Israel’s decision to take harsh punitive measures in response to the UN vote granting non-member state status to the Palestinians has evoked predictably vehement (and eminently avoidable) reactions, extending to the last of Israel’s remaining allies, from Washington and Berlin to London and Ottawa. For Benjamin Netanyahu, however, the announcement of the withholding of monetary transfers to the Palestinian Authority and of settlement expansion in the Jerusalem area – and especially in the E1 enclave – is nothing short of a win-win situation. From his perspective, these moves promote his government’s public, political and strategic interests, while trapping its opponents in Israel and abroad in an almost inextricable bind. But, once again, the prime minister may discover that his policies continue to place not only him, but also Israel, in a perilous tailspin of his own making.
Barely a month ago, during Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel received unprecedented support in democratic quarters for its right to defend its citizens from the dangers of constant rocket attacks. The ensuing military toss-up nevertheless only enhanced its determination to thwart the Palestinian initiative in the UN. It rapidly became apparent that even Israel’s strongest advocates could not understand how its diplomatic blockade of Mahmoud Abbas dovetailed with its willingness to achieve an informal understanding with its military antagonists from the Hamas. The subsequent diplomatic debacle, the worst in Israel’s history, rendered the country virtually isolated in the global arena. Despite explicit warnings delivered personally by Hillary Clinton, Netanyahu nevertheless decided to lash back, thus dissipating any vestige of foreign goodwill. The universal censure of Israel’s moves, the stream of reprimands delivered to Israeli envoys, and the outrage in the last pro-Israeli strongholds (the United States and Canada), make it all the more necessary to try to decipher the reasons behind what is distinctly a Netanyahu move, carried out by the prime minister himself without consultation with any of the usual statutory forums (either the security cabinet or the government).
Superficially, the decision to embark on the construction of an additional 3,000 housing units in East Jerusalem and its environs came as an emotive response to domestic voices demanding concrete steps in the wake of the General Assembly vote. The popular climate, undoubtedly fueled by coalition politicians engaged in a tumultuous election campaign, called on the government to find a worthy answer to the Palestinian attempt to change the rules of the game in their heretofore lopsided interaction with Israel by showing them who really is in control. It is hardly surprising that in these circumstances the government opted for a massive settlement expansion in the sensitive Jerusalem region as a rebuttal to the symbolic recognition of Palestinian statehood on the 1967 border with Jerusalem as it capital.
Netanyahu’s move served a dual immediate purpose: it catered to popular expectations and, under the guise of a principled opposition to the unilateral measures undertaken by the Palestinian Authority in contravention of signed agreements, conveyed the decidedly paternalistic message that only Israel has the capacity to determine the situation on the ground. The international backlash to this avowedly vengeful policy was swifter than anticipated: not only was Israel uniformly condemned internationally, but, ironically, it succeeded in defying its own logic by employing unilateral means to counter what it decried as unilateral steps by the Palestinian Authority.
It quickly became apparent that other factors had to be in play if the government were willing to undermine its own rationale on unilateralism and absorb such sweeping condemnation. The most obvious is electoral politics. By approving a full planning exercise in E1, the construction of 1,600 units in Nebi Samuel (Ramat Shlomo) and several hundred more in Har Homa and Gilo, the prime minister could appease increasingly extreme voices within his expanded Likud-Beyteinu party, while at the same time undercutting the appeal of his opponents on the right (especially the increasingly popular Habayit Hayehudi headed by Naftali Bennett). The subsequent outcry in the international community has played directly into Netanyahu’s hands in two senses: it has reinforced the mindset which claims that the entire world is against Israel so critical to the hegemony of the right and it highlights his image as the only leader capable of standing up to persistent external pressures. From his perspective, the ruling coalition can only gain from separating the Israeli public and domestic politics from international currents.
This ostensibly leaves leaders in Europe and North America with very little room for maneuver. Already exposed to charges of interference in Israel’s elections, they seem to be caught between two unpalatable options. If they listen to those voices in Israel (Ehud Barak, for one) who insist that the E1 provocation is sheer bravado and do no more, they will not only be backing away from their own consistent opposition to the settlement enterprise in general and to any Israeli incursion into the E1 enclave in particular, but they will also be buttressing the right-wing parties. If they proceed with further (primarily economic) measures against Israel, they will find themselves indirectly strengthening the worldview that has allowed the consolidation of the present coalition.
The political trap set by Netanyahu, however, is less insurmountable than it might first appear. In this period, whatever the world does will be portrayed as an attempt to sway the outcome of the January 22 ballot. If the choice is between being manipulated by the leaders of Likud-Beyteinu for their own political purposes or preventing any further actions inimical to a possible Israeli-Palestinian accord, then the latter is unquestionably preferable by far.
This is particularly true given the least noted, but perhaps the most important, motive behind Israel’s flagrantly taunting move: the strategic one. It is abundantly clear to all concerned that further construction around Jerusalem serves two major strategic goals of the Israeli right. First, it severs the geographic contiguity between the southern part of the West Bank and the northern region, thus fracturing the territorial integrity of a future Palestinian state. Second, it is designed to assure Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and prevent the realization of Palestinian claims to part of the city. In effect, Netanyahu’s recent assurance to Angela Merkel notwithstanding, the slated construction severely hinders the feasibility of the two-state scenario.
The achievement of this strategic objective may serve the right in power. It does not favor Israel in the long term. By leaving the Palestinian population of Jerusalem and its environs in a political limbo and rendering them both devoid of legal rights and separated from other residents of the city, this policy in effect either paves the way for ongoing institutionalized inequality or for a one-state solution. Since neither of these outcomes is acceptable to the majority of the Israeli public, let alone to democrats abroad, Israel has little to gain by their realization.
Benjamin Netanyahu, once again, has insisted on defying the international community and created a dilemma for external actors. But this is not a lose-lose situation. Given the problematic emotional, political and strategic sources for the latest settlement upsurge, they no longer need to maintain the repeated pattern of playing into Bibi’s hands. True friends of Israel understand that by acceding to the latest settlement plans they are not doing any favor to Israel. They, along with a growing number of Jews abroad, will continue to urge its leaders to pursue the two-state course or to invite further international opprobrium. Israel’s citizens, hopefully, will have the good sense to do the same and open a new horizon for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation and regional stability next month.