Members of the hard-core Israeli right wing, who oppose any Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank on ideological grounds, have had their hands full in the past number of months fighting against a two-pronged international offensive designed to persuade the Israeli public that a West Bank withdrawal is vital for Israel’s future.
The first prong of that offensive has been US Secretary of State John Kerry’s energetic efforts to mediate a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which is to involve an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank.
The goal of this agreement is to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict completely and create peace.
The complementary prong of the international offensive has been the looming threat of a European boycott of Israel, in the event of continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank and settlement expansion. The potential breadth of this threat first became truly salient to the Israeli public in the course of the negotiations surrounding Israel’s participation in the EU’s Horizon 2020 program last summer.
More recently, this threat of European boycott and divestment was acted on by two prominent Dutch commercial entities – the Dutch water corporation, Vitens, and the largest pension investment fund in the Netherlands, PGGM – which decided to sever ties with Mekorot and to divest from Israeli banks respectively in response to their involvement in advancing Israeli settlement activity.
Incidentally, it is important to distinguish between the threat from Europe and the one posed by Omar Barghouti’s BDS movement. The European threat is designed to egg Israel on into ending its occupation of the West Bank.
Alternately, the BDS movement, as many Israeli journalists, such as Ben-Dror Yemini, have persuasively argued, is not interested in ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank but in ending the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
The international pincer movement to persuade the Israeli public to support a West Bank withdrawal might best be described as a form of “carrot and stick” diplomacy.
While the United States has offered Israel the proverbial carrot by providing a vision of a peaceful resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians and the broader Arab world, Europe has threatened Israel with the stick of sanctions if it fails to resolve the issue of the occupation.
This battle over Israeli public opinion is the backdrop to the recent spate of public statements by right-wing politicians, who have tried to downplay the potential impact of European boycotts, on the one hand, while criticizing the American mediation efforts and the possibility of any Israeli withdrawal, on the other.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said at the Calcalist conference late last month, “If the alternative is a European boycott or rockets from Nablus and Ramallah on Ben-Gurion Airport, I prefer a European boycott.”
Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett made remarks in a similar vein in a faction meeting on Monday, saying: “Imagine for a single moment what the Israeli economy will look like if every day just a single rocket lands on Shenkar Street in Herzliya Pituah. What will the Israeli economy look like if once a year a plane that is about to land at Ben-Gurion Airport comes down?” Bennett went on to say, “There was a boycott here before the establishment of the state, but Israel went on to develop because we weren’t afraid, because we had courage, because we knew that Israel belonged to us.”
On the face of things, Ya’alon and Bennett’s arguments make good sense. If the result of withdrawing from the West Bank is rockets on Ben-Gurion Airport and Herzliya Pituah then we mustn’t ever withdraw from the West Bank, even if there are consequences, such as a boycott.
The problem is that that argument is fundamentally false, in that it presumes that occupation is what prevents missile fire, and that the absence of occupation is what produces the threat of missile fire.
Israel has been within range of enemy missile fire – from Syria, Iraq and Iran – for decades. With the exception of the 1991 Gulf War, all three have refrained from using that arsenal against Israel. They did so not because the IDF was occupying Damascus, Baghdad or Tehran, but because of a combination of deterrence and the development of effective missile defense systems.
Israel has always been within range of Katyusha rockets from Lebanon, and has intermittently been attacked with Katyusha and other rockets since the 1970s. Israel suffered from Lebanese rocket fire before, during and after its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon. Similarly, Israel enjoyed periods before, during and after its 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in which it did not suffer from rocket fire. The occupation of southern Lebanon, as such, was not a crucial factor in the Lebanese decision-making process about firing rockets on Israel.
As with ballistic missiles in the hands of enemy states, Israel’s power of deterrence and an ever-increasing ability to protect itself against the threat of rocket attack were the crucial factors.
The same, of course, is true of the Gaza Strip and will also be true with respect to the West Bank in the event of an Israeli withdrawal. Just as the occupation of Tehran was never the way to prevent Iranian missile fire on Tel Aviv, and just as the occupation of Beirut or Marj Ayoun was never the way to prevent Hezbollah rocket fire on Israel, the endless occupation of the West Bank is not truly the key to preventing rocket fire on Tel Aviv. The combination of deterrence and effective defense are the factors that will ultimately prevent ongoing rocket fire on Israel.
While the continued occupation of the West Bank might temporarily help suppress rocket fire (though it failed to do so over time in either Gaza or Lebanon), Europe has made it patently clear to Israel what the price will be: an ever-worsening boycott of Israel and Israelis. The average Israeli might be skeptical about the proverbial carrot of peace, but he is unlikely to accept Ya’alon and Bennett’s blithe dismissal of the threat of a European boycott as a bearable nuisance.
Ya’alon’s presentation of two alternatives – either rocket fire or boycott – was clearly specious. The real alternatives Israel faces are either continued occupation coupled with boycott, or withdrawal coupled with the prospect for economic, diplomatic, academic and cultural flourishing, as well as ensuring its continued existence as a Jewish and democratic state.
It goes without saying that Israel will need to insist on adequate security arrangements prior to a withdrawal and, in the absence of peace, will have to apply the same combination of deterrence and defense to render rocket fire out of the West Bank untenably counterproductive for the Palestinians.
In the balance between those two more realistic alternatives, most Israelis will probably support ending the occupation, if not in hope of the carrot then in reasonable fear of the stick.
Tag line: The author is a veteran Israeli writer and translator.