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Israel's New National Policy Debate

Shai Feldman
Director, The Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, Tel Aviv University

February 4, 2004

I will start out by offering 3 points that will essentially summarize this talk.

  1. If you analyze Israel's overall strategic situation, Israel is stronger than it's ever been in its history. The processes that have been going on for the last two decades were accelerated by the Iraq war. Israel's rivals have all disappeared, weakened, or changed their orientation away from open hostility.

  2. It is nonetheless difficult to translate this strategic power into a resolution of the Palestinian conflict.

  3. These greater margins of security are propelling Israel towards a unilateral move to separate itself from the Palestinians. Whether or not the present government is able to see this through is an open question.

Major indices of national power (GDP, the state of technology, implementation of RMA, and so forth) show that over the last 2 decades Israel has unquestionably become stronger, both in absolute terms and in relation to its neighbors. A major reason is that Israel has enjoyed 26 years of peace with Egypt, which has survived some major strains including the war in Lebanon, and nine years of peace with Jordan, which provides a buffer between Israel and the gulf states. The war on Iraq has accelerated the trend. Iraq is no longer on the books as a regional power. There is no longer an "eastern front" facing Israel. America's willingness to deal with a member of the "axis of evil" has had a meaningful effect on Tehran. Libya has made an about face. The overall effect is that today Israel's regional environment is more benign than it has ever been.

Yet the Israeli public is realizing that it cannot utilize this power against the Palestinians to gain peace. The problems that Israel experiences as a regional power are similar to those the US faces as a global power. A new mindset is growing on the Israeli public, and I believe today it encompasses 60-75% of Israeli citizens. This mindset holds the following views:

  1. Israel is unable to impose its will on the Palestinians, which I have already discussed.

  2. The present demographic trend implies that soon the Jews will lose majority status in the region between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. When this occurs, if Israel is to remain one state that is Jewish in character, it will have to deny Palestinians rights and become an apartheid regime.

  3. Even now the Arab population within Israel proper is becoming increasingly angry and vocal. If coexistence within the 1967 lines is difficult now, how can Israelis coexist with a large Palestinian majority?

  4. Israel cannot seem to find a Palestinian partner with which to negotiate a two-state solution. Arafat cannot be this partner, as both Labor leaders and Likud leaders are saying. The first two Palestinian prime ministers have taken off. The old debate - what concessions can Israel make to the Palestinians - is therefore passe. The new debate is what steps can Israel take to preserve Israel as a Jewish state.

  5. The Palestinians will violate any agreement they sign. Israelis no longer trust Palestinians, calling into question the value of any negotiated agreement as opposed to unilateral action.

    The most far-reaching proposal on the table within the Cabinet is to concede 80% of the territories unilaterally, obtaining no commitment at all from the Palestinians. The 80% would be enough to obtain a favorable demographic balance. Of course if you give up 80% of the territories and obtain no concessions, many are asking why not negotiate and give up 100% and get something back in return? (This is the premise of the Geneva proposal.) The answer goes back to the idea that Israelis no longer believe any concessions are credible, so the additional 20% is 20% lost. This brings up the last view that composes the new mindset:

  6. The US is unlikely to repeat the efforts of Presidents Carter and Clinton. Only Israeli action and effort can achieve peace. This has as much to do with America's current commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere as it does with American political will.

The question then becomes whether or not the Israeli leadership will exploit the favorable strategic environment to take unilateral action toward the Palestinians that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Sharon is singing the right song. These days he talks about a Palestinian state that is contiguous. He is also talking about relocating settlements as well as dismantling outposts. But clearly this rhetoric has not yet been translated into action, leading to the following questions:

1. What's going on with Sharon himself?

I am not a psychologist, but I believe that right now he is undergoing a kind of personal struggle between his analysis and his heart. He is the leader of the settlement movement, and he truly believes in it. He will have to abandon something that he has been working on his whole adult life.

2. Will Israel actually be willing to pull out of territory?

Separation from the Palestinian people implies separation from Palestinian territory. Skeptics believe Sharon will employ some schemes so that he can claim territorial separation without actually going through with it.

3. Will Sharon be able to muster sufficient support among the Likud leadership?

Contrary to the perception of Europeans, who claim that Israel has moved sharply to the right based upon its election of Likud leaders, Likud itself has actually moved to the center. Based upon scientific polling, academics have discovered that those who identify themselves as Likud voters distribute as the Israeli public at large distributes in terms of opinions on political issues, probably because of the current crisis within labor. As the Likud voters have moved to the center, the leaders have moved to the center also. But the party activists have not, and this is having interesting political implications.

4. The last problem is that while these views represent 60-75% of the Israeli population, they are largely a passive majority. The minority, those that support a hard-line position on settlements, are quite vocal and active, and they are mobilizing politically. So the question becomes, can the majority mobilize in response?

I believe that ultimately Israel will unilaterally separate from the Palestinians. The alternatives are to become an apartheid state - this is unacceptable - and to continue to negotiate, which is becoming equally unacceptable within Israeli society given Israel's recent experiences. When this separation ultimately occurs will depend on the answers to the above questions.

Rapporteur: David Blum

back to seminar schedule, Spring 2004