TERRA INCOGNITA: Israel’s dangerous anti-strategic game

Israel has a difficult strategic problem. In the long term its support in Europe is eroding. Its support in America is likely to erode as a new generation takes the reins of the Democratic Party.

February 7, 2016 22:02
Settler Refael Morris stands at an observation point overlooking the West Bank village of Duma

Jewish settler Refael Morris stands at an observation point overlooking the West Bank village of Duma, near Yishuv Hadaat, an unauthorized Jewish settler outpost. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Have you heard the story about how Palestinians reject peace? Have you heard about how Palestinians incite against Israel? Reject Israel’s right to exist? Did you hear about how the boycott movement opposes any form of Jewish state? That Israel is a victim of an unfair media, disproportionate criticism by the international community and bias among college students? Have you heard that even Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and US Secretary of State John Kerry all present unrealistic peace goals and subject Israel to criticism while not holding Palestinians to the same standards or other countries to the same standards?

Most everyone familiar with Israel has heard elements of these stories. Some of them are the classic pro-Israel talking points. What most everyone who hears them and has some sympathy for the Israeli position never seems to ask is, “So what?”

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For instance during a debate at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on February 1, MKs railed against the “imbalanced theater” the foreign media subjects Israel to. MK Michael Oren noted that many cases during the Israel-Palestinian conflict events were “staged and orchestrated” and the media bought the Palestinian narrative.

So what? If events are routinely orchestrated, if Israel is subjected to one-sided narratives, then that is a known quantity that should be addressed, rather than just complained about. What to do about it? If you go into a situation, say a soccer game, always being down five points, but that’s the situation in game after game, don’t you prepare your players to fight that game based on it being rigged? If every hand of poker your opponents got to see half of your cards, you’d have to adjust play accordingly or just not play. Yet Israel often seeks to play the same game, with basically the same tactics, and ends up with the same results.

The central problem for Israel and its strategic long-term goals is that even if every pro-Israel argument is correct, it doesn’t change the ultimate issues facing Israel. Let’s consider a few examples.

Palestinian incitement against Israel

One of the strongest Israeli claims regarding the reason there is no peace and never can be peace is that large numbers of Palestinians “reject peace” and “hate Israel.” For instance a December poll by the Palestine Center for Policy and Study Research showed that 66 percent of Palestinians supported stabbing attacks against Israelis. The level of support for attacks on Israeli civilians changes over the years, as illustrated by Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki’s work, but the general incitement, the TV programs, the speeches, the sermons, the portrayal of every attacker as a martyr, doesn’t change greatly.

The existence of widespread incitement is a fact.

There may be excuses for it, explanations for it, but it’s existence is a fact. It will not change. If the fact that large numbers of Palestinians support harming Israeli civilians as a form of resistance is the “reason” there cannot be a change in the “peace process,” then that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. There will always be incitement, therefore Israel can never leave the West Bank or change its methods of rule, because it has to control Palestinians because they incite. That’s not a strategy, that’s allowing the views of the other to dictate your policy.

Palestinians reject peace

There is ample evidence, just by looking at political posters and educational materials in the Palestinian areas, that most Palestinians reject the existence of the State of Israel and see any sort of agreement as merely a stage on the way to the eventual disintegration of Israel.

Whether it is the large-scale and constant discussion of the “right of return” or just maps that never depict Israel, it’s clear that this is the case.

Israel’s strange reaction to the concept that its enemies “reject peace” is to therefore give them what they want; no change in policy. Israel surrenders its own strategic choices by putting the ball in the Palestinian court and saying “until you accept peace, you can have the ball.” Israel’s strategy is thus made in Ramallah or the Gaza Strip. “They reject peace” therefore means there cannot be change.

Time is on whose side?

The Israelis and Palestinians both believe time is on their side. If they didn’t then one of the two groups would have sought out a radical change in the conflict. The Israeli government that sought to inaugurate the Oslo peace process was convinced that extricating Israel from the West Bank and Gaza was in Israel’s long-term interest. Since that time the Israeli government has abandoned that strategic plan in favor of tinkering with the interim aspects of Oslo, namely the manifestation of the Palestinian Authority, with no horizon in sight for either Oslo or the PA.

Consider the long-term element of the stages in this “peace” process. For almost 20 years Israel existed within the 1949 borders, the Green Line. From 1967 to 1987, Israel ran the lives of millions of Palestinians with minimal levels of conflict. That’s a second 20-year period. After several years Israel and the Palestinians set in motion the Oslo process. For 20 years that structure has been in place, basically 1995-2015.

What is the next 20-year period? If time is not on Israel’s side, what shall Israel do? The long-term strategy of Palestinians is the creation of a Palestinian state. Are they further from that goal in 2016 than in 1948? The opposition to the concept of two states that now unites everyone from the extreme Right in Israel to most of the center-left means that this entire political bloc believes time is on Israel’s side.

Palestinians, in various forms of political leadership, think the same thing. “Existing is resisting,” they say, or samud, “steadfastness” in the face of Israel. There isn’t mass migration from the West Bank or Gaza. Israelis say “it’s not fair” that Palestinians are permanent refugees, or invent pipe dreams like “Jordan is Palestine.”

But quite obviously Palestinians don’t accept this, and they believe the longer things go on, the more Israel will fade away like the Crusader states of old.

If two sides are playing this game and both sides think time is on their side, one of them must be wrong. Two people playing chess, who think that overall their strategy will work, cannot both be correct.

Who has more to lose?

Let’s say the chances that Israel is wrong in its analysis that time is on its side is 50-50. Israel and Palestine are not equals; Israel has far more to lose if its current strategy is wrong. If the Palestinians are wrong, and time is not on their side, then the worst that can happen to them has already happened. In Gaza they live in a blockaded enclave of a million people, lacking basically any rights and living in abject poverty, sometimes inundated by sewage or flooding.

How could that get worse? In the West Bank they live in a semi-autonomous series of mini-cantons, with circuitous roads and bad infrastructure linking them.

They have sub-standard education and rely often on Israel for basic things such as water, electricity or emergency medical care. What can get worse? Can they be deprived of more rights? Can more of them be taken away for administrative detention? Not that much.

But Israel, as a functioning, high-tech, infrastructure- rich first world country can get much worse. Israel is on the cusp of becoming a truly first world country.

It functions better than many countries in Eastern Europe and is around 35th in the world in terms of GDP per capita. The West Bank and Gaza are ranked between 128th and 140th. Palestine can’t get much poorer, but Israel certainly can. Israel basically has nowhere to go but down. Just take a look at the countries above Israel in GDP per capita and ask which ones will be declining. Which ones are fighting an intractable conflict? Which ones have massive housing problems and social balkanization?

Beware the demographic logic trap

A demographic debate about Israel’s need to leave the West Bank assumes the apartheid allegation against Israel is correct and that minor tinkering with borders will preserve the “Jewish” part of the Jewish state. It’s a grim anti-strategic analysis that places the country’s future in the wombs of its residents. The more secular Jewish public demands less Palestinians, whereas the more right wing religious public wants to control more Palestinians as long as they don’t vote.

The center wants it both ways, no annexation and no Palestinian state. Allowing demographics to dictate policy means that eventually a convincing argument in Israel can be made for withdrawing from other parts of the country, as long as there are too many “others” in them. Withdrawing at the last minute due to a brutal apartheid-numbers analysis, seems like the last choice of a policy-making machine that has ground to a halt. As Gaza shows, the mere aspect of withdrawal is only part of the battle, Israel still controls Gaza for the most part and provides it with various resources.

The belief among some Israelis that there are less Palestinians than statistics show, doesn’t change the overall issue relating to constant cycles of violence, the need for a large standing army that operates as a riot police force and denial of basic civil rights to the Palestinian population. As has been illustrated in Jerusalem, even when there is annexation, there is little change in the level of hostility and relations between the Israeli governing officials and the Palestinian residents.

So what?

Israel has a difficult strategic problem. In the long term its support in Europe is eroding. Its support in America is likely to erode as a new generation takes the reins of the Democratic Party. It has new allies in Asia and the disintegration of the Middle East is both a benefit and a threat. It is so entangled in the West Bank its ability to withdraw is in doubt.

The worst thing for Israel is the constant abdication of responsibility by its political elites. “They hate us” is not an answer to a strategic goal. Israel chose to conquer the West Bank. It chose to export a half million citizens into the West Bank. It chose to annex east Jerusalem. In all these choices the local Palestinians were not asked their say in the matter. All of the choices are Israel’s. Yet the rules of the game are such that the media and international community are biased against Israel or hold it to a higher standard.

Israel abdicates responsibility by deciding that despite knowing the rules of the game, it will continue to play by the Palestinian timetable, waiting for peace and love to breakout, managing the conflict and complaining that the rules won’t change.

Someone needs to remind Israelis and their supporters: The rules are never going to change. The international community and media will continue to be biased against the country. Most Palestinians will never change their overall views of Israel. Brand Israel will continue to be toxic in the West. You have more to lose, and time is probably not on your side. There is dire need for a long-term strategy to address that. It’s time to ask the right questions, rather than just feign irresponsibility.

Follow the author @Sfrantzman.

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