Israel’s Strategic Goal
Guest post by Jeremy Pressman
Part of me is quite sympathetic to Erica Chenoweth’s framing of the current conflict between Hamas and Israel. But I wonder about and want to challenge one oft-heard point, that the Israeli government lacks an overall strategy.
What if instead of lacking a strategy, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many other members of this government (especially from parties like Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Jewish Home) do have a core strategic goal: holding onto the West Bank. Or, perhaps to put it more broadly, to set Israel’s borders including the West Bank and to defend those borders from military attacks and political (read peace process) challenges. The government’s actual goal is the establishment, or really maintenance at this point, of Greater Israel.
Chenoweth nicely characterizes an alternative Israeli goal: “which, many argue, is necessary for Israel to achieve its most sacred and fundamental goal—securing the future of a democratic, Jewish state that lives at peace with its neighbors.” I do not think they reject that aim totally; maybe if Israel can stretch this out long enough, the clash between peace, democracy, and the West Bank will somehow work itself out. But for them, the number one priority is keeping the West Bank.
Although in 2009 Netanyahu said he accepted a two-state solution, he has never agreed to the minimum stipulations of a two-state solution that would be required to get Palestinian agreement. Netanyahu has not indicated he is willing to divide Jerusalem’s sovereignty and grant Palestinian sovereignty in the core areas of East Jerusalem like Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah (never mind the Old City). Furthermore, his recent comments seem to preclude two states.
The priority right now, Netanyahu stressed, was to “take care of Hamas.” But the wider lesson of the current escalation was that Israel had to ensure that “we don’t get another Gaza in Judea and Samaria.” Amid the current conflict, he elaborated, “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan.”
David Horovitz, founding editor of the right-of-center Times of Israel, didn’t mince words in explaining Netanyahu’s answer: “That sentence, quite simply, spells the end to the notion of Netanyahu consenting to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
And it is not like Netanyahu has lacked opportunities to demonstrate fidelity to a different strategic goal along the lines of what Chenoweth characterized. He has been prime minister now for about eight (non-continuous) years, longer than anyone in Israel’s history save its founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. Netanyahu has had the opportunity to lead Israel during two high-level Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Oslo in the 1990s and the Kerry process more recently. In either process, he could have displayed the desire to unflinchingly pursue a two-state solution and thereby potentially achieve a democratic, Jewish state at peace. He has not done so. (I am not saying he is solely responsible for the failures, but his behavior has been far from embracing and doggedly and passionately pursuing peace.)
Meanwhile, the Netanyahu government has continued to grow Israeli settlements in the West Bank including East Jerusalem. Now that doesn’t prove he seeks to hold onto the West Bank – every Israeli government grows settlements – but he has chosen not to stop growth and thereby provide counter-evidence to a Greater Israel strategy. His hostility toward a settlement freeze, and willingness in 2013 to release Palestinian terrorists rather than accept a freeze, demonstrates how important the West Bank settlements are to him and his supporters.
Let me also mention at least one other telling example. In June 2013, Danny Danon, then Israel’s new deputy defense minister, told a reporter that the majority of Likud and Jewish Home ministers would vote against a cabinet resolution favoring two states, if such a thing ever came to a vote. What was even more interesting was that the article was corrected; it eventually read Danon knew “Israel will not arrive at an agreement with the Palestinians in the near future.” What was the first version that was replaced? “Netanyahu knows Israel will never arrive at an agreement with the Palestinians.”
Instead of lacking strategy, what the Israeli government faces is significant risk in openly stating that its definition of Israel includes the West Bank. If I am correct, why doesn’t the Israeli government just publicly embrace the goal of defining the West Bank as part of Israel? Why not annex the West Bank? After all, Israel has neither clearly and officially stated what I am contending nor formally annexed the entire West Bank. (It has only annexed East Jerusalem. Sort of.)
First, Israeli governments are always coalitions and a few parties who are members of the governing coalition would not like such a bold statement of Israel’s ultimate aim. They do not accept it. Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) currently fit this description. Netanyahu needs their support for governing.
Second, Israel’s main ally, snide comments in the Israeli media notwithstanding, is the United States. Netanyahu has had the misfortune of governing while two Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, were in office and very supportive of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Israel risked significant alienation had it disregarded the peace process entirely and annexed the West Bank.
Third, the European Union is one of Israel’s two major trading partners and it has expressed displeasure in the past over settlements and occupation. Israel could jeopardize its trade and investment, and its economy as a whole, if EU states together penalized Israel for an explicit and lasting commitment to Greater Israel.
Fourth, the demographics of the West Bank do not work out very well. Many Israeli Jews are not interested in incorporating millions of West Bank Palestinians into the self-defined Jewish state.
The status quo, with its apparent ambiguity, allows Israel to fudge all these points. It does just enough to stay in the good graces of the United States and the European Union. It avoids having to make West Bank Palestinians citizens. And other Israeli parties and leaders can still hope to influence Netanyahu; corner the government and compel it to be more open to compromise; or topple him and change Israel’s direction. It is not a done deal.
The whole situation kind of reminds me of the Kurdish region in Iraq. Do those Kurdish leaders aspire to independence? I have to think so. Are they willing to live in limbo for a (long) while because they recognize the potential costs of explicitly declaring independence prematurely? It seems that way. Leaders may be able to calibrate private goals with a public stance that acts a fig leaf.
So it goes for the Israeli right. The goal is clear in their own minds, as are the reasons to keep it less than 100% explicit. If it means having to fight actors like Hamas who reject the status quo, that is a tragic but necessary price.
Jeremy Pressman is an associate professor of Political Science and the director of Middle East Studies at the University of Connecticut. He studies the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, US foreign policy, and Middle Eastern politics.