Alon Tal
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Israel’s fatal attraction for the ‘bad boy’

Israel’s Gaza policy has taught West Bank Palestinians that the Jewish state only understands violence

We know the unfortunate dynamics all too well. Indeed it is the stuff of human dramas, from junior high school coming of age stories to soap operas and telenovelas: A woman is faced with the dilemma of two very different suitors: On the one hand, there is the “bad boy”: irresponsible, rude unresponsive or in extreme cases violent, abusive, alcoholic. At the same time, he has that appeal of being dashing, attractive, cool — perhaps even a little bit dangerous. The bad boy’s competition is the “nice guy”: reliable, doting, considerate – or in extreme cases, perhaps a little boring and a bit of a nerd.

We all know how it ends up. The woman, against her own best judgment, finds herself charmed by the bad boy and opts for self-destruction. She has been there before, broken off ties, but somehow keeps getting pulled back into the cycle of abuse — knowing all the while it will end badly. Like a moth drawn to a flame, there is something of a death wish in the attraction which pulls her into this painful magnetic field.

Looking back she’ll realize how much better her life would have been had she done the levelheaded thing and picked the nice guy, enjoying stability, support and friendship. But this was not a rational decision. Indeed, there may be a biological/evolutionary base for it. (The phenomenon was actually validated in a recent national survey of Israeli females who found “powerful” men more attractive than “nice” men. Males reported the opposite. )

But there always comes a time when it is simply too late and the nice guy is no longer waiting around.

I was talking about this dynamic with our family friend Idan. As a twenty-two year old Israeli woman, she has surely observed her share of these ill-fated dramas. But Idan wasn’t talking about a friend doomed for neglect and heartbreak. Rather she spoke metaphorically about Israel’s tortured relationship with the Palestinians. And having just finished a stint as an analyst in IDF military intelligence, she knows a thing or two about the subject.

The metaphor actually works. Israel time and again seems to strengthen the neighborhood bad boy, preferring policies that push the country onto the toxic playing field of the Hamas terrorist leadership. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) for many years has been the steady, less aggressive and more promising alternative. Yet, our leaders find every possible excuse to craft policies that strengthen his rivals – and leave him weakened, with a “wimp” or even collaborator status among the Palestinian public. Hamas comes off as more zealous, sexy and effective on the Palestinian street, precisely because Israel plays into its hand.

There may be those who claim that the metaphor is excessively sympathetic. Abbas is surely no angel. It is easy to dig up all sorts of damaging evidence from his eighty years – starting with his doctoral dissertation denying the Holocaust’s dimensions to any number of gratuitous, bellicose statements. But recent history shows his record to be rather remarkable. The coordination between his Palestinian Authority security forces and the Israeli army has made the past several years the safest in Israeli history. (That’s why the brutal kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers caused such dismay two months ago.) Typically, one can still travel the West Bank without fear. Abbas’s sensible pragmatism has improved economic conditions for his people. He openly condemns anti-Israeli violence – including the June kidnapping. And in the interest of working things out, he even committed the ultimate Palestinian heresy when he conceded in a public interview that he won’t be coming back to Tzfat, the town of his birth. Essentially Abbas acknowledged that any right of return for Palestinians will only be symbolic.

There are endless examples of how Israel has rewarded this moderation with humiliation. Every time Israel flouts international law and consternation by expanding West Bank settlements, it shows its disdain for “nice guy” tactics. The shoddy law enforcement against extreme settler elements in the West Bank encourages Jewish lawlessness and demeans Abbas and his conciliatory camp.

Rawabi, the first new Palestinian city in 50 years located near Ramallah, is a classic case: Its construction has been sabotaged time and again by the demands of Israeli politicians who do not want it to succeed. Most recently, the press reported that delays in granting Israeli permits to pipe water to the town led to developers’ freezing the project. What message do the empty apartments there send to the temperate, middle-class Palestinians who found the money and confidence to invest in a better Palestinian future?

Like many other “nice guys,” Abbas is not perfect. It would be nicer if he would openly acknowledge Israel’s status as a Jewish state (something that neither Jordan nor Egypt did when they made their remarkably sustainable treaties with Israel in the 1970s and ‘80s.) In the past, he was unwilling or unable to “seize the day” – as Condoleezza Rice describes in her book regarding Ehud Olmert’s dramatic offer in earlier negotiations. And yes, to mollify his more radical countrymen, his statements sometimes make us cringe. But on issues of security, where performance counts, he has consistently delivered.

It is really quite miraculous that Israel still has a choice at all. It is amazing that the Palestinian nice guy has managed to remain in power and is still willing to play ball. If Operation Protective Edge has taught us in Israel anything, it is that Palestinians cannot destroy Israel, but that they can definitely make life here uncomfortable — even unbearable — for their immediate neighbors. If Israel’s Gaza policy debacle has taught Palestinians in the West Bank anything it is that Israel only seems to understand violence. How long will it take for the nice guys to change tactics and choose bad boy policies? In this tough neighborhood of the Middle East, Israel consistently lets them know that nice guys finish last. Wouldn’t it make more sense for Israel to embrace this historic opportunity, seriously re-engage moderate, Palestinian leadership and negotiate a two-state solution, showing that it could be otherwise?

About the Author
Alon Tal is a professor of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University. In 2021 and 2022, he was chair of the Knesset's Environment, Climate & Health subcommittee.