Updated: Jun 29, 2020
After many years of denial, the annexation issue places the Israeli-Palestinian conflict front and center on the public agenda, forcing the political center and moderate left to take a stand. It also provides an opportunity to analyze the differences between two approaches that have polarized Israeli politics for decades, but have been blurred in recent years.
The political right’s hawkish approach stems from a pessimistic, victimized attitude that believes the entire world is against us, no one can be trusted, we are under constant existential threat, and anyone who criticizes Israeli policy is a closet anti-Semite or a traitor. For the left, on the other hand, the advent of Zionism turned the Jews from history’s victims to masters of their fate, severing our people from the trauma of exile and imbuing us with a sense of security and optimism about our place in the region and in the world at large.
While Israel has become a regional power with world-renowned defense and economic capabilities, many Israelis continue to feel the existential threat that has marked our history. Our leaders have fanned these sentiments in recent years, at times out of authentic dispositions and at others as a tool for political manipulation.
In order to examine how foreign policy based on self-assurance and initiative (i.e. the optimistic approach) differs from foreign policy driven by a sense of victimization and pessimism (i.e. the pessimistic approach), I will touch on three geo-strategic challenges confronting Israel: The Iranian threat, the Arab Spring and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Iranian threat
The pessimistic approach – Iran emphatically calls for Israel’s annihilation and seeks to develop the ultimate weapon to accomplish its goal. This is an existential threat that justifies all preventive measures, even if it means going against an American President, destroying the bi-partizan approach of Israel diplomacy towards the US, creating a rift within the American Jewish community, or attacking Iran unilaterally. Iran is also attempting to attain regional hegemony in order to demolish Israel through proxies – Hezbollah in the north, Shiite militias in Syria and Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in Gaza. This is the central challenge for Israel’s national security, and all the rest pales in comparison. In order to achieve stability and calm in the region, Israeli diplomacy must focus on the Iranian threat.
The optimistic approach – Israel’s interests lie in participation in an international effort to counter Iran, not in monopolising the campaign against it. While Israel has an interest to prevent Iran from achieving military nuclear capabilities and to curb its ability to threaten Israel through proxies, alarmist attitudes toward the issue only distort decision-making. Iran is indeed a staunch enemy since the Khomeini revolution in 1979, but even if Iran obtains nuclear weapons at some point, Israel is a formidable rival with second-strike capability and the Iranians are not suicidal. The US-led international coalition imposed coordinated sanctions against Iran and eventually achieved the JCPOA between Iran and the P5+1. While imperfect, the agreement significantly delayed an Iranian nuclear breakout. The unilateral withdrawal of the Trump Administration from the agreement reinvigorated Iran’s nuclear option. It is important to remember that Iran is not monolithic and most of the population is well-educated, pro-West, and very much like the Jewish People. We have an interest in separating the Iranian people from the Ayatollah’s regime and to empower the more moderate leadership of Rouhani, who prefer to save the Iranian economy than hegemony in Lebanon or Yemen. The best way to create rifts within the Iranian public is by opening it up to the world through engagement. The Iranian nuclear ambitions are less because of us and more because of their anxieties as a hated Persian minority in an Arab and Turkish region and a Shite minority the Muslim world, and their traumas from the bloody Iran-Iraq War. A diplomatic initiative vis-à-vis the Palestinians would greatly bolster Israel’s ability to join a regional and Western alliance against Iran.
The Arab Spring
The pessimistic approach – The so-called “Arab Spring” is actually an “Islamist Winter.” Even if initially led by liberals protesting dictatorships, better-organized Islamist forces quickly assumed leadership of this movement, fostering anti-Israel sentiment. The barbarism of ISIS and Al Kaeda took over the region and is getting closer to our borders. Pursuing peace agreements are out of the question until the “dust settles” and we know who has the upper hand, and where. This is no time for diplomacy and Israel should focus instead on demonstrating its military capabilities.
The optimistic approach – The Arab Spring created greater openness toward Israel on the part of regional regimes that view Israel as part of the solution to the Sunni and Shiite jihadist threat. Israel’s ties with the Gulf States have improved, and the level of counter-terrorism cooperation with Egypt in Gaza and the Sinai is at a record high. Since the Arab Spring, businesspeople are also more open to Israeli capacities and technology. It is true that the region went through traumatic turbulence since the demonstrations in Tunis and Tahrir Square in Egypt, however the results are not decidedly negative. If one would have visited France a few years after the French Revolution, you wouldn’t find Liberte, Égalité, Fraternitte, but rather the Rubspier absolutism and the Jacobian terrorism chopping off heads with the guillotine. We are already seeing signs of improvement– in Tunisia a coalition government replaced the Islamists, and in Egypt, too, the Islamists have lost power. It will take a lot more time for the region, which was so rigid since the dictators took over after the collapse of the Ottoman empire, to become a coalition of liberal democracies. However, the regional shift provides an opportunity to adopt a diplomatic initiative rather than opting for isolation. Absent negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel will not be able to break through and fully integrate within the region.
C. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
The pessimistic approach – Prospects of an arrangement with the Palestinians are non-existent and all Israel can do is manage the conflict, at best. The Palestinians will never accept Israel as a Jewish state and give up the “right of return.” They have turned down every opportunity to reach an agreement; As Abba Eben said, “The Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” When we withdrew from Gaza (2005), we got in return the control of a terrorist organization and missiles on our communities. Withdrawal from the West Bank would only result in missiles on Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Israel’s economic hubs. We must rely on our military power until the Palestinians realize they have no choice but to accept our control.
The optimistic approach – The rejectionist approach has shifted from the Palestinian to the Israeli side, and a change in our attitude could result in a breakthrough. Gone are the days where Palestinian leadership advocated terrorism and rejected every peace initiative. In 1988 the PLO decided to decrease its demands to 22 percent of historic Palestine and accept Israel as a given. In 1993 the PLO and Israel recognized each other as legitimate entities. Since Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) replaced Arafat at the head of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian leadership has taken an official and operational stand against terrorism. Given an Israeli partner, Abu Mazen believes in bilateral diplomacy; absent one, he turns towards multilateral diplomacy. He instructs his security forces to cooperate with the Shin Bet and IDF in countering Hamas terrorism. He has accepted the principle of land swaps and the demand for a disarmed Palestinian state. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative is still on the table, promising normalized relations with Israel should it move toward a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians. The initiative urges a just and agreed solution (which means an Israeli veto) to the refugee problem. The unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, rather than through coordination with the moderate Palestinian leadership, is what ultimately empowered Hamas. And still, the moderate Palestinians constitute a majority despite all we have done to undermine their choice of diplomacy and security coordination. Israel must promote an initiative to resolve the conflict. The Two States Solution, could, should, and would be achieved, if we were only to choose it. Once we renew the political will on the Israeli side, the time will be ripe for a bilateral and regional initiative.
The vast majority of security veterans, diplomats, and retired government officials free to express their views believe Israel is stronger than ever and should take advantage of opportunities rather than cowering against threats. Israel should initiate an arrangement with the Palestinians that would preserve Israel as the democratic nation state of the Jewish people and dramatically improve our standing in the region. A proactive foreign policy would re-open the doors to the club of liberal “like minded” European democracies, which are crucial economic and ideological partners for Israel. The optimistic approach would re-facilitate bipartisan US support and re-engagement with the Jewish American community.
Perhaps the threat of annexation will give rise to the emergence of a diplomatic initiative led by the center-left in a spirit of self-assurance and hope rather than fear and victimhood. Without an optimistic and proactive approach, we would not have declared our independence in 1948, nor would we have signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. After all, the name of Israel’s National Anthem is Hatikva, or “The Hope,” not The Fear.