Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to show that nothing has changed. Israel will defend its citizens just as it did before the Arab Spring. The language of Israel’s politicians, the brutal efficiency of its bombing campaign and the asymmetrical death count all echo Israel’s campaigns in the past. But the political dynamics surrounding this assault could not be more different.
The American president – rather than spending his time in the White House Situation Room – is flying around Asia planning his “pivot” from the Middle East. Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi, rather than sealing the border, sent his prime minister to Gaza for a display of solidarity. And regional leaders from Qatar to Tunisia and Turkey are putting themselves in the middle of the skirmish. But rather than responding to this changed environment with a creative diplomatic strategy, Israel’s government seems to be doubling down on tried and tested techniques.
On my last visit to Israel, I noted that officials speak about how their government in recent years has moved from making peace to “managing conflict”. They have built a wall to pen in potential terrorists, while launching periodic attacks to disrupt the military operations of Hamas and Hezbollah. (One official referred to these repeated attempts to defang Hamas as “cutting the grass”.) Every nation is entitled to defend itself. But unless violence is part of a political strategy, it rarely creates real security. The problem with these repeat military operations is that they create a growing pool of anti-Israel resentment in the neighbourhood while eroding Israel’s international standing.
Israel under Netanyahu is indulging in a form of triple escapism – defensive, geopolitical and economic ‑ that takes the nation further and further away from engaging directly with the Palestinians.
The almost 30-foot-high concrete walls that dot Israel’s security barrier do not simply shield Israelis from terrorist attacks. They also shield them from the reality of their occupation, and have led the Israeli government to avoid the sorts of negotiations that are necessary for any lasting peace.
Many Israelis are now against substantive talks with the Palestinians until the latter recognise Israel’s right to be a “Jewish state”. A senior military intelligence officer said, “We used to think of this a territorial dispute, but now we realise it is actually a conceptual one about the legitimacy of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.”
Yitzhak Rabin used to say he would pursue the peace process as if there were no terror and would fight terror as if there were no peace process, but Netanyahu has only ever been interested in the second half of that equation.
The second dimension of Israeli escapism is geopolitical. The elite are concerned about the effects of the Arab uprisings, but they tend to see the expressions of solidarity from new leaders for the Palestinians as empty gestures. However, Daniel Levy, a former adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak who is the head of ECFR's Middle East and North Africa programme, said: “It is dangerous and misguided to assume that Arab states have taken economic sanctions and military responses off the table for all time.”
One reason Israelis do not take the risk of meaningful action by its neighbours seriously is that many can see that their dispute with the Palestinians is being overshadowed by more pressing conflicts such as those between Shia and Sunni Muslims or reforming regimes and counter-revolutionary ones.
Israelis talk about their fear of Iran’s nuclear program, but they also hope anti-Iranian sentiment may reshape the politics of the region. The artificial states constructed by the West after World War I might now collapse and be replaced by new entities drawn around tribal and sectarian lines. “It is not impossible to imagine that with chaos in the region,” according to one Knesset member, “Iraq, Syria and Jordan might disappear and Palestinians might re-affiliate with new entities.”
For some intelligence analysts who focus on the Middle East, it seems like an absurd idea to fixate on a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders at precisely the moment when the borders and governance of all states in the region are up for grabs. But this misses the point. Whatever borders are settled for other states, the Palestinians will demand their rights as citizens.
Israel’s political sphere today has economic escapism at its centre. The country’s governing elite have created a new founding myth for a time of consumerism: that of a “startup nation” of entrepreneurs who came to the desert to create high-tech companies. This country of seven million people ‑ in a state of war since its founding, with no natural resources ‑ has more new companies listed on the Nasdaq than Japan, China, India, Korea, Canada or the UK, according to Daniel Senor and Saul Singer. However, the parties of the left claim that the economic reforms that have driven this growth have seen this aggressively egalitarian country become very unequal, with rising prices and cuts in services increasingly hitting the middle class. This is why last year there was a protest ‑ dubbed the “Tentifada” ‑ about the cost of living. Where Israel’s first generation was involved in founding the state, and the second in heroically defending it from external aggression, today’s Israelis are focused on house prices and the cost of staple foods like cottage cheese.
The paradox is that Israel has retreated from the world at a moment when the long-term prospects for the its survival have never been more insecure. The current operation is called “Pillar of Defense”. Ironically, it comes at a time when the four real pillars of the country’s security are eroding: the memory of the Holocaust; its status as the only democracy in the Middle East; nuclear and conventional military superiority; and American protection. The nightmare scenario for Israel would be to be out-victimed by the Palestinians, out-democratised by the Arabs, outgunned by the Iranians and outside America’s main focus of interest as it shifts its attention from the Middle East to the Pacific.
If Israel tries to protect itself by retreating into a world where it imagines that conflict can be “managed” and where demographics and settlements make a two-state solution impossible to negotiate, the pillars of Israel’s security are even more likely to crumble. Therefore, despite all the complexities on both sides of the conflict that make a two-state solution so difficult to achieve, Israel cannot afford to wait until a more convenient partner or a more stable situation emerges. It needs a deal sooner rather than later. That is the only way to defend the security of its citizens.