Analysis from Israel

I’ve given up expecting peace-process zealots like Secretary of State John Kerry or the European Union to pay any heed to mainstream Israelis (i.e., the 83 percent who think even withdrawing to the 1967 lines and dividing Jerusalem wouldn’t end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). But recently, even Israel’s far left has become too “right-wing” for these zealots. That begs an obvious question: Since any peace deal requires two sides, how do they expect to close one by adopting positions so extreme even Haaretz columnists won’t support them?

Two regular Haaretz contributors and long-time peace advocates wrote columns this month decrying the current approach. First, former Haaretz editor-in-chief David Landau blasted Kerry for treating veteran Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem as “settlements.” Next, psychology professor Carlo Strenger explained why the Syrian crisis makes a full West Bank withdrawal impossible.

Much of Landau’s piece restated what has long been obvious: the “indiscriminate lumping together of Jerusalem suburbs with far-flung” settlements has encouraged mainstream Israelis to do the same–and therefore oppose a construction freeze in either–and made it impossible for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate without a total freeze, because he can’t demand less than Washington does. But Landau also added a new twist: “Kerry’s ham-fisted lumping together of Ramot and Gilo with West Bank settlements” has even forced Israeli leftists to side with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against Washington (and, he might have added, the EU as well). It is “veritably forcing myriad moderate Israelis, who long for peace and the two-state solution, to bridle, with the Netanyahu camp, at the entire admonishment.”

Strenger’s piece, however, tackled a broader problem: the ongoing implosion of Syria. Peace activists have long advocated a deal with Syria, he noted, but “most Israelis now shudder when they think what would have happened if Israel had returned the Golan Heights. Al-Qaeda and other extreme Islamist groups would be at the shore of the Kinneret, creating an unbearable security risk.”

This lesson matters for the West Bank, he wrote, because despite his conviction (incidentally not shared by most Israelis) that Abbas truly wants peace, “Israelis ask a simple question: do you have the ability to prevent a takeover of Palestine by extremists?” And the obvious answer is no:  Hamas remains committed to Israel’s destruction, and Abbas can’t guarantee it won’t take power following an Israeli pullout.

“After all, Hamas once won the elections in Palestine,” Strenger recalled. Hamas also routed Abbas’s forces in less than a week when it staged a military takeover of Gaza in 2007–a fact Strenger bizarrely omits, but that most Israelis haven’t forgotten. Hence the inevitable conclusion:

In the Middle East’s current situation no Israeli government will renounce security control of Palestine’s eastern border and no Israeli government will return to the 1967 borders in the foreseeable future, when there are chances that radical Jihadist elements might attack Israel from there.

But another failed push for a deal demanding exactly that won’t merely increase distrust on both sides and thereby reduce the chances of peace in the future–a point both Strenger and Landau make. It also means diplomats aren’t pursuing interim measures that could defuse the conflict and actually increase prospects for future peace–measures that, as political scientist Shlomo Avineri noted in this insightful analysis, are routinely employed in other conflicts where final-status deals aren’t immediately possible, like Cyprus or Kashmir. Thus by pushing a final-status deal now, Kerry and company are actively making things worse at the expense of steps that could make things better.

And if that’s what even Israel’s far left is saying, isn’t it time for international diplomats to start listening?

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How Israel’s Electoral System Brings the Country’s Fringes Into Its Center

Like Haviv Rettig Gur in “How and Why Israelis Vote,” I, too, think the advantages of Israel’s parliamentary system outweigh its disadvantages, and for essentially the same reason: because it keeps a great many people in the political system who would otherwise remain outside it.

Critics of the system’s plethora of small parties—as Gur notes, no fewer than 43 parties have been vying for Knesset seats in this year’s election—maintain that it should be streamlined and redesigned so that only big parties would be able to enter the Knesset. In that case, the critics argue, people who currently vote for small parties would simply switch their votes to large ones.

No doubt, some voters would do so—but many others would not. There are at least three groups among whom turnout would plummet if niche parties became by definition unelectable: Arabs, Ḥaredim (including some ḥaredi Zionists), and the protest voters who, in every election, propel a new “fad” party into the Knesset. (In 2015, as Gur writes, the fad party was Kulanu. This year, it’s been Moshe Feiglin’s pro-marijuana, libertarian, right-wing Zehut party, which Gur doesn’t discuss although polls have consistently showed it gaining five to seven seats.)

Together, these three groups constitute roughly a third of the country, and all three are to some extent alienated from the mainstream. If they were no longer even participating in elections, that alienation would grow.

Why does this matter? In answering that question, I’ll focus mainly on Ḥaredim and Arabs, the most significant and also the most stable of the three groups (protest voters being by nature amorphous and changeable).

It matters primarily because people who cease to see politics as a means of furthering their goals are more likely to resort to violence. Indeed, it’s no accident that most political violence in Israel has issued from quarters outside the electoral system.

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