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What Future for Israel?

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US State Department
Secretary of State Kerry with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, May 23, 2013

For Palestinians the most significant aspect of the election was the heavy blow dealt to the ruling Likud party, which managed to win enough seats to stay in power only because of the foresight of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Seeing ominous preelection polls, he formed a joint list with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, a conservative, nationalist party supported by large numbers of Russian immigrants.12 Netanyahu thereby ensured at least another term in office, at the cost of bringing Lieberman further out of his ethnic political niche and potentially—should the alliance be formalized as a merger—into the prime minister’s chair. A formal merger will help Netanyahu dilute the growing power of the far-right, pro-annexationist members of his own party, who roundly defeated centrists in the primary.

In June 2009, prompted by President Obama’s Cairo address to the Muslim world, Netanyahu declared his conditional support for a Palestinian state. Israel Harel, a founder of the settler movement, called it “a revolutionary ideological turn equivalent to the shattering of the party’s Ten Commandments.” Others were and still are skeptical that Netanyahu meant it—not only his liberal critics but also many of his supporters within Likud. The Likud charter still maintains its rejection of a Palestinian state, and in January 2013 the joint Likud-Beytenu list did not publish a party platform.

Yet Netanyahu’s declared support for Palestinian statehood seems to have grown only firmer. Last May, Netanyahu for the first time used a demographic argument for a Palestinian state—Jews now make up less than half the population of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza—saying that the purpose of an agreement was to prevent the eventuality of a binational state. This brought a sharp rebuke from Netanyahu’s one-time mentor in the Likud, former defense minister Moshe Arens, who favors annexing all of the West Bank and giving full citizenship to its residents:

The State of Israel is already a bi-national state—a state in which two nationalities reside, Jews [75 percent] and Arabs [21 percent]. The advocates of the establishment of a Palestinian state in [the West Bank] simply oppose the addition of any more Arabs to…the State of Israel. Lurking behind their pious slogan “two states for two peoples” is their real, politically incorrect slogan: “Not one more Arab!”

An identity crisis has emerged in Likud, as Netanyahu has drifted toward the center while the rest of the party has veered further right. Many of its most prominent members advocate annexing some or all of the West Bank; they range from elders like Arens and former Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin to such rising Likud stars as deputy foreign minister Ze’ev Elkin, deputy defense minister Danny Danon, Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, and coalition chairman Yariv Levin. By standing awkwardly between support for one state and support for two, Likud bled from both sides, losing centrist votes to Lapid’s party and right-wing votes to the pro-settlement annexationists in Jewish Home, a successor to the old National Religious Party. Naftali Bennett, Jewish Home’s forty-one-year-old leader, is a former software entrepreneur, director general of the umbrella group of West Bank settlements (Yesha), and Netanyahu chief of staff who together with Lapid was the great success story of the 2013 elections.

Bennett focused his campaign on Jewish identity and the need to overcome the differences between secular and religious Jews. In so doing he moderated his party’s image, widened its electoral base, and dramatically increased its share of Knesset seats, winning twelve. During negotiations over forming a coalition government, Bennett allied with Lapid, thereby forcing Netanyahu to set aside his distaste for Bennett and bring Jewish Home into the new government, fewer than half of whose members are on record supporting a Palestinian state.

Thanks to the presence of Jewish Home, more than one in six of the coalition’s members reside beyond the 1967 borders, commonly known as the Green Line. Roughly one third of Knesset members are religious, a record. Another, overlapping third are members of the Land of Israel caucus, dedicated to strengthening the settlements. And many government ministers advocate some form of annexation of the West Bank. The annexationist Danny Danon, elected chairman of the Likud Central Committee in June, recently said that the majority of the government would block a peace agreement calling for two states.13

Israel’s new government represents well the rightward shift in mainstream Israeli thought. Like Netanyahu and Lapid, most Israeli Jews say they would accept a two-state solution, but the terms on which they are willing to do so are hardly realistic.14 Many of those further to their right, by contrast, are rather more clear-eyed—or perhaps simply honest—about what peace would entail. In a veiled attack against Netanyahu and Lapid, Naftali Bennett recently said, “Some say they are against the division of Jerusalem but they are in favor of a Palestinian state. And I ask, where exactly would the Palestinian capital be? In Jericho? In Bethlehem? In Berlin?”

The right has strengthened as the arguments of the left and center have been discredited. Promoters of negotiations have failed to convey how high a price a peace agreement would exact. They have told themselves and the public that the outlines of a peace deal are well known and they have asserted that agreement exists where it does not. Ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat, a veteran of the Carter and Clinton administrations and co-chairman of the board of the Jewish People Policy Institute, writes in The Future of the Jews that it is “commonly understood that the largest settlement blocks would remain under Israeli control in any final peace agreement.” Israelis similarly speak of “consensus” settlements, but the common understanding of which Eizenstat writes is shared only by Israelis and their supporters. Leaked Palestinian transcripts from the Annapolis talks of 2007–2008 record the two sides fighting fiercely over the future status of what Israelis consider one of the most “consensus” settlements of all, Ma’ale Adumim, east of Jerusalem, with some 40,000 residents.

Claims of a peace within grasp have been as overstated as warnings that the perpetually closing window for a two-state-solution has nearly shut or that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank will make it an international pariah. In the countries in which the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (“BDS”) has made the largest gains—South Africa and the United Kingdom—Israeli exports have in fact sharply risen. Israelis are not overly worried that the European Union will go significantly beyond wringing its hands over the way its financial support of the Palestinian Authority effectively underwrites Israel’s occupation.15

Even if proposals to boycott Israeli companies based in the West Bank were to gain steam, they would not stop Israel’s banks, cable television companies, or supermarkets from operating beyond the 1967 borders; nor would they reduce the number of settlers, most of whom work not at factories adjacent to Ariel but west of the Green Line—at places like Google, Intel, and the prime minister’s office. And while elite attitudes toward Israel in the US are changing, recent polls have cast doubt on widely publicized claims that young, non-Orthodox Jews in the US are growing more distant from Israel.16

Years of relative quiet in the West Bank—2012 was the first year since 1973 that not a single Israeli was killed in an attack there—have undermined the charge that the now-forty-six-year-old military occupation is unsustainable. Secretary Kerry has warned that Israel “will be left to choose between being a Jewish state or a democratic state.” But limited Palestinian self-governance, including close security cooperation with Israel, continues to protect Israel from having to make any such choice.

An inescapable and likely unintended conclusion one draws from Abrams’s behind-the-scenes account of policymaking during the second intifada between 2000 and 2005 is how effective violence was in eliminating Israeli complacency and advancing Palestinian goals. Less than a year into the uprising, pressures from Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah—in the form of tearful pleas for America to restrain Israel and a secret letter that, Abrams writes, “put US-Saudi relations in the balance”—led the US to endorse Palestinian statehood. Ariel Sharon soon followed with his own statement of support for a Palestinian state, becoming Israel’s first prime minister to do so.17

As the Palestinian ambushes, sniper fire, and suicide bombings continued, Sharon abandoned his decades-long dream of retaining Gaza and all of the West Bank. “The bloodshed was so great,” Abrams writes, “that Sharon lifted his year-old” policy of demanding seven days of quiet before he would negotiate a cease-fire with the Palestinians. Later he used the word “occupation” before a Likud Knesset faction meeting, saying it “cannot go on forever.” As pressure mounted to end the violence, Sharon announced that Israel would withdraw from Gaza.18

The subsequent rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza did not end the desire for more talks. They did, however, greatly strengthen the right’s argument that the conflict is neither primarily territorial nor based on grievances stemming from Israel’s 1967 conquest. Both Palestinian and Israeli hard-liners have gained supporters by casting doubt on the notion that the conflict could be resolved in an exchange of land for peace. This central axiom of the two-decades-old peace process made sense for Israel’s negotiations with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, but never with the Palestinians, who believe that the core of the conflict is Zionist settlement in Palestine and the expulsion of Palestinians during the 1948 war that established the Israeli state.

The belief of American and Israeli negotiators that solving the problems of 1967 will close the door on those of 1948 comes under powerful rebuke in two original books from distant points on the Israeli political spectrum: the historian Asher Susser’s Israel, Jordan, and Palestine: The Two-State Imperative and the sociologist Yehouda Shenhav’s Beyond the Two-State Solution.19 Susser documents how the gaps between the two sides, or at least some leading spokesmen from the two sides, have narrowed on issues deriving from the 1967 war—borders, settlements, and security arrangements—while “little if any real progress was made in resolving the 1948 question of refugee return.” That issue prominently resurfaced in January, when Abbas said that Israel had refused to allow Palestinian refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict to enter the West Bank and Gaza unless they renounced their right of return to Israel. With the political dominance of the Israeli right, which places greater emphasis on Israel’s own 1948 issue—Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state—the gaps between the two sides are indeed only widening.

The intangible elements of the conflict have grown in importance while the Green Line defined by the 1949 armistice has been all but erased. Jewish nationalist attacks against Palestinian communities in the West Bank have crossed into Israel, taking the form of arson, vandalism, and violence against Palestinian citizens of Israel. Jewish activists in the West Bank have expanded their demographic battle to cities in Israel proper, west of the Green Line, buying homes in the Palestinian neighborhoods of Ramla, Akko, and Lod. Dozens of Israel’s municipal chief rabbis signed a ruling forbidding the rental of homes to non-Jews.20 Many Israelis no longer know where the Green Line lies, mistakenly identifying it with the current West Bank separation barrier and quite unaware that they have crossed it on major roads and highways.

  1. 12

    Yisrael Beytenu also receives support outside the community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. 

  2. 13

    He outlines his inchoate ideas in Israel: The Will to Prevail (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). “Our goal,” Danon writes, “is to have the majority of the land in Judea and Samaria with a minimum number of Palestinians.” 

  3. 14

    A poll taken on the 2013 anniversary of the June 1967 war found that only 8 percent of Israeli Jews support a peace agreement based on the 1967 borders and just 15 percent support dividing Jerusalem. Other polls are able to find greater support among Jews for dividing Jerusalem and a peace agreement based on the 1967 borders, but do so by coupling these two with numerous concessions that Palestinians have given little indication they would make, for example, recognizing Israel as the state of the Jewish people, renouncing totally any right of refugee return, and accepting Israeli annexation of the large settlement blocks. 

  4. 15

    In the near future the most one can imagine from Europe is a move to ensure that settlement products in its markets no longer bear “Made in Israel” stickers. At the beginning of 2014, new European Commission guidelines, which restrict European Commission—but not European Union member state—awards to Israeli entities operating in territories Israel conquered in 1967, are to take effect. When the guidelines were leaked to journalists in mid-July, European diplomats expressed surprise at what they viewed as hyperbolic reactions by much of the Israeli government and press. In fact, the guidelines change very little. The EU has had a longstanding policy of limiting the funding of Israeli entities located beyond Israel’s pre-1967 borders. The guidelines are not binding on EU member states; they restrict European Commission support, in the form of grants, prizes, and financial instruments, to Israeli entities in the West Bank and Golan Heights, but such support was minimal to begin with; they do not affect trade between Israel and Europe; and they do not apply to Israeli government offices, such as the Ministry of Justice, that are located beyond Israel’s pre-1967 borders. 

  5. 16

    Simi Lampert, “Young Jews More Interested in Israel: Poll,” The Forward, July 9, 2012; Theodore Sasson, Benjamin Phillips, Graham Wright, Charles Kadushin, and Leonard Saxe, “Understanding Young Adult Attachment to Israel: Period, Lifecycle, and Generational Dynamics,” Contemporary Jewry, Vol. 31 (2011). 

  6. 17

    Sharon’s endorsement was made in a statement in 2001 and formally in 2003. The 1993 Oslo Accords never specified that a peace agreement would result in Palestinian statehood rather than some form of limited autonomy. Former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami wrote in his memoir, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace (Oxford University Press, 2007), “As a matter of fact, neither Rabin nor, especially, Peres wanted [Palestinian limited] autonomy to usher in a Palestinian state. As late as 1997—that is, four years into the Oslo process when, as the chairman of the Labour Party’s Foreign Affairs Committee I proposed for the first time that the party endorse the idea of a Palestinian state—it was Shimon Peres who most vehemently opposed the idea.” 

  7. 18

    Calls for an end of conflict proliferated in the period surrounding Sharon’s December 2003 announcement. They included Saudi Crown Prince Abdallah’s peace plan, which would form the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative; the People’s Choice Initiative by Ami Ayalon and Sari Nusseibeh; the US-created Roadmap for Middle East Peace, which demanded that Israel withdraw from all settlements built since Sharon took office in March 2001; an open letter from Israeli pilots protesting civilian casualties in Gaza; another open letter, from members of the elite special forces unit Sayeret Matkal, vowing to “no longer give our hands to the oppressive reign in the territories and the denial of human rights to millions of Palestinians…[and] no longer serve as a defensive shield for the settlement enterprise”; and the Geneva Initiative, which was drafted by former Palestinian and Israeli negotiators and was met, to Sharon’s dismay, with official responses from Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Abrams recalls Sharon’s reply when Bush asked why he had decided to withdraw from Gaza: “I didn’t want other people, even you with all the problems you have, to press me. It was better to take steps ourselves.” 

  8. 19

    Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has come to a similar conclusion: “I went to Arafat and discovered that he does not wish to resolve the ’67 problem, but rather the ’47 one. Arafat is dead, but I am still held responsible. I am not forgiven for having revealed a truth that collapsed the secular religion of the left.” 

  9. 20

    A few protests have erupted in Jewish neighborhoods in which Palestinian families have bought homes. 

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