Israel’s Cold War blues

Israelis won’t say it, but a Cold-War paradigm is the way to fix the Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu Abbas Shake 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Netanyahu Abbas Shake 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
“You write a lot about why the peace process has been bad for Israel; why don’t you ever write about what you think Israel should be doing instead?” a friend asked last week. My initial response was “because Israelis generally hate my answer.” But on further reflection, I realized it’s only the first part of my answer that Israelis hate. The second part is actually coming into vogue.
Here’s the part Israelis hate: Israel can’t do anything to end the Palestinian conflict right now, or in the foreseeable future, because victory and peace are both equally unattainable. Israel cannot decisively suppress every facet of the Palestinians’ diplomatic, military, economic and cultural campaign against the Jewish State. Yet it also can’t make peace with an enemy that refuses to acknowledge a Jewish state’s right to exist within any borders.
This is exactly the same problem the US faced at the start of the Cold War: The Soviet Union was an enemy it could neither defeat nor make peace with. So all it could do was to manage and contain the conflict as best they could until some change occurred that would make it resolvable, regardless of however many decades or centuries it took.
And that’s all Israel can do as well: try to manage and contain the conflict until such time that a change in the situation makes it resolvable. There’s no way to predict when or how it will happen, just as nobody predicted the date or manner of the Soviet Union’s demise, but it may well take decades or even centuries. And, until then, Israel’s pursuit of an unattainable peace merely prolongs the conflict, as I’ve explained elsewhere. It undermines Israel’s diplomatic position and reinforces its enemies’ belief that if they wait long enough, they can achieve their goal of annihilating the Jewish State.
Unfortunately, this cold-war approach is anathema to most Israelis, because we are heirs to a millennia-old religious tradition that effectively teaches that we have the power to solve all problems through our own actions. This is the essence of the central section of the Shema prayer, which religious Jews recite twice daily, and the Biblical verses (Deuteronomy 11:13-21) that comprise it: If the Jews serve God, they will receive rain and bountiful harvests; if they don’t, they will suffer drought, famine and exile. In short, any misfortune that befalls the Jewish nation is our own collective fault, but we have the power, as the High Holiday liturgy puts it, to “avert the evil decree” by amending our behavior.
This cultural heritage is deeply ingrained even in Jews who have never heard the Shema or opened a Bible; indeed, this heritage is precisely what drives the Israeli left to keep insisting that if peace hasn’t arrived, it’s only because Israel hasn’t tried hard enough. Hence the idea that the conflict is not immediately solvable through their own efforts is a difficult one for many Israelis to come to terms with.
Nevertheless, there is something Israelis can do–indeed, must do–to bring a solution to the conflict closer, and this something does depend solely on our own efforts: We need to continue building our country to make it capable of not only surviving, but thriving, despite a conflict that could last centuries. We need to teach our children why the Jewish State is worth living for and, if necessary, dying for. We need to improve our schools to prepare our graduates for a 21st-century economy. We need to enact reforms that will allow our economy to continue growing. We need to cultivate the social solidarity that enables the country to pull together in times of crisis, despite its welter of religious, political and cultural disputes. We need to actively promote our case overseas. And the list could go on.
What does this have to do with solving the conflict? Because the conflict’s persistence is fueled by an Arab belief that they can win: that if they just continue their military, diplomatic, economic and cultural assaults long enough, the “spider-web society,” as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah famously deemed it, will collapse. Only if the Arabs become convinced that they will never be able to make Israel disappear–as the famed Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky argued almost a century ago in his famous “Iron Wall” essay–will they have an incentive to instead make peace. And only by continuing to build Israel can we make its eventual collapse inconceivable.
Fortunately, the idea that Israelis need to switch their focus from the peace process to building their own country has been gaining ground recently. As I noted in September, Labor Party chairman Shelly Yachimovich won her resounding victory in the Labor leadership primary precisely because she focused relentlessly on socioeconomic issues and completely ignored the peace process. As she herself explained, “before we … engage in a struggle for peace, we need to have a state.”
The summer’s social protest movement, which brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets to demand that the government address the country’s festering domestic needs, was another example of this focus on state building. And there are other, smaller signs as well.
Two weeks ago, for instance, a senior Israeli journalist reported on a conversation with an MK and former minister who had focused almost exclusively on diplomatic and security issues for the last five years. The MK opened the meeting by saying that, after “decades in public service, he’s concluded that … the new Israeli politics should confine itself to economics alone.”
None of this yet indicates a paradigm shift; most of Israel’s governing class still views dealing with the peace process as its top priority. But all new paradigms begin as minority positions, and this particular position is clearly gaining strength.
After two decades of being obsessed with the peace process, there are signs that Israelis may finally be ready to resume their historic focus on building their state, and that is very good news for anyone who cares about Israel’s future.

The writer is a journalist and commentator.