The escalation on Israel’s northern frontiers coincides with yet another general election. The timing of the latest skirmishes — which led to the death of Iyad Mughniyah and an Iranian general and to the subsequent Hezbollah retaliation ending in the death of two Israeli soldiers — is part and parcel of the inter-party battle over the framing of the agenda of the current campaign. Politics and heightened tensions are so closely intertwined at this point that any attempt to disentangle them is fruitless. The dilemma is clear: apparently no serious debate around Israel’s preeminent issue can take place during elections; no other issue has had a greater impact on the outcome of Israeli elections over the years.
Since security matters are so central to almost every aspect of Israel’s foreign and domestic affairs, it is high time that approaches to this subject occupy center stage. After all, Israel’s democracy has always revolved around varying concepts of security and the outcome of all previous elections have directly affected how these matters are handled. Now, on the eve of Israel’s twentieth national ballot, Israelis are not locked into a single mold. At least three vying mindsets are competing for the public’s favor.
Israel’s security discourse during the past decade and more has been dominated almost entirely by the “Stand Alone” school, best elaborated by the Likud and its coalition partners under Binyamin Netanyahu. Its working premise is that Israel, isolated in a hostile region, cannot ultimately put its trust in anyone but itself. With international support by definition unreliable, the country’s survival rests first and foremost on its own capabilities and resources. Self-reliance is defined essentially in military terms, with Israel having the unequivocal right to defend itself against any of the growing number of immediate or possible threats impinging on its viability. The hawkish outlook embedded in this approach inevitably breeds on the fear factor — so systematically and eloquently articulated by Prime Minister Netanyahu both domestically and internationally.
The strategic corollary of this worldview has been expressed in the notion of conflict management: the unwavering belief in the indefinite perpetuation of the Arab-Israel conflict and the accompanying need to contain it by preserving and fortifying the status quo. In the absence of unconditional props from the global community, the “Stand Alone” school has been prone to messianic variations that have enhanced its introspective propensities.
This strategy helps to explain the ongoing reluctance to pursue any accommodation with the Palestinians, as well as the persistent support for the settlement enterprise and its purveyors. It also helps account for the present government’s marked preference for the Jewish over the democratic component of the definition of the state — with all that this entails for economic and social inequality in the country.
The “Stand Alone” approach in its most undiluted form has become hegemonic during the Netanyahu tenure. Now that he faces a serious electoral challenge, it is hardly surprising that he has opted to highlight his independent militaristic worldview. In what is nothing short of a win-win situation from his perspective, heating up conditions on Israel’s frontiers raises precisely those sentiments which buttress his strategic outlook (consequently — as past experience has consistently shown—also boosting his electoral prospects). Any criticism of these moves, in turn, can be summarily dismissed as either irresponsible or politically biased (or both).
At this stage, nevertheless, it may be far more difficult than in the past to convince a wary public — still in the throes of the aftershock of last summer’s Gaza war — that another Netanyahu term would be in their best interest. During the last six years, Israel’s international standing has suffered a severe blow and relations with the United States and most of Europe have reached a new nadir. Prospects for an agreement with Israel’s neighbors have dimmed. Despite the bluster of the key spokespeople of the “Stand Alone” strategy, external threats have mounted and physical and economic insecurity continues to grow. Instead of passively bowing to the reigning discourse, the public is much more open to considering alternative approaches.
The expanded Labor Party under the tutelage of Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni has begun to revive the “Alliance” approach to Israel’s security, which rests on the assumption that Israel’s safety and wellbeing is as dependent on its diplomatic skills as on its military prowess. This school (the latter-day revival of the one that guided Israel during the early years of the State) argues that international links are Israel’s most significant strategic assets and should be nurtured with utmost care. This means not only that Israel’s ties with the United States and Europe must be repaired, but that efforts should be made to pursue alliances in the changing regional landscape in general and with the Palestinians in particular.
The “Alliance” school is outward-looking in conceptualization and notably pragmatic in practice. Without neglecting the importance of fortifying defensive capabilities, it seeks compromises which would make their utilization unnecessary. The strategic corollary of this approach is the pursuit of lasting agreements — much like those struck with Egypt in the 1970s and Jordan twenty years ago. Its advocates openly shun the status quo, hoping to replace it with a trajectory which will lead to a more stable and equitable tomorrow.
In this competing mindset, therefore, the Jewish and democratic facets of Israel’s character are allotted equal weight. For this reason too, domestic issues — and particularly the economic betterment of the vast majority of Israelis — are considered to be as important as many, possibly contrived, threats on Israel’s borders. This does not preclude military action when absolutely necessary, but it does suggest that much more attention should be devoted to bread and butter issues related to the daily lives of Israel’s diverse citizens.
Proponents of the “Alliance” school are currently toiling under a double burden. In the short term, they have a vested interest in transforming the present elections into a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister’s handling of domestic affairs but do not have the power to halt his military escapades. In the longer term, they open new avenues for securing Israel’s future, but cannot, without achieving power, provide proof for the feasibility of their approach. As a result, they appear to be locked in a binary trap which can succeed only if they effectively discredit the “Stand Alone” school.
The middle-of-the-road strategy inherent in the mindset of the main opposition has given rise to yet another, “Reformist”, approach. The “Reformist” school has evolved from the understanding that the other alternatives have failed to assure either external security or domestic stability. Proponents of this mindset — located on the left of the political spectrum and primarily in Meretz — call for the redefinition of the notion of security in its entirety. In their view, economic, social, military and diplomatic viability are all part of a broader notion of human security. No one element can usefully be separated from the others. From this perspective, it follows that Israel must make a special effort at this time to reach workable agreements with its neighbors and to launch more inclusive policies for all its citizens at home.
Often dubbed naïve by their detractors, “Reformists” are nevertheless the most salient change-advocates in Israel’s contemporary political landscape. The strategic corollary of their approach, given the hopelessness proffered by the “Stand Alone” school and the ambiguity contained in the “Alliance” worldview, calls for taking risks today to ensure Israel’s survival as an integral part of the region down the road. In real terms this implies embracing the Arab Peace Initiative with a Palestinian state at its core, while at the same time implementing social-democratic practices that will enhance equality for Israel’s diverse communities. Democratic principles, therefore, are the adhesive which binds together advocates of this approach, who are still struggling to gain a substantial political foothold.
In Israel, elections and military skirmishes go together, just as security and politics have traditionally been two sides of the same coin. But there is not only one, unassailable, interpretation of security, its scope and how it can be achieved — much like there is not merely a single interpretation of Zionism or one embracing definition of the character of the state of Israel. Elections provide an opportunity for probing these core concerns and determining the relative weight of each of these approaches. So, instead of skirting these issues, it would do all the contenders well if they candidly expose their positions to the public and let the voters choose. That is what these elections are all about.