An open letter to Binyamin Netanyahu

A broad peace initiative must be your new government's first imperative

Netanyahu Reading 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Netanyahu Reading 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Dear Prime Minister, Deep down you surely know that you have lost the election. And, as an intelligent leader with a sense of history, if you take time off to ponder what your outgoing government did and did not do, you will surely acknowledge that you have damaged Israel’s long-term national security by refusing to engage seriously in an appropriate peace process, by souring relations with the US President, by failing to restore cooperation with Turkey and more.
To reverse these dangerous trends, you need to launch a major regional peace initiative, nothing less.
True, the military has been improved, action has been taken to prevent Syrian weapons reaching Hezbollah and against other pressing dangers, and preparations for a potentially necessary operation against Iran have been made. But this is inadequate in the absence of comprehensive statecraft trying to assure the political support Israel needs for its national security and making a serious effort to stabilize and also “normalize” Israel’s position in the Middle East. And such statecraft was sorely missing in your outgoing government.
My point is this: As you well know, national security issues continue in the foreseeable future to constitute the most critical factor for Israel’s future and will determine whether the Jewish state thrives or declines.
This is so obvious that I wouldn’t bother to spell it out but for the troubling fact that the predominant election discourse was over what The New York Times called “kitchentable issues like class size and apartment prices.” Therefore, it is essential that you again put Israel’s national security at the heart of the public and governmental agenda.
The Middle East is in turmoil. There could be many surprises. Most will likely be bad for Israel, although positive developments cannot be ruled out. Here are some low probability but very negative contingencies you may have to face: Iran declares and proves that it possesses nuclear weapons; Egypt suddenly moves heavy armor into Sinai; the US abstains at a UN Security Council vote demanding that Israel stop all building activities in the West Bank; in a mega-terror attack chemical weapons are used against a civilian population concentration in Tel Aviv. To balance that dismal list, here is a low-probability welcome surprise: The regime in Iran changes, ceases nuclear activities, stops supporting Hezbollah and re-establishes full and cooperative relations with Israel.
More fundamental are megatrends shaping the future of Israel’s national security, many of which it cannot influence. For example: Growing numbers of Muslims worldwide, rising from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.2 billion in 2030, and from 23.4 percent of the estimated 2010 world population of 6.9 billion to 26.4 percent of the world’s total projected population of 8.3 billion in 2030 (Remember, Jews are only 0.2 percent of the global population.); increasing turmoil in Arab and Muslim societies over issues of self-identity and conflicts between modernization and religious traditionalism, aggravated by demography, economic meltdowns, “failed states,” and more; growing energy levels in Arab societies with significant influence of “street action”; proliferation of weapons in the Middle East, including new instruments of mass killing; the relative decline of the US as the single global superpower with the likelihood of decreased American involvement in the Middle East; some strengthening of global governance, because of the increasing pressure of global issues.
To move to the Arab-Islamic Israeli-Jewish conflict itself, over which Israel does have influence, which potentially can be much greater with high-quality statecraft, the following megatrends are crucial: As demonstrated by its persistence, the conflict has deep roots in Arab and Islamic resistance to the very existence of a Jewish state in what they regard as the “territory of Islam.”
This is aggravated by the view of Israel as a Western bridgehead in the Arab world. This is exacerbated by envy and by Arab leaders needing enemies to stay in power and more.
Consequently the conflict has a very strong historic momentum, which can be shifted only by large-scale interventions.
Despite the present weaknesses of major Arab states and other actors, escalation of hostilities towards Israel in novel and dangerous forms is almost certain. Iranian nuclear policy constitutes the most serious danger to Israel, but others may well emerge, such as a North-East-South anti-Israel bloc – unless the trajectory of the conflict is shifted.
The Palestinian issue is the most prominent component of the conflict, but does not dominate it or determine its future. If achieved, an agreement with the Palestinians is unlikely in itself to terminate or even significantly reduce the conflict as a whole.
Furthermore, the stability of a Palestinian state and its agreements with Israel are unsustainable within a continuing overarching Arab-Israeli conflict. Moreover, in the context of continued overall conflict Israel cannot risk withdrawing from territories, which may then be used against it, while without such withdrawals it is impossible to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
International action to enforce a stabilization of the conflict may become more insistent, with measures that contravene core Israeli values and do not really assure its national security.
I do not know what classified assessments the various intelligence units and the National Security Council are preparing for you. But unless they present you with realistic long-term “alternative worlds” of the vicious Arab-Islamic Israeli-Jewish conflict in a downward moving spiral, as well as surprises likely to challenge your new government, a future Commission of Inquiry will find them guilty of lack of professionalism and gross errors. And you will be blamed for not being critical enough of the assessments presented to you and not making sure that you received what you really needed.
Be that as it may, the conclusions that emerge from any adequate assessment are, I think, loud and clear: Significant cuts of the defense budget are not a realistic option.
Taking into account the budgetary deficit, most of the pre-election promises on social issues and upgraded quality of life cannot be fulfilled until Israel’s natural gas finds start providing large resources. You need to take some steps to extend military and national service and make affordable apartments for rent available. And you should pay more attention to education, science and technology, relations with the Diaspora, and helping the really destitute. But your new government must focus, first and foremost, on national security issues, adopting an innovative and multi-dimensional statecraft.
A broad Israeli peace initiative is imperative, preferably coordinated with the US president, nominally based on the Arab- Islamic initiative of 2002, with two states for two peoples, or some other novel solution of the Palestinian issue, as a necessary element, but only one part of a wider initiative. Trying to advance a broad Middle East agreement terminating the Arab-Israeli conflict is not only essential for Israel’s long-term wellbeing, including its national security, but also for strengthening relations with the US, improving Israel’s global standing and preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons’ capabilities.
The proposed initiative is in many respects a win-win option, with Israel significantly improving its situation whether leading Arab states respond positively or not. The initiative should be comprehensive, fitting a large range of geo-political shifts, trend changes and surprise events. But, as is obvious to you, it requires explication. Israel has to be ready for very painful and controversial concessions.
As Henry Kissinger put it in his January 24 address at the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Davos: “There is no doubt that any settlement will require significant sacrifices on the Israeli side from the position they now hold.” In return, the Israeli peace initiative has to insist on full diplomatic, economic and cultural relations, and demonstrated acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state by the vast majority of Arab and Islamic states, together with reliable security arrangements including joint action to contain and defang opponents of the agreement.
Where does this leave you as prime minister? Given your political skills, the composition of the 19th Knesset provides you with a clear opportunity to advance a comprehensive Israeli peace initiative, by building and changing coalitions as need be. But there remains a major problem, namely – if I may say so – you making up your mind and deciding what you really want.
Given the rapid degree of change characterizing our epoch, the capacity of leaders to creatively change their minds to cope with novel dangers and utilize new opportunities is critical. This applies especially to Israel, as a country in-the-making faced with shifting threats and great opportunities.
Some past Israeli prime ministers demonstrated an impressive capacity to change their minds and surprise the world, Israel, and, I think, themselves, with radically creative policy innovations.
Excluding persons still active in politics, this was the case with Ben- Gurion, Begin, Rabin, Barak and Sharon. Now it is your turn, and probably your last chance to play a significant role in shaping Israel’s future for the better, by embarking on a comprehensive peace initiative.
There remains the fateful question whether, in the terminology of Machiavelli, you will mobilize the virtues essential for making good use of the opportunities afforded you, paradoxically, by election results that seemed to weaken you. It is entirely up to you.
Yehezkel Dror, a former Hebrew University political science professor, was a policy adviser to Israeli governments and the Founding President of the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute. His most recent book is “Israeli Statecraft: National Security Challenges and Responses, 2011”.