The annexation issue places the Israeli-Palestinian conflict front and center on the Israeli public agenda, forcing the political center and moderate Left to take a stand. It also provides an opportunity to analyze the differences between the two approaches that polarized Israeli politics for decades, but have been blurred in recent years.
The political Right’s hawkish approach stems from a pessimistic, victimized attitude that believes the entire world is against us, that no one can be trusted, that we are under constant existential threat and that anyone who criticizes Israeli policy is a closet antisemite or a traitor. For the Left, on the other hand, the advent of Zionism turned the Jews from victims of history to masters of their fate, severing us from the trauma of exile and imbuing us with a sense of security and optimism about our place in the world and the region.
While Israel has become a regional power with world-renowned defense and economic capabilities, many Israelis continue to feel the existential threat that marked our history. Our leaders have fanned these sentiments in recent years, whether out of certain authentic personality traits or as a tool for political manipulation.
In order to examine how foreign policy based on self-assurance and initiative differs from foreign policy driven by a sense of victimization and pessimism, I will touch on three geo-strategic challenges confronting Israel: The Iranian threat, the Arab Spring and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Iranian threat
The pessimistic approach – Iran emphatically calls for Israel’s annihilation and seeks to develop the ultimate weapon to accomplish its goal. This is an existential threat that justifies all preventive measures. Iran is also attempting to attain regional hegemony against Israel through proxies – Hezbollah in the north, Shi’ite militias in Syria and Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. This is the central challenge for Israel’s national security, and all the rest pales in comparison. Israeli diplomacy must focus on the Iranian threat.
The optimistic approach – Israel’s interests lie in participation in an international effort to counter Iran and not in a hegemonic position at the forefront of the campaign. Alarmist attitudes toward the issue distort decision-making. Even if Iran obtains nuclear weapons at some point, Israel is a formidable rival with second-strike capability. The US-led international coalition imposed coordinated sanctions against Iran and eventually achieved the JCPOA between Iran and the P5+1. While imperfect, the agreement significantly delayed an Iranian nuclear breakout A diplomatic initiative vis-à-vis the Palestinians would greatly bolster Israel’s ability to join a regional and Western alliance against Iran.
The Arab Spring
The pessimistic approach – The so-called “Arab Spring” is actually an “Islamist Winter .” Even if initially led by liberals protesting dictatorships, better-organized Islamist forces quickly assumed leadership of this movement, fostering anti-Israel sentiment. Peace agreements with Israel are out of the questions until the “dust settles,” and we know who has the upper hand, and where. This is no time for diplomacy and Israel should focus instead on demonstrating its military capabilities.
The optimistic approach – The Arab Spring created greater openness toward Israel on the part of regional regimes that view Israel as part of the solution to the Sunni and Shi’ite jihadist threat. Israel’s ties with the Gulf States have improved, and the level of counter-terrorism cooperation with Egypt in Gaza and the Sinai is at a record high. Since the Arab Spring, businesspeople are also more open to Israeli capacities and technology. The regional shift provides an opportunity to adopt a diplomatic initiative rather than opting for isolation. Absent negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel cannot break through the glass ceiling to its integration in the region.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict
The pessimistic approach – Prospects of an arrangement with the Palestinians are non-existent and all Israel can do is manage the conflict. The Palestinians will never accept Israel as a Jewish state and give up the right of return. They have turned down every opportunity to reach agreement; when we withdrew from Gaza, we got in return a terrorist organization and missiles on our communities. Withdrawal from the West Bank would result in missiles on Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Israel’s economic hubs. We must rely on our military power until the Palestinians realize they have no choice but to accept our control.
The optimistic approach – The rejectionist approach has shifted from the Palestinian to the Israeli side, and a change in our attitude could result in a breakthrough. Gone are the days when the Palestinian leadership advocated terrorism and rejected every peace initiative. Since Mahmoud Abbas replaced Arafat at the head of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian leadership has taken an official and practical stand against terrorism. Given an Israeli partner, Abbas believes in bilateral diplomacy; absent one, he turns towards multilateral diplomacy. He instructs his security forces to cooperate with the Shin Bet and IDF in countering Hamas terrorism. He has accepted the principle of land swaps and the demand for a disarmed Palestinian state. The 2002 Arab Peace Initiative is still on the table, promising normalized relations with Israel should it move toward a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians. The initiative urges an agreed solution (which means an Israeli veto) to the refugee problem.
Moderate Palestinians still constitute a majority, despite all we have done to undermine their choice of diplomacy and security coordination. Israel must promote an initiative to resolve the conflict. Conditions are ripe for such a move once there is political will.
The vast majority of security veterans, diplomats and retired government officials free to express their views believe Israel is stronger than ever and should take advantage of opportunities rather than cowering against threats.
We are able to initiate an arrangement with the Palestinians that would preserve Israel as the democratic nation state of the Jewish people and dramatically improve our situation in the region. A proactive policy would reopen the doors to the club of liberal European democracies, which are our important partners in terms of values and trade. The optimistic approach would facilitate bipartisan US support and re-engagement with the American Jewish community.
Perhaps the threat of annexation will give rise to the emergence of a diplomatic initiative led by the Center-Left in a spirit of self-assurance and hope rather than fear and victimhood. Absent an optimistic and pro-active approach, we would not have declared our independence and would not have signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, which have changed our strategic position. The name of our anthem is “Hatikvah,” Hebrew for “the hope,” not “Hapachad,” Hebrew for “the fear.”
The writer is a board member at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a former diplomat and policy adviser to president Shimon Peres.