POWER WITH PURPOSE
POLITICAL power is always a double-edged sword. The more of it you amass, the more people expect you to use it to do big things, and, when you don’t, the more ineffectual you look.
That’s the dilemma in which Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel finds himself. He avoided early elections by adding a new centrist coalition partner to his right-wing Cabinet, giving him control of 96 of the 120 seats in Parliament. There are Arab dictators who didn’t have majorities that big after rigged elections.
What is unclear is whether Bibi assembled these multitudes to be better able to do nothing or be better able to do something important to secure Israel’s future.
The stakes could not be higher – for him and Israel. Ami Ayalon, the former commander of Israel’s Navy and later its domestic intelligence service, put it to me this way: “I imagine a book called ‘Jewish Leaders in Recent History’ that one day Bibi’s grandson will be reading. What will it say? In one version, I imagine the section about the State of Israel will say that Herzl envisaged it, Ben- Gurion built it and Netanyahu secured it as a Jewish democracy.” But there is another version that could also be written, added Ayalon. “This version will describe Herzl and Ben-Gurion in the same way, but it will say of Netanyahu that he was the only Israeli leader who had the political power and he missed his moment in history” – and, thereby, created a situation in which Israel is not a Jewish democracy anymore. “Now is his moment to decide.” I’m keeping an open mind, but the temptation for Bibi to do nothing will be enormous. The Palestinians are divided between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and both populations are tired. Moreover, economic conditions have improved in the West Bank in recent years, and the Palestinian Authority’s security forces are keeping a tight rein on anti-Israeli violence. Aid from the US, Europe and the Arabs pays a lot of the authority’s budget.
Israel’s security wall keeps Palestinian suicide bombers out.
The US election silences any criticism coming from Washington about Israeli settlements. The Israeli peace camp is dead, and the Arab awakening has most Arab states enfeebled or preoccupied.
So Israel gets to build settlements, while the Arabs, Americans, Europeans and Palestinians fund and sustain a lot of the occupation.
No wonder then that for most Israelis, the West Bank could be East Timor. “We see the writing on the wall, but we don’t care,” says the columnist Nahum Barnea of the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, referring to the fact that Arabs could soon outnumber Jews in areas under Israeli control.
The exception to all of this is Iran’s nuclear program, but Bibi – either through brilliant bluffing that he will bomb Iran or a sincere willingness to do so – has managed to make stopping Iran’s nuclear program a top US and global priority.
Whenever a nation or leader amasses this much power, with no checks coming from anywhere, the probability of misreading events grows exponentially. Bibi could be assuming that the Palestinians in the West Bank can be pacified simply with better economic conditions.
Don’t count on it.
Humiliation remains the single most powerful human emotion. It trumps economic well-being every time. Bibi could be assuming that the Palestinian security services will indefinitely act as Israel’s forward police force in the West Bank – absent any hopes of Palestinian statehood. Not likely – eventually they will be viewed as “traitors.” Bibi could be assuming that Israel could strike Iran – and upend the world economy – and still continue to build settlements in the West Bank. I would not bet on that; the global backlash could be severe. Bibi could be assuming that the West Bank Palestinian leadership will always be moderate, secular and pro-Western. If only ..
At the same time, Bibi is prime minister for a reason. He was elected because many Israelis lost faith in the peace process and see chaos all around them. So what to do? Here I think Ayalon has the best new idea: “constructive unilateralism.” In an essay in this newspaper on April 24, Ayalon and two colleagues argued that Israel should first declare its willingness to return to negotiations anytime and that it has no claims of sovereignty on any West Bank lands east of its security barrier. It should then end all settlement construction east of that barrier and in Arab neighbourhoods of Jerusalem and establish an attractive housing and relocation plan to help the 100,000 Jewish settlers who live east of the barrier to relocate within Israel’s recognised borders.
The Israeli Army would remain in the West Bank until the conflict was resolved with a final-status agreement. And Israel would not physically force any citizens to leave until an agreement was reached, even though relocations could begin well before then. Such an initiative would radically change Israel’s image in the world, dramatically increase Palestinian incentives to negotiate and create a pathway for securing Israel as a Jewish democracy. And Bibi could initiate it tomorrow.
“Heroic peacemaking is over,” says Ayalon. It is time for “coordinated” and “constructive” unilateralism.
The way is there.
Does Bibi have the will?