Much of the public uproar in Israel over the new government’s policy changes relates to planned transformation of the legal system. However, there are also no less significant disquieting changes vis-à-vis the government’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During its brief time in power, this government has taken a far more forceful and provocative approach than any of its predecessors. This pivotal shift has serious implications.
Allow me to provide a brief overview of the issue, its salient historical twists, and turns. The Palestinian doctrine, in my view, is quite clear, though one has to scratch a bit under the surface to avoid being misled. Many of those critical of Israel inaccurately presume that the Palestinian leadership – i.e., the Palestinian Authority and Hamas – are in favor of a two-state solution, and that Israel’s West Bank settlement policy is the main obstacle to such an arrangement. While settlement policy is indeed a relevant factor that will be addressed later in this blog, it is neither the initial problem nor the main one. We need only view the historical timeline to put settlement policy into perspective. Palestinian opposition to any Jewish state regardless of its borders predated Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967, and even predated the state’s establishment in May 1948. Virulent Palestinian opposition to Israel including the use of terror, that is deliberate attacking of civilians, stems not from disagreement over settlement policy but, rather, from a refusal to legitimize Jewish sovereignty. Hamas has always rejected a two-state solution outright while the Palestinian Authority regards it only as an interim step to eventual control over the entire land. The Palestinian Authority has never declared that attainment of a two-state solution would end the Israeli Palestinian conflict.
In contrast, until recently, Israeli policy has favored a two-state compromise. Israel supported the UN-recommended partition plan of 1948, which culminated in the Jewish state and could have created a Palestinian state had the Arabs not rejected this solution and declared war on Israel. In 1967, after its conquest of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel offered to return the occupied land in exchange for a negotiated peace agreement. This, too, was rejected outright by the other side. Even negotiations were spurned.
How do these irrefutable differences play out on a day-to-day basis? A person unfamiliar with the situation who only follows the media, could easily surmise that war is waged here daily on the streets. The reality, however, is distinctly different. Since conflict attracts media attention while coexistence does not, the media have an interest in highlighting Arab-Israeli hostility. The reality is that most West Bank Palestinians are not part of the cycle of violence and go about their daily routine. Many work in Israel, where conditions are better than those offered by the Palestinian Authority, and numerous Israeli Arabs and Jews travel to the West Bank on weekends to go shopping.
What impact has Israel had on Palestinian policy? The most obvious influence is Israel’s strong and effective army, without whose deterrence the Jewish State would long ago have ceased to exist. What about a more flexible and tolerant approach to the other side? While intuitively the idea may sound plausible, it simply has not worked in practice. Israel has been conciliatory on numerous occasions, not just in word but also in deed. Examples include withdrawal from the Gaza Strip settlements, withdrawal from Lebanon, and several occasions on which large numbers of Palestinian prisoners were released. Unfortunately, these mollifying gestures were almost invariably followed by increasingly violent and hostile Palestinian policies. One example is Hamas’ use of the land vacated by Jewish settlers in Gaza as a missile base for rockets launched towards Israeli civilian communities.
Israel’s public opinion shift to the right in recent decades and the concomitant drop in sympathy for the plight of Palestinian Arabs should not, therefore, come as a surprise. In this regard, the Israeli public can simplistically be divided into two categories. One group, which wants to maintain its sovereignty, freedom and democracy while getting along with the neighbors, tends to accommodate any policy that proves effective. The other groups are more ideologically motivated. The Left tends to seek compromise between the Israeli and Palestinian narratives, while those on the Right, both secular and religious, are interested mainly in advancing their own ideology.
In recent decades right-wingers have often felt doubly frustrated. Many believe that Palestinian violence against Israel could be better contained if a more forceful retaliatory approach were to be employed. Likewise, many oppose a two-state solution, believing that Jews have the right to settle anywhere they choose in biblical Israel. They reject the “Let’s wait until the Palestinians come around to recognizing Israel’s right to exist” strategy. Their intention, partially stymied so far by the courts and even under right-wing governments, is to settle the entire West Bank, rendering a two-state solution unimplementable. They are less specific as to what rights the local Palestinian population (over 2 million people) would have in such a situation. Would they be granted Israeli citizenship and enjoy the rights accorded to Arab and Jewish Israelis today, limited rights in some sort of apartheid arrangement? Would some Arab communities actually be erased, in the spirit of senior minister Smotrich’s call for the erasure of Huwara after the terrorist attack and double murder perpetrated there late last month.
The present government’s approach is a game changer. Under Security Minister Ben Gvir, not only is its policy bellicose, but, if it gets its way, no non-government institutions will have the power to restrain it. Will a more aggressive approach successfully repress Palestinian opposition to Israel and better contain Palestinian use of violence? And will this government have a freer hand without repercussions in expanding the settlements? Many, perhaps most, of the right-wing Knesset (Parliament) members believe so, as do many of their followers.
I am less convinced. There are three main reasons why I believe that these goals are unrealistic: Firstly, a more repressive and vindictive policy towards the Palestinians will likely increase Palestinian opposition and retaliation, as one reason for the current relatively low level of violence is deliberate and controlled Palestinian restraint. Extreme elements are out there, who if provoked, will be more than willing to die in order to kill Israelis. Furthermore, Israel cannot get away with using unmitigated force of the kind applied in Iran and elsewhere.
Secondly, the ideological Left is not the only sector of Israeli society that will object; the less ideologically motivated, whose liberal beliefs include tolerance and restraint and equality before the law, and perhaps some liberal minded right-wingers are also balking at the radical policy shift, and will further object if their safety, standard of living and normal routines are compromised. We are already seeing their opposition expressed through massive persistent protests that attract many people who would typically never attend a demonstration.
And finally, the Western democracies are already on the verge of shifting from simple censure to active punishment of Israel. For example: in contrast to the past, when newly elected Israeli prime ministers were routinely invited to the White House, this time Netanyahu has received no invitation. This is ominous, as the powerful US is Israel’s most important ally. And this is only the start. Cracks in Israel’s relationship with its allies could undermine our currently robust economy and destabilize the country.
In summary, we can use a pendulum metaphor to illustrate the Arab Israeli conflict. When a pendulum is displaced sideways, it is subject to an opposing force that draws it back towards the center. The further the pendulum swings, the stronger the force that attracts it back again. If we apply this metaphor to the conflict, we can use the example of the Israeli Left, which repeatedly found that a more conciliatory approach worsened rather than improved relations with the Palestinians. The Right, which is currently failing to distinguish between what is desirable for them and what is feasible, is likely to experience the same degree of disillusionment. The belief that if Israel would just be forceful enough, violent Palestinian opposition could be curtailed is an unrealistic fantasy. No one can censor discussions at the Palestinian supper table, and access to pistols and rifles is apparently unrelenting; and even if it were not, knives that can be used to attack and cars that can run people over will always be available. The conclusion is that a more forceful and provocative policy is liable to backfire, by provoking retaliation. Moreover, if the government fulfills its goal of settling the West Bank to an extent that will rule out a future two-state solution, the settlement issue will become a major obstacle for future peace between the two sides when the Palestinians do finally come around to recognizing Jewish sovereignty, as several Arab countries have already done. The questions that remains are simply how long it will take and how high a price we shall all have to pay until the Israeli government realizes this and swings back to a more restrained approach.