Sunday, July 13, 2014

Does Israel Have a Strategy?

The latest round of violence between Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and Hamas, has produced the usual reaction from pundits left, center and right.

While the USA mainstream media reports mainly on civilian casualties in Gaza, it tempers that reporting with responses from IDF spokespersons and "confidential" sources confirming that bombs hitting mosques (for example) are an error in targeting. Israel makes the legitimate claim that its actions are defensive in nature against rocket launches, and selective to the perpetrators and their supporters. It also sends advance warnings to neighborhoods about to be bombed - at least, in some cases.

From the left, we hear the usual barrage of attacks on Israel, the "imperialist mad dog" of the middle east, killing hundreds of Palestinian innocents while suffering few to no casualties themselves.

Equally concerning, from the right I see from within some of the Israeli public suggestions to loosen the legal constraints  put on IDF by the Israeli justice department, in order to conduct a much more destructive bombing campaign that would finally end Palestinian aggression. I have just had a fairly testy exchange of Facebook comments with a relative, in reaction to his post that i perceived to be urging in that vein.

Through all of this, I'd like to try and take a longer view into the sources of this conflict and possible ways forward. It seems that Israel, with all the justification it has to defend its citizens from violence by Palestinian militias (such as the recent abduction and killing of 3 Israeli teenagers), has sort of lost its way in defining what it sees as the possible "end game" to this tragic tango. Yes, P.M. Netanyahu had agreed to move forward  on negotiations for a permanent settlement with the Palestinian authority, with the establishment of a Palestinian state in mind - but shortly thereafter did everything he could to sabotage the possibility of those negotiations actually taking place.

One could argue that for Israel, if it ain't broke don't fix it - or in other words, the Palestinians are losing this war and that Israel today is a much stronger entity than it was even in 2000 and the "second Intifada" started. From many respects this is true - anyone visiting modern day Israel is quickly impressed by the strength of its economy, infrastructure and diversity of population - not to speak of its military which is truly a fearsome machine. So, even if Israel has to endure the odd rocket campaign, it will inevitably come out on top and move on to worry about more mundane issues such as internal government politics and the secular-religious tensions between Jews.

Yet, I believe this current state hides a vulnerability that ultimately can't be ignored, and that is the demographic time bomb. Simply put, there are approximately 7 million Jews in Israel and the West Bank, and about 6 million Muslim Arabs in those same territories (including Gaza). Over time, this number will reach parity. Now, with Israel having established a major suburban project in the West Bank and the outskirts of Jerusalem since 1973 (aka the Settlements), it has an inherent problem in
that Israel in its current state will soon have a minority Jewish population, and without the establishment of a Palestinian state,  will face a legitimate claim to equal citizenship by any Muslim Arab living in the "Greater Israel". So, Israel cannot permanently annex the territories it conquered in the 1967 war and remain a Jewish state*; but it also can't practically define what exactly its borders with the Palestinian state will be, since the settlers and their representatives in Government will topple any Government that even starts to negotiate a removal of settlements from the West Bank. That is the crux of the dilemma it faces.

(* Jewish State - not as a state that discriminates against non-Jews but as national expression of the Jewish people for a homeland, much like Ireland for the Irish. "Jewish" - as in nation, not religion.)

On a personal note, I lived in Israel and served in its military in the late 1970's when the peace agreement with Egypt was concluded. I also - for a time - studied at a Yeshiva, a theological seminary in Gush Etzion, part of the West Bank which had actually been included in the original pre-1948 borders. At the time, some of my colleagues decided to stay and establish new settlements in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), with the support of Israel's government that with the change over from left to right wing leadership, ended the "benign occupation" in favor of a more repressive regime. In discussions with them, I expressed my concern that their settling in the midst of Palestinian population centers would create needless tensions (in 1981 the West Bank and Gaza were mostly peaceful), and they dismissed me with a laugh and the statement "who cares about the Arabs". Well, now we and they are reaping what we have sown and there is now an entire generation of Palestinians taught to hate and resist the Israeli oppressor.

So which way forward? In the current Israeli political configuration, with right wing parties in control, it's hard to see any radical changes to the current approach. Yet some say, the same was said for Menachem Begin, the right wing P.M. who (with the help of Moshe Dayan) negotiated a peace agreement with Egypt and Arik Sharon, the right wing P.M. who dramatically withdrew Israel's Gaza settlements.  The problem is that the right wing today represents over half a million West bank settlers, and they enjoy the support of the majority of Israeli jews. You can't realistically establish a Palestinian state and keep all of the settlements in place, hence Israel's reluctance to truly deal with the issue.
Also, given Hamas' propensity to violence in the face of moderation (e.g. rockets following Israel's Gaza withdrawal), Israel has trouble in identifying a credible partner to negotiate with.

With all of this, I'd like to see a centrist party like Yesh Atid take control after the next Israeli election, and lead a pragmatic way forward with partners from both the moderate left and right wings of Israel.
Yesh Atid has crafted a well thought out platform to solving the conflict, one that recognizes all parties' right to exist in peace and outlines which settlements will remain and which will be removed under a potential agreement. Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid, has repeatedly called out for Israel to be proactive in outlining its future desirable borders and to engage with the Palestinian authority in a meaningful negotiation. So far he has been stymied by his right wing coalition partners; my hope is that his approach will win out in the long term.

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