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How Israel’s political pragmatists can work to shrink the conflict

There are measures that would reduce control over the Palestinians without lowering security for Israelis
IDF soldiers search for Abed al-Karim Assi, suspected of stabbing an Israeli man to death, in the village of Kifl Haris in the northern West Bank, February 5, 2018. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)
IDF soldiers search for Abed al-Karim Assi, suspected of stabbing an Israeli man to death, in the village of Kifl Haris in the northern West Bank, February 5, 2018. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Here’s something many people don’t know about Israelis: they have lost their sense of political conviction. Most Israelis believe that if Israel continues controlling the West Bank, it will endanger its demographics as it undermines the country’s Jewish majority. But they also believe that if Israel withdraws from these territories, it will endanger its security as it contracts to indefensible borders. This confusion is surprising. It did not emerge because the Israeli mainstream grew disillusioned with the arguments of the left or the right – but because it was persuaded by them both. These Israelis find themselves in a “catch”: if they remain in the territories, they endanger their own future; if they leave, they also endanger their own future.

As a result of this collapse of political conviction, many Israelis have turned their attention to other issues, such as housing prices and the cost of living. If the geopolitical problem cannot be solved – better not to touch it at all. Nowadays Israeli “centrists” are defined not by their moderation regarding the conflict, but by their apathy towards it. The result is problematic. By abandoning the political conversation, the center has distorted it, because the loudest voices now heard are those of the ideological extremes.

This hemorrhaging of the moderates has allowed the belief to take root that there are only two options with the conflict: ending it or managing it. The left says the fragile status quo cannot be sustained: over time it will only fall apart and lead to disaster, which is why the conflict must be solved once and for all. The right says the conflict cannot be ended, and it’s wiser to wait for the chaos in the Middle East to die down before making any long-term decisions. All that remains is to maintain the status quo.

At first glance, both sides are right: it is impossible, at this stage in history, to solve the conflict, but neither can the status quo be sustained. At a second glance, however, both sides are also wrong: there are more than two options, and the insistence on all-or-nothing is a false dichotomy. The alternative to ending the conflict is not to manage it, but rather to shrink it.

Consider an illuminating analogy from the world of medicine. There exist fatal diseases that cannot be cured – but medical intervention is still hugely significant. Such intervention cannot cure the illness, but it can render it non-lethal. It can transform a fatal disease into a chronic one. Even if the State of Israel does not have the power to end the conflict, it can still shrink the conflict to proportions that guarantee that it will not bring an end to the State of Israel.

The first step is for Israelis and their friends abroad to free themselves from the widespread belief that they are trapped in a zero-sum game between control and security. Many are convinced that the more Israel controls the Palestinians, the more it is defended against them, and the less Israel controls them, the less it is defended against them.

This belief is the implicit assumption of many in the Israeli public, but it is not the common presumption of the Israeli intelligence and security establishments. The desk drawers of the defense professionals contain modest and practical proposals that include steps that can be taken immediately. These actions would dramatically reduce Israel’s control over the Palestinians without reducing the security of Israeli citizens. They could also be performed immediately, because they neither require a treaty with the Palestinians nor need to be part of a comprehensive, final-status settlement.

There exist at least ten such proposals, and here are three examples.

First, Palestinian autonomy is riddled with holes. The territories of Palestinian self-rule are not connected to each other. The non-contiguous nature of Palestinian autonomy breaks its cohesion, interrupts Palestinians’ movement, and creates daily frictions with the IDF. Experts in Israel have devised a plan to pave roads connecting all the areas under Palestinian autonomy and – no less importantly – to transfer them to Palestinian control. As a result, Palestinians would be able to travel from town to town in the West Bank without coming into contact with IDF soldiers.

Second, Israel could transfer sections of Area C (under Israeli control) to the Palestinian Authority and thereby expand the zones of Palestinian self-rule around its villages and towns.

Third, Israel could stop settlement construction outside the major blocs.

As a result of these and other steps, the Palestinians’ personal freedom would be dramatically boosted – and their daily experiences of humiliation, tied to checkpoints and restrictions on movement, would disappear almost completely. The territory under Palestinian autonomy would be enlarged; its effective independence, enhanced. At the same time, the Israeli army – particularly intelligence – would stay in place and not lose its room for maneuver.

Would these and similar steps end the conflict? Obviously not. But they would do something else: they would demonstrate that Israel’s control over the Palestinians can be reduced without simultaneously reducing the security of Israel’s citizens. That is, they would fracture the notion that the conflict is a zero-sum game.

Would these be steps towards a broader settlement? Quite possibly, but one cannot say for sure. Would they improve the existing situation? Absolutely. If the Israelis and their allies approach the political conversation with a new metric – if they cease to judge political ideas on whether they solve the conflict, and only on whether they shrink it – they will be able to explore a range of small steps that together will cover a great distance.

On the Israeli left, people oppose such steps because they mean conceding bargaining chips that Israel needs to score a political win and resolve the conflict. On the Israeli right, people oppose them because they mean stopping settlement expansion. As a result, there is an unspoken and unconscious alliance between the settlement movement and the peace movement. They are both working to freeze the existing situation and perpetuate the status quo. The settlement movement does so by expanding settlements designed to block any meaningful political progress; the peace movement, by making any progress conditional on a comprehensive political settlement.

But if action on the ground depends on a treaty, then the treaty that never comes only postpones the steps that can be taken now, and perpetuates the status quo.

In order to break the political impasse, we must first break the conceptual impasse. To move from a paradigm of grand plans to a paradigm of small, cumulative steps. The Israelis and Americans who are likely to promote this paradigm shift are those who may have lost their political conviction. This silent majority must have the courage to realize that political puzzlement does not have to translate into political passivity.

Being “moderate” need not mean being passively indifferent to the conflict, but rather being actively moderate about the conflict. This conversation is too important to be left solely in the hands of ideological hardliners on both the left and right. This conversation demands the return of the nuanced and perplexed center. Only with the support and involvement of centrists can the nature of the debate be changed. Only that will liberate us from the false dichotomy of trying to solve or manage the conflict, when we can start trying to shrink it right now.

Micah Goodman’s best-selling book Catch-67 is now out in English.

About the Author
Micah Goodman is a lecturer in the Beit Midrash Israeli Ein Prat, and a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. His best-selling book “Catch-67” is now out in English.
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