsed, few imagined the cold war would end during their lifetime, let alone imminently. In the mid-1980s, when I attended college, the cold war was still America’s top foreign-policy issue. Two years after I graduated, the Berlin Wall was gone, and shortly thereafter the Soviet Union was no more.
It’s impossible to predict how many more decades Israel’s cold war will last, or what form a solution will take. Numerous possibilities present themselves. Perhaps the Palestinians will finally become willing to make peace, and a two-state solution will come into being. Perhaps the steadily rising Jewish fertility rate, the falling Palestinian one, and an unexpected influx of immigrants (hardly unprecedented in Israel’s history) will change the demographic picture enough to allow Israel to absorb the territories without risking its Jewish majority. Perhaps the Hashemite regime in Amman will collapse, as other Arab regimes have done in recent years, and Jordan, which already has a Palestinian majority, will become a real Palestinian state, changing the dynamics of negotiations over the West Bank. Or perhaps the solution will come from some development no one has yet imagined, just as few people envisioned the Soviet empire’s implosion until it happened.
What matters is for Israel to ensure it can survive and thrive until some solution becomes possible. And one way to do that is to follow America’s cold-war playbook. Use military force when and where necessary, but be careful to contain the conflict. Negotiate when possible, but on small deals that will reduce tensions and improve conditions rather than on big issues where agreement is unattainable. Fight the public-diplomacy war by investing the necessary resources, by advocating Israel’s cause rather than the Palestinian cause, and by emphasizing Israel’s successes rather than its failures—all the while remembering that public diplomacy is a means rather than an end, and strategic priorities should never be sacrificed to global public opinion. Preserve internal unity—an incalculable strategic asset—and invest heavily in Israel’s own economic and social development.
All of these are doable. And by doing them, Israel can survive and thrive despite its cold war, and ultimately win it—just as America did.
Originally published in Mosaic on September 1, 2015