A People that Dwells Alone?

It seems like the Israeli government continues to suffer from the “delayed political solution” syndrome.

Anti Gaddafi fighter 521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori)
Anti Gaddafi fighter 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori)
FROM AN ISRAELI POINT OF view, the map of alliances and threats in the Middle East has changed significantly in the past year. The customary divisions between moderates and extremists, friends and foes, allies and enemies are no longer valid, and the situation may yet change again in the near future.
Internal political changes in Israel’s two strategic allies in the Mideast – Turkey and Egypt – have resulted in changes in their foreign policy. To date, the changes in Turkey have led to the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and suspension of economic and military agreements. But the relationship between the two countries may continue to deteriorate.
The military regime in Egypt continues for now to uphold the peace and the security cooperation behind the scenes, but it is possible that this, too, will deteriorate, once the government is returned to civilian hands follwing general elections. And finally, Israeli-Jordanian relations have also chilled in response to the revolutions in the Arab world, even though the protests in Jordan do not appear to be a threat to the stability or longevity of the Hashemite monarchy.
Nor have the radical changes skipped over the countries that were considered part of the extremist camp that has been strongly opposed to Israel. In Libya, Gadhafi’s regime has collapsed.
Syria is experiencing a civil war that is undermining the regime’s stability and threatening its existence, providing grounds to assume that Assad’s regime, too, may fall; in any case, his ability to support and fund anti- Israel groups such as Hizballah and Hamas has been significantly diminished.
Not all the changes necessarily affect Israel adversely. But for the time being, they do leave Israel isolated in the Middle East. This is not an unfamiliar feeling for most Israelis. For many, Bilaam’s curse that the Children of Israel are “a people that dwells alone” (from the Book of Numbers) is no longer seen as merely a biblical reference but rather an essential, existential situation and a reflection of current reality. This point of view dovetails with the ideological position common to many of Israel’s decision makers that contends that politically, economically and culturally Israel is not part of the Middle East.
Both Defense Minister Ehud Barak (who has described Israel as “a villa in the jungle”) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu share this concept, which began with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. In contrast, former foreign minister Moshe Sharett, who believed that Israel is part of the Middle East and diplomat Abba Eban, along with others, struggled against this isolationist view.
The same contrasting approaches persist until now, but the view of Israel as different from its neighbors has been and continues to be the dominant approach.
Current events in the Middle East, especially in the context of the impending declaration of a Palestinian state in the UN, have heightened the sense that it is futile to even try to change Israel’s situation. But what is missing from this equation is that Israel itself is contributing to its own isolation. The policies of the current government reinforce this isolationist trend. Instead, the government should be analyzing the current reality and translating that analysis into policies that will lead to an improvement in Israel’s status.
FROM A HISTORICAL Perspective, the Israeli government’s failure to respond to the changes taking place in the Arab world is not surprising. Indeed, a review of Israeli policy regarding the Arab- Israeli conflict over the years reveals, in generalized terms, that Israel is caught in a “delayed political solution” syndrome.
When faced with systematic changes, Israel is in no rush to read the new map, draw the necessary conclusions and adopt a policy designed to deal with these changes.
Israel’s response to the changes in the PLO’s position following the first intifada, serves as a prime example of this “delayed political solution.” In 1988, in an attempt to reap the fruits of the intifada, Arafat accepted the three conditions that he had to meet in order to become part of the diplomatic process: recognition of the State of Israel, acceptance of UN Resolution 242 and a cessation of terrorism. Acceptance of these conditions was the basis for the beginning of the dialogue between the US and the PLO. Jordan was also quick to draw the relevant conclusions from the first intifada; recognizing that the PLO was now the sole representative of the Palestinian people, Jordan severed its connections and commitments to the West Bank.
Yet despite the changes in the PLO, Israel continued to object to negotiations with the organization. Then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir’s peace initiative, put forth in May 1989, proffered a solution that was by then politically irrelevant: election in the territories without the participation of the PLO and the establishment of a Palestinian-Jordanian delegation whose members did not belong to the PLO. Five years later, in 1993, it was a civil initiative led by the government headed by Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres to sign the Oslo Accords and recognize the PLO.
Another example of Israel’s problematic response involves the Arab Peace Initiative of March 2002, which included an offer by all the Arab states to recognize Israel and sign a comprehensive peace agreement in exchange for full withdrawal from the occupied territories.
This represented a paradigmatic change in Arab thinking, a full reversal of the infamous decisions adopted by the Khartoum convention in 1967 (no peace, no recognition and no negotiations with Israel). But the government headed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon never even responded to the initiative.
It was the next prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who, following the outcome of the Second Lebanon War, suddenly realized that the Arab Initiative provided a promising channel for promoting peace and advancing Israel’s interests in the region. However, the unexpected end to his term in office crippled his ability to act on this change.
It seems like the Israeli government continues to suffer from the “delayed political solution” syndrome. Despite the paradigmatic changes taking place in the Arab world in response to the uprisings, and despite the impending announcement in the UN, and despite Israel’s increasing isolation in the region and in the world, Israel makes no effort to reread the map, draw the necessary conclusions and adopt a policy that will deal with the new reality.
Ostensibly, their inability to act enables the nation’s leaders to maintain the status quo, but actually, it has brought Israel to a point of stagnation and retreat. The alternative is to propose a solution now, which would bring Israel to the same place where it will arrive eventually, under less favorable conditions.
Prof. Elie Podeh teaches in the Department of Islamic Studies and the Middle East at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.