Analysis from Israel

As I noted yesterday, there’s no lack of evidence that even “moderate” Palestinians aren’t interested in ending their war on Israel. Yet most of the world will go through contortions worthy of the rubber man rather than admit it. A classic example is the interview a “senior American official” (widely reputed to be special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian talks Martin Indyk) gave to Yedioth Ahronoth earlier this month.

The official spent about 3,000 words blaming the talks’ breakdown on Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and specifically its authorization of settlement construction during the negotiations. Only then did he describe what actually happened during those crucial final months when Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to broker a framework agreement:

“In February, Abbas arrived at a Paris hotel for a meeting with Kerry … He rejected all of Kerry’s ideas. A month later, in March, he was invited to the White House. Obama presented the American-formulated principles verbally – not in writing. Abbas refused.”

Then, in the very next sentence, came this astonishing defense: “The claim on your side that Abbas was avoiding making decisions is not true. He wasn’t running away.”

So long before the announcement of 700 new housing units that Kerry later termed the “poof” moment when everything blew up, Abbas had rejected all Kerry’s ideas and all President Barack Obama’s ideas. Yet he wasn’t “avoiding making decisions” or “running away”; he was a committed and engaged peace partner. Then who is to blame for his serial rejections? Why, Netanyahu, of course: Those “announcements of new housing tenders in settlements limited Abbas’ ability to show flexibility.”

In other words, if Netanyahu is intransigent, it’s Netanyahu’s fault. And if Abbas is intransigent, it’s also Netanyahu’s fault. Under this administration’s definition of “honest brokerage,” only one side is ever to blame; the Palestinians have no agency of their own.

But it gets even worse–because it turns out Netanyahu wasn’t intransigent. As interviewer Nahum Barnea noted, even chief Israeli negotiator Tzipi Livni–whom the American official termed a “heroine” who “fought with all of her might to promote the agreement”–says Netanyahu “showed flexibility.” The American pooh-poohed this, insisting Netanyahu hadn’t moved “more than an inch.” Yet addressing the Washington Institute the following week, Indyk admitted that Netanyahu actually evinced dramatic flexibility and was in “the zone of a possible agreement” when he met Obama in early March.

So the bottom line is that Abbas rejected every proposal Kerry and Obama offered, while Netanyahu was in “the zone of a possible agreement.” Yet the administration nevertheless blames the breakdown on Netanyahu. In short, no matter what happens, the Palestinians will never be blamed.

The reasons for this are numerous. As Jonathan Tobin noted last week, it helps deflect blame from the administration’s own mistake of wasting so much time and diplomatic energy on a dead end. Additionally, as Michael Doran perceptively argued this week, keeping Netanyahu on the defensive over the Palestinian issue undermines his ability to pressure the administration over Iran’s nuclear program. Nor can anti-Israel animus be ruled out, given the American official’s shocking claim, when Barnea drew a comparison to China’s occupation of Tibet, that “Israel is not China. It was founded by a UN resolution”–the clear implication being that unlike other countries, Israel’s right to exist is revocable.

The most important reason, however, is simply that if the main barrier to peace is the settlements, then the problem is easily solvable and peace is achievable. But if the main barrier is Palestinian unwillingness to end their war on Israel, the problem is unsolvable and peace is unachievable. And to most of the world, blaming Israel unjustly is infinitely preferable to acknowledging that unpleasant truth.

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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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