The end of the fifty-day war in Gaza — Israel’s longest since its establishment in 1948 — is marked by two contradictory trends. On the one hand, Israeli society has shifted markedly to the right. Polls show that if elections were held today, the Likud and its key coalition partners (Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beyteinu) would garner additional support; the parties of the center and the left would shrink substantially. For the first time in twenty years, there is not a majority in the country in support of a two-state solution. On the other hand, across the political spectrum, most Israelis are not convinced that the country emerged victorious from this war. They live in constant fear of another armed confrontation in the near future. And they would dearly love to find a formula to end what has become a pattern of predictably recurrent rounds of violence.
The common desire for long-term accommodation is at odds with the propensity to prop up a government whose worldview has systematically precluded a negotiated compromise with Israel’s neighbors. Some may view this built-in anomaly as a precursor to further deadlock and inaction; others may see it as an opportunity for change. Much depends on the path Israelis choose to take at this critical crossroads. Since the 1967 war, no Israeli government has followed up an armed engagement with a peace initiative. This road not taken may be precisely the one needed to overcome the strains buffeting Israeli society and lead it towards a livable future.
The brief days since the August 27th ceasefire went into effect have accentuated the government-orchestrated tendency not only to justify the Gaza operation and how it was handled, but also to move on to other matters. This helps to explain the ease with which attention has shifted from the southern to the northern front. The Islamic State is rapidly replacing the Hamas as a key source of concern, conveniently deflecting attention away from the aftershock of the war and its domestic and external repercussions. This trend also assists in understanding the appeasement of the right-wing portion of the coalition though the implementation — despite intense international condemnation — of the decision to expropriate close to 1,000 acres on the Palestinian side of the Green Line following the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens on the eve of the Gaza war.
The revival of the debate over the budget — and especially over allocations to defense at the expense of civilian undertakings — is yet another aspect of this pattern. So, too, is the renewed preoccupation with worn corruption cases and power struggles in the upper echelons of government. The message being transmitted is clear: now that the fighting appears to be over (although a binding arrangement is yet to be ironed out), it is necessary to return to a semblance of a routine. It is as if the familiar provides a comfort zone akin to normality; a resumption of the status quo is equated with stability.
It is enticing — even appealing — to succumb to such a mindset. Moving on from a truly awful summer to old and new challenges at home and abroad goes a long way towards averting a painful process of introspection that the current leadership dreads. A close look at what led up to the fifty-day war and the way it was conducted means admitting that its objectives were amorphous at best, that no military victory was achieved, that the diplomatic process during the war may have been mishandled, that Israel emerged from the war even more isolated internationally, and that the government exhibited serious malfunctions in the most sensitive of times. It also implies dealing, head on, with the economic consequences of “Preventive Edge”, with its social ramifications (especially the horrifying rise in racism and intolerance), with the security implications of a drawn-out confrontation with militant non-state actors, with the results of the death and destruction wrought in Gaza and, most importantly, with finally coming to terms with the Palestinian issue.
It may not be so simple, however, to numb the senses of what is, in many respects, a still-traumatized Israeli public. The events of this past summer severely shook large numbers of citizens. Those residing near Gaza, as well as people throughout the country, suffered greatly. Not only has their livelihood been affected, but their nerves are still raw and their confidence has been shattered. Whatever their political inclinations, they share the common perception that the war resolved nothing and that unless something is done now, all they have to look forward to is more of the same.
This near-fatalism, coupled with the fierce desire for a different outcome, is the stuff of which transformations are made. These currents can be harnessed to a program for change that could ensure a different tomorrow. But to make this happen, a commitment to an alternative path is imperative, along with a modicum of humility. A courageous review of the political as well as the military conduct of the war by an independent commission of inquiry — and not by a Knesset committee — is in order. This is the duty of the government to itself and its citizens. Too many issues on both the offensive and defensive fronts emerged during the course of the fighting. The human calamity in Gaza and its large-scale physical wastage demand explanation. The discombobulating experience of the civilian population in the Negev also requires a reckoning. Such a proceeding is painful; the soul-searching it entails often excruciating. But it is also the fulfillment of the democratic necessity of accountability even in the most difficult of times. The adage that societies that don’t learn from their mistakes are fated to relive them is particularly apt for Israel after three Gaza forays that have not even yielded minimal human security.
This step must be accompanied by additional proactive measures. First, Israel should take concrete steps to assist in the slow and extensive rehabilitation of Gaza, starting with the lifting of the economic siege that has bolstered Hamas hegemony in recent years. Second, it has to acknowledge that its long-term survival is contingent on regional — and not just on bilateral — agreements. The diplomatic horizon (and there is one today) requires a serious Israeli overture in line with the twelve-year old Arab Peace Initiative which puts the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the linchpin of a new order in the Middle East. Third, Israel can no longer delay renewing negotiations with the Palestinian government led by Mahmoud Abbas with a view to resolving (and not just managing) the conflict. And, finally, it should admit openly that international involvement (primarily that of the United States and Europe) is imperative at this juncture — not only to avert complete isolation, but also to lay the groundwork for the coalescence of interests in the shifting regional landscape.
Israelis will not be able to fulfill their quest for normality, stability and safety by supporting the politics that have brought them to this point. They cannot expect to avert future wars if they follow leaders who promise no alternative. The behavior of a major portion of the Israeli public appears to openly defy their most profound aspirations. At this critical moment, it is useful not only to remember that the road that will be taken is in the hands of each and every citizen of the country, but to translate this perception into action.