The Strategic Blindness of Israel’s Right-wing Politicians

With the Mideast headed for a period of protracted chaos, Israel's strategic relationship with the West is more important than ever; the occupation is jeopardizing these ties.

The Middle East at this point worries pretty much everybody, not just Israel. The Arab Spring has so far disintegrated into chaos, violent Islamist regimes and dictators who massacre their own people, on a horrific scale in Syria and in an unacceptable way in Egypt. Meanwhile the world is bracing for the U.S. to attack Syria – and the question is whether Assad will try to extend his civil war that is already spilling across his borders by drawing Israel into the resulting mess.

All this seems to reinforce the traditional positions of Israel’s right-wingers. Netanyahu has warned for decades that a Palestinian state could become a terror base for Islamic extremists. Often this sounded like so much more of his overblown rhetoric, but a few months ago, Israeli soldiers were watching Jihadists associated with Al-Qaida across the Syrian border – you didn’t even need binoculars, they were so close. Sinai, too, is flooded with extremist groups that make Hamas look moderate.

Israel’s peace camp has suffered from a number of great problems in the last decade. Since the second intifada, Israel’s electorate has understandably become wary of taking risks for peace. Given the latest developments in the Arab world, Israelis justifiably ask why Israel should trust neighbors capable of such atrocities towards their own populations.

Under such circumstances the peace camp’s concerns look almost quaint: its insistence that the occupation undermines Israel’s democracy is seen as squeamish weakness. Israel’s right argues that Israel is located in a dangerous corner of the world, and recent developments in the Arab world seem to strengthen their point. Hence, they argue, the niceties of freedom of speech and equality before the law are luxuries that only overly sensitive liberals can bicker about, who either don’t care about Israel’s security concerns or don’t understand them.

The peace camp’s warnings that Israel will at some point pay a heavy price for the occupation not only morally, but strategically and economically have started to sound hollow. Yes, Israel is regularly condemned for settlement expansion, but in the end, nothing really bad happened. Israelis have come to the conclusion that the peace camp is just crying wolf and that the status quo of the occupation can be maintained indefinitely.

This position has been defended with great clarity in Ari Shavit’s recent interview with former Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser, who is intelligent, articulate and urbane. He argues that by and large Netanyahu’s 2009-2013 term was successful because it maintained economic and political stability along with relative calm on the security front.

Hauser simply does not address that during Netanyahu’s second tenure Israel’s international standing has reached an unprecedented low. The primary reasons were the Knesset’s anti-liberal legislation and settlement expansion. The free world sees Netanyahu’s bombastic rhetoric that keeps harping on the Holocaust theme as cheap manipulation, and it asks a very simple question: how on earth does Israel’s settlement expansion protect Israel from future Iranian atomic warheads?

Hauser, like most Israelis, is not worried. He seems to think that the West in the long run will neither punish nor abandon Israel. And even if Europe will dislike Israel, the U.S. will stand by us no matter what. This reflects the position of Israel’s right: Likud-Beiteinu seems to be completely disinterested in anything resembling foreign policy to the point that we don’t even have a full-time foreign minister (which, incidentally, might be preferable to having Lieberman return to the position). And Naftali Bennett has in all seriousness argued that Israel should cut ties with the EU because of its new guidelines against cooperating with organizations and businesses in the West Bank.

Israel’s right as represented by Netanyahu, Bennett and Hauser suffers from strategic blindness. I am not saying this because I see a rosy future for the Middle East. Ten years of studying the causes of terrorism, primarily in our area, have taught me about the depth of the Arab world’s protracted crisis. Most Arab countries are not headed towards Western-style liberal democracies anytime soon – and maybe most of them never will – even though Palestinians may turn out to be one of the exceptions.

Precisely because the Middle East is headed for a period of protracted chaos, Israel’s strategic ties to the West are more important than ever. We will need the West’s help and cooperation in the protracted fight against radical Islam that will expand its attacks both on Israel and the West. Such help is based on Israel’s being seen as part of the free world. And this means that we will continue to be measured by the moral standards of Europe and the U.S., and not by comparison to either Syria or Egypt.

But Israel is alienating the free world. While most Western politicians and diplomats I speak to are highly sympathetic to Israel’s security concerns, they simply do not see how settlement expansion is assuring Israel’s short- and long-term survival. They see it as illegitimate colonization of land that has never been, and will never be a lawful part of Israel. In addition they think that Israel’s colonization of the West Bank is worsening the conflict between the West and Islam.

Public opinion in Europe is turning against Israel that is seen as an anachronistic colonizing power. The EU’s new guidelines against any cooperation with Israeli organizations and businesses east of the Green Line are just the beginning. Leading business people, several of them close friends of Netanyahu, have recently warned him that further deterioration of the relations with the EU will ruin Israel’s economy.

Worse: senior members of the U.S. security establishment have said repeatedly that U.S. support for Israel is becoming a strategic liability for the U.S., if Israel does not stop the occupation and reach an agreement with the Palestinians. This is by no means connected to Obama’s worldview: off the record I heard similar assessments from senior members in G.W. Bush’s administration years ago.

Of course Israel’s right-wingers will see this argument as just another instance of liberals crying wolf. They will argue that the ongoing turmoil in the Arab world will evoke more sympathy for Israel, and that this is the moment to deepen Israel’s hold on the West Bank.

But everybody remembers how the wolf story ended: The wolf did come. Yes, the free world is preoccupied by Syria and Egypt, but this hasn’t changed its attitude toward the occupation, and Israel is bound for the full South Africa treatment within a decade if it won’t change course in the West Bank. The peace camp and I will derive very little pleasure from 'we told you so,' because we will pay the price along with all other Israelis. 

Bloomberg