Governing After War – The Case of Israel

Part I: The Wrong Foundation

In this and the next blog, I want to discuss a new foundation for governing Israel to guide the new Israeli government on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. In this first blog, I want to review the proposal of the Israel Policy Forum (IPF) for such a foundation as a foil for my own proposal found in Part II, tomorrow. IPF broadcast a webinar (it is accessible from a recording on their site – https://israelpolicyforum.org/live/) called “Realistic Reset” setting forth its foundation. The program began by expressing regret and compassion for those who died in the recent Israel-Gaza War and Susie Gelman, the host, insisted that we not resign ourselves to the inevitability of violence and the prospect of peace. “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot, indeed, must not be ignored.”

But that is precisely what I am going to do in this blog – bracketing an emphasis with the pursuit of a two-state solution. I will review the immanent likelihood of the new government in Israel and the implications, first, for Israeli domestic policy, secondly, for foreign policy and only last and very sketchily, non-citizen Palestinian policy. This does not mean that I accept that violence is inevitable, that the conflict is never-ending and that nothing can be done to avert another round. Rather, I am convinced that the road to peace with the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank runs first and foremost through Israeli domestic policy, primarily with Israel’s Arab population, and then through its foreign policy. Both of those directions of effort, if they succeed, I am convinced will have profound effects on the prospect of Israeli-Palestinian peace.

There was a second emphasis of the Israel Policy Forum webinar – the critical role of the U.S. After four years of one-sided pro-Israeli policies, it is undoubtedly true that the there will be a shift in emphasis coming from the U.S., especially given the development of a pro-Palestinian voice among “progressives” in the Democratic Party. However, I do not expect that shift to make a critical difference and expect the Biden administration to continue its deep and strong support for Israel and its efforts to ensure the security of Israel while continuing to relegate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a back burner. Rather, it will be the shift in domestic politics that will make the greatest difference.

IPF adopted the traditional liberal advocacy posture of more balanced support for both Israeli and Palestinian self-determination – in other words, a two-state solution – even if that objective is seemingly out of reach today. In contrast, I suggest that relegating a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the back burner, a process well underway before the recent Gaza War, and which has received considerable blame for the outbreak in the Gaza violence, should be continued and reinforced. It is not that I am unappreciative of the experts, the thoughtful analyses and the educational resources the IPF brings to the table, but I do believe putting a continuing emphasis on peace is a mug’s game.

IPF admitted there would be no easy fix, especially after the troublesome policies of the Trump administration. The prospect and support of the US for annexation of large parts of the West Bank was found particularly troubling. However, my argument will be that the make-up of the likely new government of Israel will necessarily take annexation off the table. It is no longer immanent even if the creeping occupation of significant areas of the West Bank by 460,000 settlers makes the pressure for such a prospect greater, especially with the continuing decline of the Palestinian populations in those areas.

Trump cut off all aid to the Palestinians. Biden, as a stopgap measure, restored the aid the UNRWA. The Trump administration threw the Palestinian diplomatic delegation out of Washington and, with the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the move of the U.S. embassy to Israel, it also eliminated its diplomatic presence for the Palestinians. The Biden administration is on its way to restoring a diplomatic presence for Palestinians either in Ramallah or, more likely, in East Jerusalem. IPF pushed a platform with four legs:

  • Strengthening America’s support for Israel’s security
  • Rebuilding ties with the Palestinians
  • Continuing the work of the Abraham Accords and promoting continuing Israeli integration into the region
  • Restoring a political horizon for a two-state solution.

The problem, of course, is that the first has always been a bipartisan US policy, the third is just the policy of normalization by another name and the fourth is simply rhetoric since restoring the political horizon for a two-state solution ranges anywhere from new initiatives in the peace process to all quiet of the Gaza and West Bank fronts with no significant initiatives in either direction. Only the second effort veers radically and dramatically away from the Trump administration of not only ignoring but undercutting US-Palestinian relations. Further, there is no indication that such efforts will make any great difference to the results of the pre-Trump administration policies. It is as if the Americans cannot and will not recognize that the US is now a side rather than central player in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  

When IPF tried to understand the instigation, the push for what it called “the latest flare-up” in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship after seven years of relative calm, the focus remained on Gaza and not on the far more significant Arab-Jewish clashes in Israel’s mixed cities and the relative quiet in the West Bank, in spite of the war in Gaza. Further, the claimed previous calm on the Gaza front was truly relative since shooting off missiles had been a regular feature of the past Hamas activity and its militant allies. The big difference in the onset of this Gaza-Israel conflict was twofold: seven missiles were set off at the same time; second, they targeted Jerusalem. Israel had been waiting in full readiness when the opportunity was ripe to launch an all-out attack on the military build-up in Gaza. The Jerusalem missile attack simply provided the opportunity.

Nickolay Mladenov contended that there had been “a very long period of quiet in Gaza.” According to him, Hamas miscalculated the response of Israel, and Israel had made mistakes with the provocations at the al-Aqsa Mosque, in the eviction efforts at Sheikh Jarrah and in the security efforts at Damascus Gate at the Old City. However, Mladeno conceded that Mahmoud Abbas’ decision to cancel the Palestinian election was probably the most proximate cause, even though most interpreters insisted that this was simply Hamas’ excuse for instigating the war and directly challenging Israel; Hamas used the situation to advance its political position among the Palestinians and assume the leadership from Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. The firing off of the missiles was clearly intended to escalate the conflict, but not nearly to the extent of the result.

Israel, on its part, had its own agenda:

  • stop security threats from Gaza for, at least, a number of years and reassert security control
  • establish zero tolerance for missiles
  • eliminate as many terror tunnels as possible
  • expose the fact that such tunnels ran 7.5 metres under UNRWA schools
  • end incendiary drones and balloons being sent from Gaza across into Israel
  • obtain the return of two Israeli civilians, one Bedouin and one Jewish, both mentally challenged, as well the bodies of two soldiers held in the 2014 war
  • stabilize the economic situation in Gaza, the most difficult of all, because that is not how the victimization card works for Hamas and there is no one in Israel that I know of politically, intellectually and morally brave enough to take up this challenge
  • to diminish the confidence of Hamas and its support from the Palestinian community, but the reverse happened since Hamas is much more confident and the PA weaker
  • one unintended consequence, but one that has emerged, was the emerging weariness of donors supporting Gaza once again saddled with the terrible costs of rebuilding Gaza
  • there was one intentional goal with respect to donors – ensuring that money for humanitarian aid does not go to Hamas; no longer would suitcases of cash from Qatar be allowed to be imported into Gaza

There was almost no possibility that the aftermath of the war would bring an end to Hamas’ corruption even if money donated by donors did not go to Hamas. Would it be possible for Hamas and the PA to form a technical government of national unity that could negotiate peace? This a possible outcome, intended by neither side, but nevertheless unlikely. The most likely consequence and the most undesirable one by far is that Hamas gained mastery of the political and economic narrative.

One other consequence, but not of the war itself, has been the strengthening of democratic politics in Israel. After four elections in two years, it looks like Israel will have a stable government going into the future, a least for a time. There is no parallel outcome on the Palestinian side. The democratic deficit with respect to no elections for 15 years does not seem to be on the verge of ending.

However, as long as the new dominant emerging narrative on the Palestinian side remains one of deliberate conquest and displacement, colonialism and repression, apartheid and discrimination, by Jews, and given Israel’s government of unity that runs from right to left, there can be neither any significant initiative on this front from either the Palestinians or the Israelis. Even if one for some strange reason appeared, there is no way to reconcile the newly emerging dominant narrative with a two-state solution. Why would the proponents of this narrative, including a strain of critical Jews and Israelis who have adopted it, celebrate and support normalization with the Arab states and its expansion when, in the new narrative, this simply makes room for increasing the spread and grasp of colonialization?

Yet the last is the major piece of good news emerging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, sometimes you have to make an existential choice – adoption of the new colonialist narrative or pushing normalization. You cannot do both. For normalization is, from the perspective of the new dominant narrative among Palestinians and critics, just a sign of victory for colonialism.

In other words, expect the impasse on the peace front to continue. That does not mean expanding settlements and undermining the eventual possibility of a two-state solution. That means that the US can at best have modest ambitions with respect to the Israel-Palestinian peace process.

Shira Efron, however, believes there is an opportunity that has emerged as a result of the outcome of the recent Gaza War – the prospect of strengthening the Palestinian Authority which can be promoted. Martin Indyk, at least, recognizes that with Naftali Bennett as Prime Minister and the other hawkish Israeli politicians in the cabinet, with the strongest proponent of annexation and strongly opposed to a two-state solution as Prime Minister, the best prospect is a freeze not an advance on this front. Since the reform of the PA and restoring its leadership does not seem realistically to be in the works, what non-cynical option is available?

What then is the alternative? Michael Koplow also does not believe that Biden is willing to get bogged down in the ephemeral pursuit of a two-state solution, especially with the growth of the “progressive” critics of Israel within the Democratic Party. The Gaza War, irrespective of the consequences, has certainly not made a two-state solution more viable or urgent. I, however, do not think that, given the new Israeli government, that even small steps on this front will be possible. However, at least progress on human rights for Palestinians, particularly Israel’s own Arab citizens, is congruent with both the Biden administration and the new unity government.

This is the clue that there are other possibilities on the domestic policy front. I will expand on that and then try to reconcile this emphasis with new openings in dealing with the Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza in my next blog.

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