The Psychology Behind Israel's Status Quo

Israel’s political right does not see that the long-term price of not ending the occupation, which endangers Israel’s survival as a democracy and turns Israel into the symbol of the conflict between the West and the Islamic world, could be horrendous.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

If you live in Israel, are interested in politics and care about Israel’s future, the Arab Awakening is a central, inevitable topic.

Seemingly it is also a point of contention between Israel’s right, now consolidated by the Merger of Likud and Yisrael Beitenu and Israel’s largely non-existent peace camp.

The right, more often than not, is fond of making fun of the very concept of an Arab Spring, preferring to call it an Arab Winter. The peace-camp, according to Israel’s right, is supposed to be optimistic about the Arab Spring, arguing that there will soon be a new Middle East, and that the Sheep and the Wolves will live in eternal Harmony soon.

Israel’s rightists who claim that there is no partner for any peace deal for Israel will find their views reinforced by a recently published analysis by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in the New York Review of Books entitled ‘This is not a revolution.’ Malley, who is Jewish, participated in the failed Camp David Summit of 2000 and was severely criticized in Jewish circles for arguing soon after that Arafat was not solely to blame for the Summit’s failure, and that Barak carried as much responsibility. Agha is at Oxford and an expert on Palestinian society and politics, and they regularly co-author analyses on the Middle East in a number of influential venues.

The gist of their argument is that at this point none of the revolutions that began with the overthrow of the Tunisian regime eighteen months ago is stabilizing into anything resembling a liberal democracy. Moreover, they believe that the Islamist parties that are taking power are as radical as they always were in their core beliefs. They are making sure to sound more moderate, among others because they are dependent on Western help, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The tenor of their piece is profoundly pessimistic: They fear that the fall of the dictatorships so far - as well as those potentially ahead, such as in Syria - are likely to lead to progressive Islamization of the Arab world; and they believe that the dream of the Caliphate’s restoration has never disappeared from Islamist ideologies. Unfortunately their assessment squares well with what I have heard from very reliable sources that spoke to me under conditions of anonymity.

This serves Israel’s political right quite consistently. Lieberman, now the number two on the united Likud Beitenu list, who will presumably continue being Israel’s foreign minister, is bound to be reinforced in his well-worn claim that there is no partner for peace anywhere. He doesn’t trust the Palestinians, and he is categorically against any overtures toward Syria – a position that is currently quite reasonable, given that Syria is in the throes of a terrible civil war.

Israel’s citizens will be inclined to accept Lieberman’s position given Islamist parties’ increasing power and the whole region’s instability. It is quite understandable that under these conditions they will prefer a right-wing government that insists on the status quo and doesn’t take any risks.

This is by no means the position of Israel’s security establishment. While its assessment of the Arab world pretty much squares with that published by Agha and Malley, they keep warning publicly that Israel’s situation will worsen in the long run without any political peace process. They also regularly take positions opposed to the government's regarding Iran.

Recently, former Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin has claimed that Israel might benefit from direct negotiations between the U.S. and Iran on the latter’s nuclear program – a position vehemently denied by Israel’s government.

As Israel’s security establishment shows, you needn’t be a starry-eyed idealist to think that is in Israel’s vital long-term interest to move ahead with a peace process; it is a matter of weighing Israel’s options, not only from an ethical point of view, but pragmatically. Israel’s staying on in the territories will lead to disastrous long-term consequences.

Why, then, the aversion of Israel’s right to listening to Israel’s security establishment, and why do Israelis keep voting for the right?

The work of two Israeli psychologists, Amos Twersky and Nobel-Laureate Daniel Kahneman, has shown that long-term losses and short-term losses do not carry the same weight psychologically.

We all tend to see the risks in something we actively change more dramatically than those we incur in hanging on to the status quo. We also tend to be more wary of short-term risks, even if these are bearable, than of long-term risks, even if these are huge. In the short run, engaging in a peace process involves uncertainty and taking certain risks. Israel’s security establishment is largely unified in thinking that not doing so carries much greater danger for the future. But, once again: we weigh short-term risks more heavily than long-term dangers.

This even stronger with politicians: they try to avoid short term risks that might carry short-term negative results, because they will be punished by voters if something goes wrong. As opposed to this, politicians’ careers are less affected by what will happen in a decade or two. Hence most Israeli politicians prefer playing it safe and to preserve the status quo.

This is why Israel is very unlikely to do what is in its best long-term interest: to end an occupation that endangers Israel’s survival as a democracy and turns Israel into the symbol of the conflict between the West and the Islamic world. Israel’s political right does not see that the long-term price could be horrendous. We will gradually become a strategic liability for the Western world, without which we cannot survive.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman shaking hands.Credit: Reuters

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