In defense of defense

For the PM, political survival could be the right strategy.

Netanyahu, Knesset 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Netanyahu, Knesset 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
One of the foremost criticisms of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s statecraft is that he has refrained from advancing a dynamic foreign policy, or what is often called a peace “initiative.” In general, the critique runs as follows: Netanyahu’s main concern is political survival, which implies keeping his coalition intact and nothing beyond. To accomplish this, he has avoided taking any initiative in “peace diplomacy” that could end Israel’s isolation on the international scene.
In this view, Netanyahu’s acceptance of the two-state solution in his June 2009 BESA Center/Bar-Ilan University speech and his declared desire for direct peace talks with the Palestinians are to be considered half-hearted reactions to demands from Washington. Netanyahu’s opponents aver that, while he may be successful in surviving politically, he is compromising the national interest.
Is this an accurate evaluation? An alternative reading is that given the current international scene, a protective or defensive diplomatic strategy is more rational for reasons of statecraft, not (only) for domestic political reasons. A careful reading of the past 20 years of peace diplomacy and its dismal results supports the assertion that any purported Israeli diplomatic initiative holds more pitfalls than promise. The reason is simple: It is now the norm that an initiative is synonymous with territorial concessions, dangerous concessions.
THE ADVANTAGE of defense over offense under certain circumstances is well known in sports as well as in military strategy. Usually, it is recommended to the weaker side in a competition or battle. Additionally, often it makes sense to the side for whom the status quo is working.
The main argument for undertaking an initiative is that time is not on Israel’s side and hence it cannot afford to be passive. Whether the country is in this situation is debatable.
A review of recent diplomatic history bears out the argument in support of a protective, rather than an active, strategy.
The first diplomatic test case to be considered is the Oslo process, where Israeli leaders initiated a major diplomatic move and yet ended up weaker than at the outset of the process.
In many respects, Israel had been at the peak of its power in 1992. The first intifada was winding down without any accomplishments for the Palestinians. The eastern front (composed of Jordan, Syria and Iraq, and which had been a major threat) collapsed following the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s army in the 1991 Desert Storm operation.
Even more important was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, which eliminated the main strategic superpower supporting the Arab cause. In its wake came the largest and most productive wave of immigration. The more than one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union not only favorably tilted the demographic balance of the Jewish state, but also enhanced its economic and military power. And then came the Oslo initiative. Israel is still recovering from its damaging results.
The prime minister associated with the pre-Oslo years was the “passive” Yitzhak Shamir, who prevented a response to the Iraqi Scuds. Prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, known as an “active” leader (to use James Barber’s passive/active typology), embraced the Oslo negotiations initiated by Yossi Beilin and associates. Who would dare argue that Israel’s geostrategic position in the post-Oslo era comes close to what we enjoyed prior to 1993?
ANOTHER RECENT example of political activism is the withdrawal from Lebanon in the spring of 2000. Prime minister Ehud Barak (under pressure of what came to be known as the Four Mothers movement) hastily pulled out from Lebanon, betraying Israel’s Christian south Lebanese allies. By doing so, the country damaged its credibility. By any comparison, its geostrategic situation in the 1990s was superior to the current one in which 40,000 missiles threaten every site in the country. The casualties suffered in the Second Lebanon War, combined with the potential ones resulting from the next military confrontation, will likely vastly exceed those we would have suffered had we stayed in Lebanon and negotiated for a levelheaded withdrawal.
The third example of activism is the Gaza disengagement in 2005, in which Ariel Sharon (under constant pressure to “do something”) initiated a unilateral withdrawal. It resulted in the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas and its transformation into one large military base from which to bombard the Negev. The end result was a military operation that cost Israel (and Gaza) dozens of casualties, and brought it international opprobrium.
In addition to the above cases, one must add the two which did not translate into actual territorial withdrawals but definitely belong to the category of failed diplomatic activism. The first was the 2000 Camp David talks during which Ehud Barak offered far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians. Yasser Arafat’s refusal to accept these proposals was followed by the second intifada in which Israel suffered more than 1,000 casualties. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert says that during his administration, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas rejected even deeper concessions. In short, the history of peace initiatives is not very promising.
WHAT ARE the current options under Netanyahu? Let’s begin by considering the situation in the North. The rationale for a peace settlement with Syria is its detachment from alliance with the “axis of evil.” But an equally possible outcome could be that a withdrawal from the Golan Heights will strengthen Syria and with it the emerging Ankara-Damascus-Beirut-Teheran axis. The abandonment of the Sudetenland by Czechoslovakia in 1938 resulted in the weakening of the latter.
This axis has recently also received a boost from Moscow following Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visits to Damascus and Ankara. The first casualty of Syria’s ascendance as a result of its alliance with Iran will be Lebanon. The withdrawal from “fortress Golan Heights” could be followed by an anschluss with Lebanon. The Druse leader Walid Jumblatt has already seen the writing on the wall and recently flew to Damascus to appease Bashar Assad.
Similarly, a withdrawal from the West Bank might result in a takeover by Hamas, even via a democratic election. An Israel surrounded by a Hizbullah-controlled Lebanon in the north, an Iranian-influenced Syria in the northwest, a Hamas-controlled Palestinian state in the east and a Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in the south provides little room for a peace process; a peace that implies yet more territorial withdrawals.
ANOTHER RECENT voice for change and strategic initiative is the pressure on Israel to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Should the country be forced to change it traditional ambiguous nuclear  approach, the road is clear: An “exit from the closet” would result in a nuclear arms race in the Middle East rather than the emergence of a nuclear-free zone. Iran would have every justification for developing its nuclear option. A nuclear Iran would force Arab states into developing their own nuclear weapons. Again, in this sphere too, an initiative would likely have opposite results to those anticipated.
So what should the Netanyahu administration do? A defensive strategy has thus far allowed Netanyahu to enjoy domestic political stability. His opposition dismisses this as mere survival. Yet he has learned some lessons from his term as prime minister between 1996-1999; one of which is that stability is necessary for good governance. Obviously, Netanyahu’s political stability is upsetting to the Israeli Left, which expected a repetition of the tumbling from crisis to crisis that characterized his first administration.
Hence Netanyahu should ignore critics who deride his stable coalition as a do-nothing government. Those who criticize his strategy are not exactly his best friends. A bunker or defensive diplomatic strategy has its rationale; it relies on opponents making mistakes (which, in turn, would allow Israel to ease any diplomatic siege). It would be up to Netanyahu to identify that moment and take advantage of it.
To be sure, the historical analysis developed above is notall-inclusive; it ignores the positive diplomatic initiative of thelate 1970s – what might be called the Begin-Sadat entrepreneurshippartnership. However, it seems that today Netanyahu has no partnerequal to the task. The purpose of the current proximity talks, then, isto evaluate whether PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad or President Abbasis of Sadat’s size and caliber. A similar test could be applied toSyrian President Bashar Assad.
Should these talks fail, conflict management may be the only rational strategy for the long-term.
The writer is a senior researchassociate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and dean ofthe Faculty of Social Sciences at Bar-Ilan University. This article wasfirst published by the BESA Center Perspective Papers.