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