May 2nd 2012

Israel’s Continued Independence Rests On Palestinian Independence

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

As Israel recently observed sixty-four years of independence, it is critical that Israelis reflect on the path they have taken and ask if the current one is sustainable in the long-term. Much has been achieved since the nation’s founding and the Israelis should take immense pride in what they have accomplished in a relatively short period of time. In the midst of celebration, however, there is a dangerous obliviousness to the “dark side” of Israel, one that could jeopardize Israel’s very existence far more than threats from Iran or any other country. Indeed, none of Israel’s achievements will be sustainable if Israel ignores the gathering storm and continues on its current perilous course. 

Whereas Israel has achieved a near economic miracle, touting itself as the “start-up nation,” hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens, including a quarter of Holocaustsurvivors, live below the poverty line. The social gap between rich and poor continues to grow, and according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Israel ranks alongside Chile, Mexico, and the United States in its levels of inequality. The increasing frustration of the poor and middle class was on full display last summer, when nearly 400,000 citizens took to the streets to demand equal opportunities, a reigning in of the cost of living, affordable housing, and most importantly, credible government efforts to respond to their demands. Strong support for the protests (as high as 90% in some polls) underscores the level of dissatisfaction that exists today in Israeli society. This is certainly not what the elder Zionists of the state, notably Herzl, had envisioned.

Whereas the Netanyahu government strives to maintain the Jewish national identity of the state and demand from the Palestinian Authority recognition of such, close to 1 million Israelis have left the country for more than one year and have not returned. Moreover, public opinion has been favorable toward those that have left and has been laden with expressions of sympathy that do not bode well for the future Jewish identity of the state. There is a clear and present generational shift in attitude. As the noted journalist Gideon Levy rightly points out, “If our forefathers dreamt of an Israeli passport, there are those among us who are now dreaming of a foreign passport.” Whether motivated by opportunities abroad or fears of future uncertainty, there is a growing uneasiness about the direction that Israel is taking. This certainly defies the dream of the ingathering of the Jews to live in their homeland as they now run the risk of becoming a minority in their last and only refuge. 

Whereas there is a constant stream of rhetoric about the desire to make peace with Palestinians, the Israeli government’s actions on the ground belie its words. Instead of moving toward a solution to the Palestinian problem, Israel is taking steps that will jeopardize any hope of a peaceful settlement. The Netanyahu government’s recent decision to retroactively legalize three West Bank settlements is nothing short of a shameless move that highlights the government’s willingness to surrender to the whims of the settlement movement. Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, is promoting the establishment of a new settlement in East Jerusalem, a move that is bitterly antagonistic toward the Palestinians and threatens to diminish what little hope is left to forge a peace agreement which is sine qua non to Israel’s own existence as an independent Jewish state. Out of desperation, the Palestinians may opt for a one state solution, which will force Israel to choose between being a bi-national state with a Palestinian majority in control or becoming an apartheid state earning international condemnation, increasing isolation, and eventually, crippling sanctions. Is this how the Netanyahu government tries to realize the Jews’ millennium-old dream to live in security and peace? 

Instead of reaching out to the Arab and the Muslim world by embracing the Arab Peace Initiative, Israel managed to alienate the only three Muslim countries that it had enjoyed good relations with. Since the 2010 Gaza Flotilla Raid, a precipitous free-fall in Israeli-Turkish relations has taken place. Recently, Turkey vetoed Israel’s bid for attendance at an upcoming NATO conference in May and has spoken out forcefully against Israel’s latest moves regarding its settlement program. Jordan too hasdenounced Israel’s decision to legalize the three West Bank settlements, and Israel stands to lose the Hashemite Kingdom’s important role in solving the Palestinian question as was demonstrated in recent talks that were, albeit unsuccessfully, held in Jordan between Israeli and Palestinian delegations. The political rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt has also led to heightened tensions. A recent contractcancellation of natural gas delivery to Israel from Egypt was fraught with political concerns and implications. The shifting nature of Egypt’s political landscape reveals a newly found willingness on the part of Egypt to question one of the most important regional relationships since signing the bilateral peace treaty of 1979. Past, current and future Egyptian governments have been, and will always be, particularly sensitive to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The lack of a resolution to this debilitating struggle will remain the singular most daunting obstacle to the normalization of relations between Israel and the Muslim world. Can Israel otherwise survive in a sea of Arab hostility quickly approaching a half billion people? 

The most talked about issue in Israel today, the nature of the Iranian nuclear program, reveals an often-erratic display of behavior on the part of the Netanyahu government. Yuval Diskin, who retired last year as the Director of the Shin Bet (the Israeli equivalent to the FBI), recently said in a public forum that he had no faith in the leadership of Netanyahu and Barak in matters pertaining to relations with Iran, relations that, “present a false view to the public on the Iranian bomb.” He further stated, “I don’t believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings.” Although Iran may represent a certain threat, the government is overly focused on Iran when it should be focused on immediate concerns such as achieving peace with the Palestinians while maintaining its security, national identity and territorial integrity. 

Israel’s former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, was even blunter in his criticism of the Netanyahu government when only a few weeks ago he stated, “We are in a situation in which the national agenda, long-term planning, the handling of the urgent or the politically sensitive national problems, simply don’t exist. The only thing of interest to the leaders is to maintain the coalition and survive.” A chorus of past top Israeli officials including former Prime Minister Olmert, Gabi Ashkenazi, former IDF Chief of Staff and Eliezer Shkedy, former Air Force Commander, along with the current Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, expressed the same concerns. They all suggested, in one form or another, that although Israel should remain vigilant about the Iranian nuclear program and be prepared for any eventuality, Netanyahu’s bellicose statements about Iran are dangerous. 

Diplomacy must be given time to work and attacking Iranian nuclear facilities must absolutely be a last resort and must be made in full coordination with the United States. That said, Israel should reserve the option to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, even unilaterally should diplomacy along with sanctions fail, or if Iran is about to reach the point of no return to acquire nuclear weapons, and finally if the United States is not prepared to take military action under such circumstances. Otherwise, acting prematurely against Iran would have disastrous global consequences for which only Israel would be blamed and suffer unimaginable consequences.   

One would think that given the looming threat to Israel’s national security, if not its very existence, the Israelis would demand from their leaders a unity of purpose by coalescing around a single movement that places national interests, not personal ambitions, first. But sadly, instead of forming such a movement consisting of the center, left-of-center and the left, and agree on a general framework for peace with the Palestinians, political factionalism and opportunism is what characterizes Israel’s political landscape today. It should be recalled that it was internal division and infighting that destroyed ancient Israel, and those who aspire to lead should learn a page or two from the Jews’ instructive history. As Israel moves towards new elections (perhaps this fall), more political parties are mushrooming and sowing the seeds for more division and inner discord which would allow Netanyahu and his cohorts to win another election, something that will bring Israel to the brink of a national disaster.

The father of modern Israel, David Ben-Gurion, offered a wise counsel to the Israeli people, to deal with the Palestinians with restraint and wisdom. If Israel wants to celebrate the next sixty-four years, nay even the next ten years, of independence, with ample praise and adulation for its progress, it must correct its errors, change its current course, and above all else, work tirelessly to achieve a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

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