AT ILLEGAL West Bank Bedouin village Khan Al-Ahmar, advocating for its demolition in October..
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel recently celebrated its 71st Independence Day, an annual event that has always filled me with joy, pride and awe at the miracle of national redemption after 2,000 years. I have always felt uniquely blessed: born in the US following the Holocaust and Israel’s rebirth, able to take advantage of the magnificent freedoms the US affords to make my life in Israel and serve in its defense establishment. This year, however, I was filled with a pervasive sense of foreboding that overcame my joy.
To be sure, there is much to celebrate. Although Israel still faces severe threats, primarily from Hezbollah – and a potentially existential one, should Iran go nuclear – in practice, Israel’s existence is no longer truly in doubt and its fundamental security is assured. No one, Iran included, can destroy Israel today. This dramatic success of Israel’s national security strategy, a combination of Israeli grit and American support, is the ultimate objective of the “special relationship.”
Israel has relations today with more countries than ever before, including a number of Sunni states and a budding partnership with Saudi Arabia, the heart of Islam. Israel’s dynamic economy has outpaced the OECD average for the past decade, providing it with a mid-European standard of living. The creativity of Israel’s people has turned it into the world’s second-largest center of hi-tech, behind only the US, and a leading cyberpower. It is a world-class cultural center.
The only truly existential question Israel faces today is whether the recent elections sealed the prospects for a two-state solution and its fate as a predominantly Jewish and liberal democracy.
Despite three impending indictments and 10 straight years as prime minister – 13 in total – Benjamin Netanyahu picked up five Knesset seats for his Likud Party, an increase of over 15%. Netanyahu is an electoral phenomenon who has no peers in Israel today: even many of those who voted for other parties considered him the best candidate to be premier. He has gained global stature, even though he leads a country the size and population of New Jersey, and has outlasted and outmaneuvered his adversaries, domestic and foreign. He could have been a historical figure, capable of charting a new national course.
Instead, Netanyahu is consumed by a boundless and understandable, if repugnant, drive to save his own neck and avoid a lengthy prison sentence. Israel’s new coalition – and its national destiny – will be determined by a deal based on annexation in exchange for exoneration.
UNDER THE impending deal, Bibi’s ultra-right-wing coalition partners will agree to a new law preventing indictment of a sitting premier, and not to lift his immunity from prosecution as a member of Knesset – even after formal indictments are filed, or some other political machinations are made. In exchange, Netanyahu will accede to their demands and annex at least parts of the West Bank. As seen in the last two elections, and especially as the legal noose has tightened in recent months, there are no limits to what he is willing to do to save himself.
Some believe that a separation of the two peoples and consequently a two-state solution are no longer feasible. This devastating conclusion is premature, as shown by Commanders for Israel’s Security, an organization comprising most of Israel’s top former defense officials, but the tipping point is rapidly nearing. Forty percent of the combined population of Israel and the West Bank is already Palestinian today, hardly the Zionist dream, and each year of ongoing settlement further exacerbates the demographic problem. Annexation of significant portions of the West Bank will render the issue moot.
The argument that Israel faces a binary choice between the West Bank and its future as a predominantly Jewish democracy is simplistic. Palestinians will still be able to vote for the Palestinian Authority – were it to actually ever hold elections – just not for the Knesset. This is like Puerto Ricans, who are full American citizens but cannot vote for the Congress or presidency. Not all forms of discrimination spell an end to democracy, but the blow to the quality of Israel’s democracy would be severe.
It is to be hoped that Netanyahu is too smart and politically adroit to accede to the more extreme versions of annexation espoused by his coalition partners, but he is uniquely susceptible to political extortion. If even one potential coalition partner refuses to join, or bolts, Bibi will no longer be premier and probably wind up in jail. He will probably try to limit annexation, at least initially, to areas such as Gush Etzion or Ma’aleh Adumim, which are consensual in Israel; even the Palestinians have recognized that they would be part of a two-state land swap.
MANY WILL sigh with relief: it could have been worse. Even a limited move such as this, however, may set in motion a chain of events that leads to the collapse of the PA and renewed Israeli control over most of the West Bank. About the only thing we can count on is the Palestinians’ inexhaustible propensity to do something truly counterproductive, such as ending security cooperation with Israel, massive rocket fire or renewed intifada. Israel will then be forced to take defensive measures and possibly reoccupy parts of the West Bank, providing the political context for an annexation that Netanyahu may wish to avoid.
A two-state solution is living on life support and may not survive four years of an annexationist Israeli government, never-ending Palestinian rejectionism and the possibility of six more years of US President Donald Trump, including his dead-on-arrival peace plan. Polls in Israel have shown an electoral disconnect for decades; a wall-to-wall consensus totally opposes a binational one-state solution. Yet coalition arithmetic is such that a minority, and now a premier fighting to save himself, may seal Israel’s national destiny.
Both the First and Second Temples were destroyed largely by extremism and internecine conflict, not ancient Israel’s external enemies. Modern Israel faces a similar danger. I hope desperately that the recent elections were not our last chance to ensure Israel’s long-term future as a vibrantly democratic and predominantly Jewish state. At 71, we have so much to be proud of.
The writer, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center and adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University, was a deputy national security adviser in Israel. He is the author of the 2018 book Israeli National Security: a New Strategy for an Era of Change.
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