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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Everybody loses from the left’s false narrative about Netanyahu

It’s easy to see why political polarization is so bitter today in both Israel and America these days: Moderation is a “lose-lose” proposition, winning politicians no credit from their opponents while alienating elements of their own base. This problem exists on both sides of the aisle. But two unusually candid left-wing assessments of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu provide a particularly clear example of how it works and why it’s bad for both sides.

In an interview with Haaretz last month, senior opposition politician Tzipi Livni noted (as I have repeatedly) that Netanyahu built very little in the settlements during his 10 years in office. “Why hasn’t Netanyahu built up until now? Because he gets it,” she said, referring to the Palestinian issue.

Moreover, she continued, “Bibi will not go out and start a war. In that respect, he is responsible.”

His problem, she charged, is that he’s under pressure from his rightist base on various issues, and sometimes, “he caves in to them. I’ll say it again, it isn’t him. I’ve spent hundreds of hours with him [as justice minister in the previous Netanyahu government, in which she was responsible for diplomatic negotiations]—his actual positions are different.”

What makes this astounding is that Livni and her compatriots on the left have spent most of the past decade saying exactly the opposite—that Netanyahu is responsible for massive settlement construction, that he’s anti-peace. And this has serious real-world consequences.

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