By Andrew Wilson
In an interview on Monday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas remarked, “Israel talks about the two-state solution without taking a single step towards that solution … [They are] comfortable with the status quo.” From the Palestinian viewpoint, peace talks have been on ice since September 2010 when Israel refused to renew a construction freeze of its settlements on Palestinian lands. Exploratory talks in January went nowhere, and Tuesday’s exchange of letters between Abbas's representatives and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was already being dismissed as political theater.
Netanyahu clearly has no compunction about stonewalling the Palestinians, of whom he has nothing but contempt. Meanwhile, he is doing whatever he can to further the goals of the settler movement by seeking to legalize new settlements in the West Bank, last month at Milgrom and now at Bruchin, Rehalim, Sansana, and Ulpana.
Netanyahu is drinking “Israeli Comfort,” a soothing yet intoxicating brew in a society where fear of annihilation, kept alive by memories of the Holocaust, and fear of hostile Arabs that fought Israel in three wars go hand in hand. It is distilled in the firepower of Israel’s military and blended with the dream of transforming all of the West Bank into “Judea and Samaria” as the biblical Jewish homeland.
His bellicose language on Iran was yet another swig from the bottle of Israeli Comfort. Never mind that an Israeli airstrike against Iran could lead the region into a conflagration, with Iranian missiles targeting Saudi airfields and American bases in the Gulf. Never mind that Hezbollah, as Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, could easily retaliate against northern Israel. Never mind that international sanctions are already making Iran pay a price for its nuclear ambitions. Israeli Comfort is a smooth drink that reinforces Israeli pride in its military prowess.
Yet too much whiskey clouds a man’s judgment. It makes him irresponsible and disregard the needs of others. It may lead him to break the law. Israeli Comfort has made Netanyahu short-sighted and selfish, consumed with self-importance and blind to the damage he is causing to Israel’s long-term future as a Jewish state, Israeli’s long-term security interests, Israel’s relations with its European allies, and the Palestinian people.
Too much Israeli Comfort has also emboldened him to disregard the rule of law. In moving to preserve the Milgrom settlement, Netanyahu disregarded a ruling of the High Court of Justice that the settlement, built on private Palestinian land, must be dismantled. In the case of Ulpana, a neighborhood of the settlement of Beit El, the government already promised to abide by a High Court decision that the 30 homes there must be demolished, but now Netanyahu is looking for a way to save them.
When on April 4 Israeli soldiers evicted 15 Jewish settlers from an illegally occupied house in the West Bank city of Hebron, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, “We are determined to make sure that the rule of law and the authority of the state of Israel over all its citizens will be assured.” He told reporters that “the house was taken over by citizens against the law.”
Netanyahu and his settler allies squawked in protest, but Barak’s remark about the lawlessness of the settlers was calculated to garner political support in a country that is growing more and more disquieted by increasing lawlessness. Settlers who perpetrated “price-tag” assaults on Palestinian property and even attacked an IDF military base have gone unpunished. Lawlessness has infected the security forces as well, as images of an unarmed Danish protestor getting slammed in the face by a rifle butt have been seen all over the world. In Hebron, a nine-year-old child of a Jewish settler was severely beaten by soldiers after he strayed from his yard into a military zone. Israelis are law-abiding people, and they are understandably concerned by lawlessness, particularly when their own prime minister flouts the law.
Barak’s action to evict those settlers in Hebron is a sign of dissension within Netanyahu’s own ranks. Shaul Mofaz, newly-elected head of the Kadima Party, is emerging as a formidable challenger in the next election. By opposing Netanyahu over Hebron, the wily Barak may be preparing for his exit from Netanyahu’s Likud Party to join Mofaz’s camp.
Mofaz also appreciates the taste of Israeli Comfort; he was the general who led Israel’s tough crackdown against the Second Intifada. But he is also a realist and a sober man who sees the damage that too much of this drink can cause.
Regarding the Palestinians, Mofaz recognizes that for Israel to keep its Jewish majority, the Palestinian population needs to be separated into a state of their own. The irresistible logic of demography is that holding on to the West Bank and Gaza would inevitably make Jews a minority within their own country. He told The Jerusalem Post on April 12:
An agreement with the Palestinians is in our clear interests because it will guarantee that Israel will remain a Jewish and democratic state … The biggest danger for Israel is not the Iranian threat but Israel becoming a bi-national state. Losing the Jewish majority endangers Israel more than anything. I will not let it happen.
Mofaz has pledged to bring about a two-state solution, even if it means putting away the bottle of Israeli Comfort, a major ingredient of which is fear of Arabs.
Mofaz’s rise to leadership of the opposition has also neutered Netanyahu’s rhetoric on Iran, because Mofaz is an Iranian-born Jew who knows the Iranians better than Netanyahu ever will. Netanyahu’s warlike statements had already been met by dissension and widespread disbelief among the Israeli public. The prospect of a difficult war can sober up a population like nothing else.
A pragmatic viewpoint would see Iran in the wider geopolitical context of the region. Iran’s primary goal is to gain Shiite supremacy over the Sunni Arab world. Iran’s animus towards Israel, whether expressed by nuclear weapons or proxies like Hezbollah, is largely to further this goal. Posing as the great champion of the Palestinian cause and Israel’s greatest foe is mainly to demonstrate superiority over Sunni states like Saudi Arabia. However, if a peace agreement were signed and the Palestinian issue taken off the table, Iran would lose much of its impetus to be anti-Israel. In an environment created by peace, moderate Sunni Arab states could even make common cause with Israel against Iran, further reducing Iran’s influence.
Israeli Comfort is all about security, yet it has been of scant benefit to Israelis living in Sderot and Ashdod who have suffered years of rocket attacks from Gaza. Netanyahu’s stonewalling of peace efforts with the Palestinian Authority has only strengthened Hamas, since lack of results in Ramallah justifies Hamas’s hard-liners in their campaign of violence. An end to the occupation is what Palestinians want more than anything, and if negotiations with the Palestinian Authority were producing new facts on the ground, such as Israeli disengagement from West Bank land, it would be a powerful incentive for Hamas to moderate its views and/or for Gazans to repudiate Hamas. Until then, Israeli airstrikes will continue to be spectacularly ineffective.
The Palestinians are not going to let Netanyahu forget the pain that his predilection for Israeli Comfort causes them. Hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners have begun to draw the world’s attention to their plight. Many have been held in administrative detention for months and years on end without being charged with any crime. Their protests demonstrate discipline and purpose as they stick to the script of non-violence. Their maturity and resolve cannot help but impress thinking Israelis and give them an opening to reassess the character of their adversaries as possible peace partners.
The Europeans too are growing tired of Netanyahu’s line, even if they have refrained from doing much about it—until now. When German poet and Nobel laureate Günter Grass spoke out last week against Israel’s adventurism against Iran, he dared to violate the German shibboleth about speaking ill of Israel out of shame over its Nazi past, not least because of the poet’s own youthful involvement with the Waffen SS. Yet despite enduring heaps of criticism, his poem, What Must Be Said, has broken down a wall of self-censorship that had silenced the post-war generation of Germans from honestly assessing Israel’s behavior.
Israel will always have European friends, but they will no longer feel compelled to turn a blind eye to behavior stemming from a dependence on Israeli Comfort that is selfish and causes harm to others. A movement for boycott-divestment-sanctions is gathering steam, with a Norwegian retail pharmaceutical chain’s April 1 announcement that it has stopped selling cosmetics produced in the West Bank.
Somehow, whether through internal political change or external intervention, in the end, Israel will have to put away the bottle and engage in sincere negotiations with the Palestinians, uncomfortable as those may be. When it does so, it will need to demonstrate sincerity by ceasing and rolling back settlement activity, releasing Palestinian prisoners, and granting the Palestinians greater sovereignty over the West Bank. Israel will negotiate soberly and clear-eyed, not because it is comfortable, but because a two-state solution is the only viable option for its future as a Jewish state.
Andrew Wilson is co-author of the Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine (www.israel-palestine-border.org), an independent initiative to draw a map based on the principles of fairness, contiguity, access, minimizing dislocation of the population, and enhancing conditions for economic development.
(Photo courtesy of Rusty Stewart)