Netanyahu’s self-defeating strategy

Acting like he thinks Israel is doomed without a peace deal, the prime minister encourages the Palestinians not to sign one.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner )
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner )
Someone unfamiliar with Israeli politics might think the decision to free 104 Palestinian murderers became inevitable only  once the cabinet approved it last week. Those more familiar with Israel’s political dynamics might date it a few weeks earlier, to whenever US Secretary of State John Kerry shamefully decided to demand that Israel do something America would never do itself.
But in truth, it has been inevitable for years – at least since October 20, 2010, which is when I first heard Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu say that Israel couldn’t “survive in the long run without a political settlement.” For once a prime minister convinces himself that the country’s very survival depends on an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, the inexorable consequence is that almost no concession is too high to pay for a deal, or even for the faintest chance of one. He’ll obviously try to get the best deal he can. But ultimately, he’ll feel justified in crawling to any Palestinian demand, even one as wildly unpopular as the prisoner release, to save Israel from the doom he foresees.
And if left unchecked, he and other adherents of this view will end up causing the very destruction they seek to avoid.
When Netanyahu first made that statement, I hoped it was mere lip service to what he perceived as the world’s demands. It was still a stupid and dangerous thing to say, but it didn’t seem to be guiding his policies; he was doing a creditable job of defending traditional Israeli red lines in the face of a hostile White House and an even more hostile Europe.
But as time passed, he began warning with growing frequency and urgency that an agreement was essential to keep Israel from becoming a bi-national state. In short, he began acting like a true believer. And because true believers in this theory necessarily consider almost any price worth paying for an agreement, every premier who has adopted this view has gradually retreated from one red line after another, just as Netanyahu did last week with the prisoner release – something he had hitherto consistently and rightly opposed.
A prisoner release has numerous harmful consequences. Inter alia, it encourages terrorism, both because 60% of freed prisoners resume terrorist activity and because it teaches others that however heinous their crimes, they needn’t fear spending long in jail if caught. It undermines public faith in the justice system by subjecting Jewish and Palestinian murderers to vastly different rules. It’s devastating for the terror victims and their families; and it encourages Palestinian intransigence in negotiations by showing they can extort concessions from Israel even without giving anything in return. In this case, a concession usually given only as part of a final peace treaty was granted just for agreeing to attend talks that are ostensibly in the Palestinians’ own interests, since only Israel can give them the state they claim to want.
But if you believe the state’s very survival is at stake, these consequences obviously look negligible in comparison. “Our survival depends on it” is a very powerful argument.
Nevertheless, this approach has one fatal flaw: it hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of working. For if Israel is really doomed without an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, then the Palestinians have every incentive in the world to refuse to sign one.
After all, why would anyone settle for a measly little state in the West Bank and Gaza if just standing pat a while longer would eventually give them Israel, too? If the situation were reversed – if Israelis were convinced that just standing pat would enable us to keep Judea and Samaria while remaining a Jewish and democratic state – we’d do exactly the same. It’s only because most Israelis have become convinced this isn’t possible that they support a two-state solution.
Palestinians, however, truly believe that Israel will disappear if they just stand pat – because senior Israeli politicians tell them so every day. That’s precisely why they’ve refused every Israeli offer to date, even ones, like former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s, that ostensibly met all their territorial demands: the 1967 lines with minor and equivalent land swaps, along with Arab neighborhoods of aast Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and even the Western Wall (the latter two under an international administration in which Israel would be outvoted by three Arab states, including Palestine). Remember how Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas responded to that offer? “The gaps were wide.”
That’s also why Palestinians have never agreed to forgo the one price no Israeli leader could pay for a deal: the “right of return,” aka an influx of millions of Palestinians who would turn the Jewish state into a Palestinian-majority one. For if the goal is to save Israel from destruction, an agreement that mandates its destruction as part of the deal is obviously pointless.
In short, if Israel is really finished without an agreement, then it’s finished, period: the Palestinians will never rescue it by signing one.
Hence the only strategy that has any hope of ensuring the state’s long-term survival is the one practiced by all Israeli leaders prior to the 1993 Oslo Accords: acting on the assumption that peace, though desirable, isn’t any more necessary for Israel’s survival than it has been for the past 65 years. That means doing everything we can, in every field – diplomacy, defense, economics, education, social policy and more – to prepare the state to survive and thrive even without peace.
This strategy has absolutely no downside, because even if the assumption that peace isn’t necessary for survival proves wrong, acting on it can’t doom Israel any more certainly than acting on the opposite assumption would. And if it’s right, Israel will be much better prepared to cope with the lack of peace.
In fact, this strategy may even make peace more likely – because once the Palestinians are convinced that holding out won’t make Israel disappear, they, too, will have an incentive to compromise.
Netanyahu used to understand this very well. But perhaps he has been in office too long. For power, as we know, corrupts. And in his case, what it seems to have corrupted most of all, is his formerly clear-sighted vision.