With the dust settling now in the Levant, it’s becoming easier to get a picture of the who, what, when, where, and why of Operation Pillar of Defense. Here are some important takeaways from the last week.
- Make no mistake: This was a fight Israel wanted to have. Tensions were high throughout early November, culminating in an attack on an IDF Jeep on November 10. Israel responded with airstrikes, and the Gaza groups upped their rocket activity. By November 12, the militant factions signaled readiness for a truce. Netanyahu clearly did not want a truce on those terms. On November 14, he oversaw the assassination of the chief of Hamas’s military wing, ensuring that a broader conflict would erupt. The assassination of Jaabari was an intentional escalation on the part of Israel, who saw the reigning “ceasefire” regime as weak and in need of a shakeup.
In addition, it is clear that Hamas’s stockpile of Fajr-5 missiles was a source of major concern for Israel. About a month ago, IAF jets took out a facility in Sudan that was probably full of these longer-range missiles. They would be smuggled through Egypt and into Gaza for Hamas’s use. Then, in the hours after Jaabari’s assassination, Fajr-5 launchers were the highest-priority bomb targets for the IAF’s first wave of strikes. Although Iron Dome has somewhat neutralized the threat from the Fajr, Israel clearly believes that they represent an unacceptable level of danger for Israeli.
- The Iron Dome system did both of its critical jobs: protect Israeli civilians from rocket fire, and preserve freedom of action for the Israeli government. Although not perfect, Iron Dome performed admirably in combat. It intercepted at least 342 rockets that would have landed in settled areas, including in the Tel Aviv area. By keeping Israelis mostly secure from the Palestinians’ main weapon, Netanyahu was able to delay—and then shelf—a costly ground operation in Gaza. Iron Dome is expensive to operate, but it has proven to be worth the cost. ($275 million in U.S. funding doesn’t hurt, either.) It is rumored that South Korea is now looking at purchasing the system to defend against short-range North Korean missiles.
- Netanyahu did a better job than I thought he would. When I anticipated the announcement of a ceasefire on November 14, and instead heard that Israel took out a senior Hamas leader, I was convinced it was Bibi at his worst. He had attempted assassinations on Hamas leaders before, even when the tactical benefit was dwarfed by the strategic cost. (The most egregious example was in 1997, when he poisoned Khaled Meshaal on Jordanian soil. An enraged King Hussein got Bill Clinton on Netanyahu’s case. Netanyahu then flew the head of the Mossad out to Amman to deliver the antidote. Netanyahu then had to release Hamas “spiritual leader” Ahmed Yassin to get the Mossad agents out of Jordan.)
As I discussed above, the blowback from the assassination was intended. Even so, Netanyahu was cautious. He demonstrated to Hamas that he had a wide range of options at his disposal by getting his cabinet to authorize the call-up of 75,000 reservists—enough manpower to, in theory, eject Hamas from its seat of power in Gaza. But he did not rush in with a ground invasion, recognizing the tremendous political and human costs that kind of operation would exact. He may have waited too long to sign a ceasefire, as people died today who would not have had a ceasefire been signed yesterday. Israel’s operational objectives were met already, which made the hang-up in arranging the ceasefire very frustrating for people outside the government.
- There’s one clear loser in this affair: Mahmoud Abbas. He has been busy campaigning for the Palestinian cause at the UN and other symbolic gestures. His total irrelevance to the conflict lays bare how weak the Palestinian Authority is. Worse, Israeli leaders seem not to care. Netanyahu’s policies often end up politically strengthening the elements he wishes to weaken. That’s fine if he’s willing to deal with Hamas politically, but he doesn’t seem to be.
- Relatedly, Israel still has no long-term strategy for dealing with Hamas. Stripping Hamas of long-range weaponry is a clear operational objective, but it is not a strategic one. The Palestinian Authority is not about to retake the Gaza Strip, so the only elements left in contention are Hamas and the Salafi radicals. Netanyahu sooner or later is going to have to develop something resembling a vision for Gaza beyond permanent containment. He also can’t continue to weaken Abbas and then claim Abbas is too weak to be a peace partner. The word for that is chutzpah.
Israel’s early generations of leaders were gifted with a strong pragmatic instinct that stood out in a region where self-deluded demagogues made one foolish move after another. Lately, however, Israel’s political elite has been abandoning sensible thought for a strange combination of alarmism and bravado. A look at Bibi Netanyahu’s approach to each of the major challenges and opportunities in front of him reveals a continuing paralysis coupled with a mentality of denial and wishful thinking.
To take one important issue, Israel is treating the Arab Spring all wrong. Israeli leaders are right to note the potential downside to a new Arab political environment. However, this should not be their public face; they need to engage positively with the Arab world, even if it is not reciprocated immediately. That means Netanyahu should stop referring to the events as moving the Middle East “backward.” Such a verbal champion of democracy should know better than to condescend Arabs by calling their desire for a representative government “illiberal.” This is hypocrisy.
What’s worse, Israel’s own claim to democracy is getting muddied by fascistic elements who bear no respect for the rule of law. The “price tag" campaign of sabotage — borderline terrorism — against Palestinians has now also become an insurgency against the state itself. In the year 2011, more acts of terror were committed by Jews than by Palestinians in the West Bank. Although Netanyahu and his defense minister may grasp the necessity of disrupting the movement, they desperately must confront an even grimmer reality: that 70% of the country’s national-religious and ultra-Orthodox approve to some degree of the attacks, as well as 46% of the country as a whole. That kind of attitude is unhealthy for a liberal society.
Meanwhile, there is a deeply uncomfortable realization that must set into Israeli minds: The Palestinian future will include Hamas. The Palestinian Authority has failed to realize its political aims time and time again, and at the same time Hamas is gaining friends in the Middle East. Add the rise of Islamists in Egypt and Syria’s downward spiral, and geopolitics has encouraged Hamas’s movement into the mainstream. Hamas leaders are not ready to signal a true strategic departure toward non-violence, but a number of forces are subtly changing the group’s cost-benefit calculus toward moderation.
Israel, rather than hiding from these developments, must grab the bull by the horns. Specifically, it should test Hamas’s intentions by using the other Arab states as intermediaries. Although these Arab states are mostly focused inward on feeding their populations, I am certain that an Israeli request to meet secretly with Hamas leaders would command attention. If Israel felt uncomfortable linking Hamas too closely with Egypt, countries like Qatar or Tunisia might be able to serve as substitutes.
According to some recent reports, Hamas leaders are quietly contemplating a switch to non-violence. If that is the case, then a back channel with a trustworthy Arab government would be the perfect way to learn about it — both for Hamas and for Israel. Hamas seeks regional legitimacy, while it would behoove Israel to establish positive relations with the new governments of the region.
It is not clear that Hamas is ready to become a responsible actor yet. That is why Israel should keep these conversations out of sight for now. But it is also not clear that there will ever be a better time to “trap” Hamas in a non-belligerent mindset. That is why sitting back as Hamas determines its future without any Israeli input is strategic folly for Netanyahu. That Israel would have to imagine negotiating with Hamas does not seem fair at all. But most of the hard decisions Israel has made in its history were not made because they were fair, but because they were prudent.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to speak with a respected expert at a Washington-area Middle East think tank about regional events. (He did not know that his comments might end up on the Internet, so I will not mention his name.) I asked him about the Netanyahu government’s lack of strategic direction in the recent months, an issue which has the unfortunate effect of both making President Obama’s job harder and endangering his country.
This expert, though understanding Israeli passivity in the wake of rapidly changing events, agreed that Netanyahu has been too cautious. I had primarily meant that Bibi wasn’t giving any progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, but my interlocutor made a different case: that Israel needed to take a strategic offensive with regard to the Arab Spring.
Too often, Israeli leaders have been quoted in the press as denigrating the Arab Spring revolutions. They worry that peace agreements will crumble, or that terrorist groups could acquire assets to use against Israel. These are valid concerns, but they are not the way to address the Arab publics.
Egyptians don’t want to hear how much the Israeli defense establishment misses Hosni Mubarak. Israel’s leaders would be much better served by empathizing with the Arab publics’ desires to form better futures. That doesn’t mean meddling in internal politics, but it includes respecting the right for Arabs to elect their own leaders — even if they are non-violent but conservative Muslims.
Yossi Klein Halevi, writing from Jerusalem in The New Republic, shows what happens when Israel is once again under the world’s microscope. The tendency on the part of Israel supporters is to line up in defense of the outnumbered nation. More often than not — and this is no exception — outrage directed against Israel by the world community is done largely out of convenience, habit, and outright discrimination. Israel is right to still be deeply angered by the UNGA’s once-designation of Zionism as an inherently racist ideology.
But the title of Klein Halevi’s article, “No Apologies,” reveals another tendency slightly too well-practiced. The moral certainty with which he believes Israel has made the right decisions might prevent cognitive dissonance in his own mind, but it misses a larger point: Is Israel responsible for its current predicament? Klein Halevi wants to make it clear that Israel is not to “blame” for its growing isolation, but he seems to mean “blame” mostly in a moralistic sense — not in a causative sense.
Here is Klein Halevi:
This convergence of blame comes at a time of spiritual vulnerability for Jews. This is, after all, our season of contrition. As we approach Rosh Hashanah, the process of self-examination intensifies. And as Jewish tradition emphasizes, the basis for penitence is apology. Before seeking forgiveness from God, we are to seek forgiveness from those we have hurt, even inadvertently.
But in the present atmosphere Jews should resist the temptation for self-blame. Apology is intended to heal. Yet those demanding apologies of Israel aren’t seeking reconciliation, but the opposite—to criminalize the Jewish state and rescind its right to defend itself.
He refers in particular to the Egyptian and Turkish governments, who have called for apologies from the Israeli government over various (real and perceived) offenses. In the case of Turkey, the issue was the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara flotilla, and in the case of Egypt, an operation near the Sinai which accidentally resulted in the deaths of several Egyptian soldiers. The Turkish government has started a cold war of sorts with Israel, and a (paid) mob of Egyptians stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo.
To listen to Klein Halevi, the appropriateness of Israel’s actions in each instance is only a question of the technicalities. Israeli soldiers were legally entitled and obligated to defend themselves from the lynch mob aboard the Mavi Marmara. The IDF was legally entitled to hunt down terrorists near the Sinai border. The problem is, those technicalities only matter in the context of what Israel’s broader policies are.
In the case of Gaza, it’s time for Israelis to admit that their policy, one which I have supported, has failed. Israel’s Gaza policy aims for two things: to limit the weapons acquisition of Hamas and other terrorist groups; and, implicitly, to convince the Gazan population to overthrow the Hamas regime. The first aim is one for which Israel never needs to apologize. The second is morally problematic, however, and it has not been successful. In that context, Israel has only made easier the fine-toothed comb examination its detractors seek to employ. Surely, there is an ounce of Israeli blame here.
The Egyptian mess is a bit more oblique. Israel’s handling of its relations with Egypt has not been the real problem; rather, it’s Israel’s general approach to everyone right now. At a time of huge uncertainty, Prime Minister Netanyahu has punted his powers of statesmanship to the very world powers he distrusts. He should be grateful that even the United States is by his side — the prime minister did not earn friends in the White House when he lectured President Obama over a mundane matter in May. Netanyahu has managed to bungle the Palestinian UN vote in every way possible — by alienating true allies, by fighting without making amends, and by simply refusing to outline a strategy. Is Israel blameless here?
If Klein Halevi were to think about the world outside Israel, I think even he would begin to see how damaging Netanyahu’s stubbornness is. Here is his one allowance:
Would Netanyahu offer the Palestinians a state along the equivalent of the 1967 lines? In exchange for Palestinian acceptance of a Jewish state and abandonment of the demand for refugee return to Israel: My sense is yes. I wish he would explicitly say so, even if that meant risking his coalition. [bold added]
This is a significant admission on Klein Halevi’s part, and I applaud his honesty. But if he thinks it would be nice for Israelis to hear Netanyahu say that, imagine how much everyone else would like to hear it. And imagine how much easier President Obama’s job becomes at the UN, and how much more difficult it becomes for Recep Tayyip Erdogan to posture against Israel, if Netanyahu were to take this step! The period of self-reflection before Yom Kippur, as he writes, is not just about assigning blame but about undertaking corrective actions. Bibi has not just made mistakes, he has learned nothing from them. That is the true sin committed here.
George W. Bush left an unfortunate model of “leadership” by which American conservatives today judge leaders. That model consists of talking tough, shooting without asking questions, and denying you did anything wrong when criticized. Of course, Bush was kinder to himself. For example, at the very end of the second presidential debate in 2004, Bush was asked by the moderator if he thought he had made any mistakes in his first term. This was his answer:
I have made a lot of decisions, and some of them little, like appointments to boards you never heard of, and some of them big.
And in a war, there’s a lot of — there’s a lot of tactical decisions that historians will look back and say: He shouldn’t have done that. He shouldn’t have made that decision. And I’ll take responsibility for them. I’m human.
But on the big questions, about whether or not we should have gone into Afghanistan, the big question about whether we should have removed somebody in Iraq, I’ll stand by those decisions, because I think they’re right.
Don’t sweat the small stuff, as long as you get the big picture right. I suppose that’s one way to lead, assuming you get the strategy right. (He didn’t.)
Bibi Netanyahu has embodied the exact opposite of Bush’s verbal philosophy of leadership: he focuses obsessively on tactics and punts strategic decisions. As I have said before, this resembles Yasser Arafat’s approach to leadership. This is not a model of leadership really, but a model of immediate political survival.
Netanyahu’s defenders — of which there seem to be more in America than in Israel — have so completely bought into Bibi’s tactics-only approach that they have even redefined what leadership means. Take FrumForum’s Peter Worthington, who commended Bibi for "electrifying" resolve in the face of a terrorist attack last week:
Can there be anyone in the civilized world who didn’t feel a surge of empathy with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he responded to the death of seven Israelis at the hands of terrorists from Gaza?
Most elected leaders would go on the air at such an obscenity and attempt to reassure their people. But not all are Netanyahu.
George Bush did it after 9/11, and he was persuasive. Barack Obama has done it when occasion demands (the assassination of Osama bin Laden), but he is not Netanyahu.
What Netanyahu said was clear, simple and stirring: “The people who gave the order to murder our people and hid in Gaza are no longer among the living. I set a principle: When someone harms the citizens of Israel, we react immediately and with force.”
He then went on to note that it was a well-organized terrorist attack launched from the Sinai, aimed at three separate buses and private vehicles. Some 40 people were wounded, and some of the attackers were killed by Egyptian soldiers.
The electrifying news was that Israeli jets immediately attacked the headquarters and homes in Gaza, of leaders from a group calling itself the Popular Resistance Committee (PRC), killing its leader, the deputy leader, and a number of others. [snip]
Canada is alarmingly blasé about citizens in trouble in different lands – and I’m not thinking of criminals or drug dealers who break the law, but of innocent people trapped in a mesh abroad that’s not their doing.
Canada is perfectly prepared to negotiate economic deals with China when Canadian citizens, who have committed no offense, are imprisoned in China.
If Prime Minister Stephen Harper – or U.S. President Barack Obama – displayed a smidgin of Netanyahu’s resolve in similar circumstances, they’d both be leading a parade of approval.
This is absurd on several levels. First, it is the nation of Israel that could use sympathy, not their prime minister.
Second. Netanyahu’s response was exactly what every prime minister of Israel has ever done after a terror attack. Ehud Olmert invaded the Gaza Strip after continuous rocket fire. Ariel Sharon launched Operation Defensive Shield after the Passover Massacre. Ehud Barak launched airstrikes against PA targets after the lynch in Ramallah. Shimon Peres shelled Hizballah targets in Lebanon in 1996. And so on.
Nor were Bibi’s words expressive of any unusual determination. Here’s a sampling of what other Israeli leaders have said after terrorist attacks:
- "The Government of Israel has the duty to protect its citizens and is prepared to take any action it deems necessary." — Shimon Peres
- "We have stated at every turn the fact that we have no interest in continuing in the use of arms, but given no other choice, we owe it to our homes, to our children and to our people." — Binyamin Ben-Eliezer
- "The IDF will continue to act with appropriate force against those responsible for the attacks, and will not be deterred from measures that will make it clear to the other side that Israel will react strongly against anyone who harms Israeli citizens and IDF soldiers." — Ehud Barak
- "[We] respond[ed] to the situation created by the Palestinian Authority, and … convey[ed] a sharp message that Israel, as a sovereign state, cannot and will not react with self-restraint in the face of such a blatant and humiliating act against its citizens and soldiers.” — Shlomo Ben-Ami
- “The State of Israel has not stopped, and will not stop, in its war against murderous terrorism that is perpetrated against us.” — Ariel Sharon
Every Israeli politician knows when they run for office that this is the kind of thing they have to do. Netanyahu is no better or worse than any of them at it.
Third, the suggestion that Netanyahu treats his citizens differently that other world leaders undermines Israel’s case for counterterrorism. Israeli leaders insist over and over again that they only do exactly what every other leader would do under similar circumstances. (And they are right.) What that means is that Netanyahu is not special. He is run-of-the-mill, as a Haaretz op-ed explains:
The government of Benjamin Netanyahu excels at presenting what is self-evident as the peak of wisdom. The decision to make do with a series of air strikes on the Gaza Strip following the terror attack north of Eilat a week and a half ago, was celebrated as tremendous brilliance. By extension of this logic, a minister who will suddenly announce that two and two equals four would expect the Nobel Prize in Mathematics (and being turned down will be explained as anti-Semitism).
But enough about tactics. Far more important is Netanyahu’s catastrophic handling of Israel’s future. In fact, Israel is probably in a deeper strategic quandary than at any point in the last 50 years. Rather than seizing the moment, Netanyahu prefers to leave Israel waiting in anguish. Rather than determining Israel’s own future, Bibi is putting his country on the mercy of outside forces more powerful and fickle than he seems to understand. Bibi Netanyahu’s Israel is catatonic.
Daniel Levy has pointed out how Netanyahu, for all of his tough talk, has never started a war. He’s also never executed a major agreement with the Palestinians; the one agreement he negotiated, the Wye River Accord, he ended up running away from. At at time when Israel needs help, its leader is turning the country into an object.
I’m fairly unhappy with the pro-Israel community in the United States. (I refuse to blame simply the “lobby,” for it assigns the pro-Israel community too much coordination and ignores non-expert opinions.) Many of the people with whom I’ve sided in the past (positions I do not renounce) appear dreadfully shortsighted these days. They have fallen for Bibi’s act, unaware of the danger in which he is placing Israel and too readily believing that the Obama administration is making radical shifts in Middle East policy. I can see for the first time how center-right Zionist voices are castigating the left and center-left in irresponsible ways.
If there was one kernel of truth in Peter Beinart’s NYRB essay last year, it was that mainstream Jewish voices haven’t vocally confronted the disturbing rise of some deeply unsavory influences on Israeli politics and society. Beinart partially attributed a weakening of Israel’s liberal character to demographic shifts — including the exponential growth of Haredi Jews and post-Soviet immigrants. (This is difficult to dispute.) And yet Ron Kampeas of the JTA is seeing conspiracy where there is none:
Matt Yglesias, at Think Progress, writes about the Daily Caller op-ed in which Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Gevalt) castigates American Jews for not being his kind of American Jew. … But Yglesias seems to have contracted Walsh’s unseemly “they’re all alike” affect in this passage:
Israeli politics has drifted toward the hawkish right over the past ten years even as Jewish Americans remain on the progressive left. That change in Israeli politics, meanwhile, has been in part driven by a demographic shift away from the kind of secular ashkenazi Jews who predominate in the American population.
Say what? Ashkenazim have a genetic predisposition toward liberal democracy?
Yglesias said nothing about any “genetic predisposition.” What he said is that secular Ashkenazi Jews, who make of a large proportion of American Jewry, tend to have more liberal views than the demographic groups mentioned before.
Beyond failing to raise concerns about Israeli attitudes, staunchly pro-Israel elites in this country (save for a few brave souls, like Jeff Goldberg and even Leon Wieseltier) have yet to call out Bibi Netanyahu for leading Israel into an abyss. Netanyahu is the most passive of Israeli leaders, aimless and meandering. He is a master of tactics and an amateur in strategy. In this respect, his leadership style resembles Yasser Arafat.
In a few months, Israel will be presented with bad options and will have saved itself no goodwill against which to make its decisions. The Palestinians might declare statehood at the UN, placing America to take a huge fall for Israel by vetoing it. Alternatively, the Palestinians will face their people at the conclusion of Salaam Fayyad’s two-year state-building initiative and have no diplomatic achievements to show for it. In either of the above scenarios, a third intifada is a strong possibility: 70% of Palestinians expect one if diplomatic processes fail. (And a third intifada could well strain the U.S.-Israel relationship to the breaking point.)
The world is not generally charitable to Israel, but the wind is at the Palestinians’ backs more now than ever. Bibi’s failure to make Israel a credible peace partner has in effect saved the Palestinians from becoming one themselves. So Netanyahu has the next few weeks to roll out a policy that could stave off disaster. It would have to go beyond the token gestures of the past like releasing prisoners. He instigate a modest handover of territory in the West Bank from Israeli security control to Palestinian control (making more Area A and less Area B), or make a serious offer to resolve a core issue of the conflict (borders being the easiest). It’s hard to imagine anything else placating the PA, if even that will. But the alternative — doing nothing — is a surefire way to get all the wrong results.
Bibi Netanyahu must believe the year is 1985. There’s no other reason he could be surprised that an American president would endorse a Palestinian state whose borders would be based on the 1967 boundaries.
Here’s the key sentence: “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” This is actually a fine way of threading the needle between the Israeli and Palestinian positions. The Israeli maximalist position is that the borders should be negotiated progressively outward from the areas currently under Palestinian self-rule (about 40% of the West Bank). The Palestinian position, at least in public, is that they must have sovereignty over a sum of land equivalent in size and quality to the West Bank borders pre-1967. Obama’s speech gave the Palestinians the basis of working from the 1967 borders, but he didn’t say that the land swaps had to be 1:1.
Israelis rightly say they have “red lines” in negotiations, such as the absorption of the millions of descendants of Palestinian refugees into Israel, or Palestinian sovereignty of the Western Wall. What the Israeli right refuses to acknowledge is that even the most moderate Palestinians have red lines, too. One is borders that reflect the Green Line. They argue that Egypt got all of their land returned in exchange for peace; why should they be different? (As David Makovsky points out, 1:1 land swaps are not all that difficult to pull off.)
Thus begins another test of Netanyahu. If he is serious about making peace, he will acknowledge Palestinian needs, yet understand that Obama has not completely given into Palestinian demands.
1. Prime Minister Netanyahu has some breathing space. He can claim, with more legitimacy than he had earlier this week, that Israel is under siege; this will stabilize his coalition, and possibly even bring in the opposition leader, Tsipi Livni, to his coalition;
2. It’s not good that Netanyahu has breathing space. Breathing space, for him, means paralysis in the peace process (so-called). Israel must find, now — not later, but now — a formula that will allow it to withdraw its settlers from beyond the security fence, and to create conditions for the emergence of, at the very least, a more autonomous Palestinian entity, one that would become independent as soon as Israel can figure out a way to neutralize the Iranian threat.
3. The Third Intifada might be only a matter of months away. The first intifada was one of stones; the second, suicide bombers on buses. This next one will be the Intifada of rockets. I think it’s coming.
4. It is not Hamas that is changing. It is the Palestinian Authority, which is sidelining Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the man most responsible for bringing the Authority the international credibility it needs to declare independence. This is not to say that Hamas is all-powerful; it is watching with trepidation as its second-most important ally, Bashar al-Assad, appears in danger of losing his throne, which would not be a bad thing for anyone except the Assad family.
This is absolutely correct. The Fayyad initiative places Israel in a very precarious position internationally by stealing the high ground and the momentum. Bibi’s non-policies and Fayyad’s promise could easily have convinced Europe to back unilateral statehood in the West Bank with eventual expansion to Gaza. This would have made life extremely difficult for President Obama, who would appear to be singularly responsible for lack of Palestinian statehood.
But, in the typical Palestinian way, they have stunted their momentum and given cover for the wrong elements in Israel. I would have been tempted to encourage the Quartet to find a creative way to get the Palestinians statehood later this year assuming steady progress in the West Bank and no serious initiatives from Bibi. Now, I cannot in good faith support immediate statehood. Their right to statehood does not outweigh Israel’s right to secure borders, a right which Hamas denies them.
Like Goldberg, I fear for the hard-earned progress Fayyad has made in the West Bank. I fear that it will be enveloped by violence. By way of historical analogy, a comparison can be made to the summer of 2000. The “interim period” set out under the Oslo Accords had ended, meaning negotiations were only supposed to take place under the realm of “final status” — for the Palestinians, statehood. Thus, expectations were high leading into the infamous Camp David Summit in July. The bitter disappointment stemming from that summit fueled the second intifada ten weeks later.
I pray we are not witnessing a repeat. PM Fayyad’s two-year statehood initiative ends in September. What could instead have been a pressure-cooker strategy to make Netanyahu withdraw/delineate boundaries/do something useful instead has been ruined by Hamas. It is not inconceivable that we will see an intifada in 2011 — the diplomatic effects of which would be catastrophic for the United States.
It’s decision time in Israel. The diplomatic hourglass is running perilously low on Bibi Netanyahu, and the Israeli body politic is truly divided right now — between those who see the cliff from which Israel will plummet this year if it doesn’t change course, and those who will live in an imaginary world where there are no consequences to limitless isolation.
A number of simultaneous and generally unrelated events are working in ways that will serve to undermine Israel’s remaining global support. First, the Arab Spring has regenerated hope and interest in fostering good relations with the Arab world. This isn’t ipso facto bad for Israel, but it reminds world powers that Israel isn’t the only country in the Middle East that matters. The end result of the Spring may also be that Israel loses its claim as the only homegrown democracy in the Middle East. Either way, Israel stands to lose claims of indispensability to the U.S. and Europe.
Second is the progression of Salam Fayyad’s two-year state-building initiative. It chugs on with positive results — and it has just earned the endorsement of the International Monetary Fund. Fayyad’s work has not produced miracles, but he has shattered the idea of total Palestinian incompetence; at the least he has introduced a basis for governance in a future Palestine. By September, when Fayyad’s initiative ends, a lot of European leaders will probably say the West Bank looks “good enough” to serve as a state. The U.S. will be put in the supremely awkward position of either breaking a line of commitments not to grant Palestinian statehood unilaterally, or vetoing a UN resolution supported by everyone else that would do just that.
The most tragic element in the mix is how badly Israel has hurt itself the last few years. I still believe some of the most damaging actions Israel took in the eyes of the world — Operation Cast Lead, the Mavi Maramara incident — are defensible. And I still firmly believe, and probably always will, that so much tension could have been avoided if Barack Obama had been a little less reckless in the first few months of his administration.
Nonetheless, Prime Minister Netanyahu took a bad hand and played it poorly. He has imposed a minimal code of conduct on his unruly government, with sometimes-devastating results. He has not strongly enough distanced himself from a disturbing rise in irrational tendencies in his government and the Israeli right in general. Some of his party’s major figures now say their solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a bi-national state. This is not a serious offer on their part and an admission that they are out of ideas.
There is one last chance for Bibi to save face and correct course. Earlier this week, a collection of business and security elites unveiled the Israeli Peace Initiative, a proposal integrated with the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. The two-page proposal, detailed here, maintains the basic ingredients of the other plausible bases for final status agreements in the past. If Netanyahu wants to save Israel from a torrent of bad news, this is what he must latch onto. I have always resented “this is the last opportunity” analyses, but this really is Netanyahu and Israel’s last chance.