Middle Israel: Netanyahu may be latest hawk to turn dove

If PM is joining long list of Israeli hawks who have become peace crusaders, it is not due to Western pressure but because of Mideast turmoil.

Netanyahu looking coy 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Netanyahu looking coy 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
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.
Moshe 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 slowly piling.
PROF. SHLOMO AVINERI, Israel’s foremost political scientist, once said Israeli hawks split into two categories: the ideologues and the strategists.
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 the plan.
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 context.
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 Israel.
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.
Politically, 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.
Unlike 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 inhabit.
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.
That 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.
This 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 Libya.
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 inactions.
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 promote.
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 Sunnis.
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. www.MiddleIsrael.net