It’s a familiar theme. A succession of Israeli hawks turned into doves over the
past 40 years, each with his and her own circumstances and reasons.
Dayan, the first such convert, emerged a peace crusader from the Yom Kippur War.
Menachem Begin shed Sinai because it was not part of the biblical Land of
Israel. Ezer Weizman – Dayan’s brother-in-law and Begin’s defense minister –
came to abhor war after his son Shaul’s severe injury as a paratrooper on the
Suez Canal in 1970. Shimon Peres, impressed by Begin’s peace with Egypt,
believed it could be stretched to the entire Middle East. Yitzhak Rabin
concluded from the first intifada that the Palestinians deserved hope, Ariel
Sharon emerged from the second intifada a two-state fan, and Ehud Olmert and
Tzipi Livni emerged from Sharon’s shedding of Gaza eager to part with the West
Bank as well.
All these had been sworn hawks. With the exception of
Rabin, who was merely skeptical about Arab flexibility, all had actively
promoted Greater Israel. Sharon built the settlements and inspired the settlers
he later evacuated; Olmert abstained in the Knesset vote that ratified peace
with Egypt; Peres built the first settlement in Samaria, Ofra, after saying it
was absurd a Jew could live in Brooklyn but not in Samaria; Weizman said before
’67 he was longing for Hebron, Bethlehem and Jericho; Begin left Golda Meir’s
government because she entered talks with the US about a potential retreat from
Sinai; and Livni, while a 16-year-old councilor in the nationalist Betar youth
movement, demonstrated against Henry Kissinger while he brokered minimalistic
retreats from Sinai and the Golan.
Now, as Israel and the Palestinians
return to the negotiating table for the first time in half-a-decade, politicians
understandably suspect Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is about to join this
list. While that remains to be seen, such a transfiguration would be in line
with his ideological, political and strategic DNA, and signs of its approach are
PROF. SHLOMO AVINERI, Israel’s foremost political
scientist, once said Israeli hawks split into two categories: the ideologues and
The ideologues, whether secular nationalists like
Yitzhak Shamir, or messianics like Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, saw territorial
maximalism as a supreme value and dismissed retreats regardless of circumstances
and potential repercussions.
The strategic hawks, by contrast, opposed
retreats only circumstantially. Once circumstances changed, and they had reason
to believe a prospective retreat would grant advantages, they backed it.
Netanyahu belongs with the latter.
Ideologically, in backing last
decade’s construction of the anti-terror fence, he ignored critics who said it
would compromise Israel’s claim for what sprawled beyond it. Similarly, during
the disengagement from Gaza, he opposed the plan’s details, but not the
principle of retreat. That is why he backed it in the Knesset’s initial vote on
Now, Netanyahu’s explanation that he is going to peace talks
because Israel might otherwise become a binational state – and his statement
that a binational state would be against Israel’s interests – come in this
To ideological Greater Israelites, that rhetoric is heresy.
Tzipi Hotovely, for instance, a national-religious woman and deputy
transportation minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet, thinks the West Bank should be
annexed and the Palestinians be made full citizens of such a greater
Netanyahu indeed shares with the messianic Right a lot less than
many realize. A secular rationalist, he does not mystify soil and does not see
borders as articles of faith. Moreover, Netanyahu played no role in the
settlements’ emergence. When he first joined the government, in 1988 as deputy
foreign minister, most had already been in place. The places beyond the Green
Line where he did build are mostly in consensus Jerusalem.
while Netanyahu saw the settlers as part of the national camp that has been the
backbone of his public career, his relationship with the religious Right has
been increasingly rocky.
Netanyahu never publicly took the side of the
national religious in its historic struggle with ultra-Orthodoxy.
Sharon, who was almost foaming at the mouth when he left the ultra-Orthodox
parties out of his coalition, Netanyahu did all he could to include them before
surrendering to the demands of an alliance between Naftali Bennett and Yair
Lapid that they be left out.
The election this week of the new chief
rabbis reflected this disposition.
Netanyahu is believed to have promoted
behind the scenes Rabbi David Lau’s election, through Haim Bibas, Netanyahu’s
campaign manager in the recent election and the mayor of Modi’in, where David
Lau was the municipal rabbi.
In backing Lau, Netanyahu not only chose the
ultra-Orthodox ticket, he effectively sabotaged Bennett’s titanic effort to
install the modernist Rabbi David Stav. Netanyahu thus further deepened the
chasm between him and religious Zionism along with the settler movement, which
is deeply opposed to ultra- Orthodoxy’s ambivalent Zionism.
Stav, by the
way, attended the Talmudic academy in the settlement of Psagot, near Ramallah,
and that is where he was ordained as a dayan, or rabbinical judge. For diehard
nationalists like Shamir, that would have been reason enough to prefer such a
chief rabbi over anyone else.
Netanyahu, however, is yearning for his
ultra-Orthodox allies, while keeping the national religious movement and its
ideological hawks at arm’s length. That is also why Netanyahu wants to bring a
prospective agreement to a referendum, through which he will approach the public
directly, bypassing the ideological Right.
This, then, is the ideological
and political backdrop against which Netanyahu the strategist opens his window
every morning before surveying the quaking Middle East that he and his country
ISRAEL’S UNDERSTANDING of its place in the Middle East has
changed over the decades several times.
In 1958, David Ben-Gurion
conceived the Periphery Strategy that took Arab-Muslim enmity as a given and
sought allies among the region’s assorted non-Arabs and non-Muslims.
is how Israel ended up in bed with Iran, Ethiopia and Turkey as well as Kurdish
rebels and Lebanese Christians.
The peace with Egypt undid the axiom of
Arab hostility, and inspired an illusion that more enemies can be coaxed to
change their spots, and jointly create a New Middle East where people, credit,
and goods cross borders as freely as they do in Europe and America.
thinking died in the aftermath of last decade’s violence, which made a
disillusioned Israel conclude it will never be in a position to change the
Middle East, a thinking monumentalized by the fences that sprouted from the West
Bank through Gaza to the Egyptian border.
Now, however, the Middle East
is changing by itself.
An Israeli analysis of the tumult raging from
Syria and Iraq to Egypt and Yemen has so far produced determination to take no
sides in internal Arab conflicts. Such interference is what Israel once did in
Lebanon, with catastrophic results.
That is why no Israeli official has
said anything about the desirable shape of Syria, or about the civil war in
Iraq, or about the unrest in Egypt, or the ongoing turmoil in
Moreover, each arena in the region’s countless flashpoints is
different, mixing assorted religious, ethnic, tribal, and social dynamics, all
of which are none of the Jewish state’s business.
However, one general
pattern in the unfolding drama affects Israel, regardless of its actions or
The political Middle East is being rearranged around the
religious fault-line that has run historically between Sunnis and Shi’ites. This
is what is happening in Iraq, where the Sunnis feel they are being taken over,
this is what is happening in Bahrain, where the Shi’ites are on the defensive,
and this is what is happening in Syria, where the Alawites are allied with
Lebanon’s and Iran’s Arab and Persian Shi’ites.
This is the context in
which the Arab League suddenly entered the Israeli-Palestinian fray last week
when it offered Mahmoud Abbas the ladder with which he climbed down from the
preconditions he had set for entering the talks.
Having suspended Syria,
the Arab League is now concerned with Shi’ite belligerency more urgently than
with anything else. The prospect of Iranian troops stationed in Damascus, an
anathema to Sunni Arabs, never seemed more likely.
As seen from the
League’s offices in Cairo and the royal palace in Riyadh, the Sunni Middle East
needs to contain the Shi’ite thrust, and this requires quiet on other fronts.
That is how King Abdullah of Jordan views the situation, and also the Egyptian
military, whose disagreements with the Islamists it has just deposed reportedly
included the appeasement with Iran that Mohamed Morsi initially tried to
No one in Israel has illusions about a grand alliance with the
Sunni world. However, the Shi’ites are more lethal and at the same time more
distant from Israel. With the exception of a million Shi’ites in Lebanon, the
Arabs who surround Israel are Sunni, while the Shi’ite center of gravity is
beyond Syria, between Iran and Iraq. A deal with Abbas backed by Saudi Arabia,
the rest of the Gulf States and the Arab League as well as Turkey is therefore
as tempting to Israel as containing Shi’ites is now urgent for
The prospect of formal relations with most Arab governments, and
the shrinkage of the active anti- Israeli front to distant Iran and a handful of
minor countries would be tempting to any strategic hawk, even to some
ideological hawks. If indeed Netanyahu and Abbas ultimately strike a deal, this
will be its undeclared, but overarching, rationale.
Talk about a newly
moderate Netanyahu being driven by anxiety over international pressure – like
the European Union’s boycott of settler products or scientist Stephen Hawking’s
cancellation of a visit here – is unconvincing. Netanyahu’s elaborate diplomatic
career has been defined by standing up to such challenges, and he doubtfully
changed his mind about the feasibility of fighting this war they way he once did
at the United Nations.
What has changed is the Middle East, whose ever
intensifying uncertainty is fraught with risk, but also with opportunity, all of
which the strategist in Netanyahu is not built to ignore.