Thursday, April 1, 2010

Israel-Palestine: No More "Honest Brokers"

Daniel J. Levine 
Colgate University

Daniel B. Monk
Colgate University

The US has been playing (or rather, pretending to play) the wrong role in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.  No “honest broker” is needed to bridge differences between the parties.  Former US President Clinton’s bridging proposals of 2000, or something very close to them, remain the best viable template for a two-state solution, and their parameters are well known to all sides.  If such a solution remains in the offing– a point worth arguing in its own right, but not our concern here – it begins with them.  Since the path to their implementation is not marked with clarificatory 'negotiations’ but with political will, it is hard to imagine how the proposed Clinton-Mitchell 'proximity talks' can help either side get closer to them.
Where US intervention is needed is within Israel. Despite appearances to the contrary, the Israeli state is in full-blown retreat: its intransigence on Palestinian and Syrian talks is due not to its strength, but to its weakness. For decades – until the 1970s – Israel was essentially a one-party state: Labor dominated the ‘commanding heights’ of manufacturing, the labor and trade unions, the media, and the influential military and kibbutz sectors.  Control of the government passed to Menachem Begin’s Likud in 1977; yet Labor’s ongoing dominance in economic, military, and social circles, and a series of Labor-Likud unity governments in the 1980s, preserved a clear horizon of political and ideological consensus.   

Since the early 1990s, however, the situation has changed.   Key assets and industries were sold, the mass media was liberalized and marketized, and a series of electoral reforms gave the traditional ‘national’ parties a distinct disadvantage vis-√†-vis smaller ‘fractional’ movements.  All dynamics now pulled parliamentary politics toward radicalization: a slimmer public sector could no longer be mined for political patronage by the traditional power-brokers, while single-issue parties proved increasingly adept in wrangling coalition negotiations to deliver political ‘goods’ to their voters.  Into this mix came events that rendered the security consensus of the previous two decades obsolete: the first Intifada and the end of the Cold War.

The collapse of the Oslo-Madrid process has only accelerated these long-term dynamics: the movements that have composed Israel’s traditionally state-centered ‘left’ and ‘right’ seem in a permanent state of implosion.  Since 2000, the former has found itself without a coherent narrative, careening from setback to setback. Ehud Barak’s abortive “rebranding” (a la Tony Blair) of the Labor movement in 1999 stressed physical separation from the Palestinians over any serious discussion of national reconciliation, leaving the party ripe to be outflanked by Ariel Sharon’s centrist Kadima party after the collapse of the final status talks.  A revitalized social-democratic agenda seemed in the offing with the election of Amir Peretz to Labor leadership in the mid 2000s, but hopes were dashed by his ill-advised support of the 2006 Lebanon “summer war.”  Labor and its traditional parliamentary allies seem a spent political force.   

Likud has fared better at the polls; but that pearl has been bought at great price.  Its traditional base – the adherents of Jabotinsky’s “Revisionist” Zionism – find themselves outflanked by a new generation of radical, single-issue movements, united only by their rejection of Labor: Russian ultra-nationalists, Sha's, and a new generation of radicals and settlers who abandon realpolitik and geopolitical calculi in favor of received truths, whether divine in their origins or wholly intramundane. Likud’s survival depends on Netanyahu’s ability to keep this fractious group – only just – together.  Its precarious nature actually grants him considerable freedom of action, but in a negative sense: the radicalism of his coalition partners provides him cover for not doing anything substantive on the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian fronts.

This, then, is the key point about Israeli politics that often fails to ‘translate’: the traditional, state-centered ‘left’ and the ‘right’ no longer exist as positive political forces: they are imaginary points of reference for an electorate that is either increasingly radical or increasingly disaffected.  Israeli electoral politics is divided between those who acknowledge and fear a reality in which the state has come to symbolize only a means to an (essentially contested) end, and those who are not only partly responsible for this condition, but also willing to hold everyone else hostage to threats that they may finish the job if ‘pushed too far’ – viz., any number of variations on a “Third Kingdom of Israel,” and the neutralization of opponents within the Israeli body politic who might stand in the way of the ethnic cleansing necessary to achieve a hegemonic eschatology.  For some years, one of the more macabre jokes among members of the Israeli left has gone thus: Q: “Why does every Leftist in Israel have a friend among the radicals?”  A: “So that they can wangle a better job in the concentration camps.” In light of this reality, Israeli political commonsense for those living within the Green Line is obvious: “Until circumstances force us to make any ‘fateful compromises,’ it is better to let sleeping dogs lie.” 

In this larger context, Labor – the natural ally of the present US leadership – is caught in a Gordian knot: if it leaves the government, it abandons everyday policymaking – issues of citizenship, women’s and minority rights, education – to religious and nationalist radicals. Yet if it stays, Labor alienates its base on key foreign policy issues: peace and reconciliation with the Arab world, sustaining good relations with the US, Europe and the larger international community.  Labor's latest poll numbers are a dramatic testament to this losing proposition: to halt the Israeli state’s immediate slide into Peronism, they must sacrifice their medium-term survival. Since parliamentary elections would likely wipe them off the map, their constant decline in the polls binds their fate ever more tightly to Netanyahu's intransigence. 

For its part, the traditional right finds itself in an obverse paradox: it can form governments by entering into coalitions with the radicals, but only if any hope of governing effectively is checked ‘at the door.’  Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s (Sha's) announcement on settlement construction in East Jerusalem during US Vice-President Biden’s recent visit – and Netanyahu’s otherwise inexplicable inability to control the timing of such announcements – makes sense only in the context of this paradox. The remnants of the ‘traditional’ left and right are thus bound in a death-embrace: Netanyahu needs Labor and Barak so as to not be overcome by radicals from outside Likud and within it; Labor needs Likud because without a place in government it has nothing left to offer. 

Sustained US pressure can materially affect this complex state of affairs, but it needs to be aimed at those disaffected ‘statist’ voters who have chosen to surrender government to the radicals to avoid domestic confrontation. The dichotomy that characterizes American discussions on Israel – between the notions that Israel’s strategic interests and those of America diverge, or else that it is inappropriate for one ally to pressure another– misses this point entirely.  The tacit strategic ‘choice’ of the disappearing Israeli center has been to purchase short-term domestic harmony at the cost of accepting an untenable, unending grinding-down of Palestinians’ rights and hopes.  To confront the radicals on these points is to risk civil-cum-holy war: a return to the confrontations of the mid-1990s. Since the ‘statists’ pay no immediate price for having abandoned the Palestinians to the tender mercies of their political rivals, that ‘bargain’ (if one can call it that) is not without its benefits.  Political pressures that expose and alter that tacit strategic ‘calculus’ must be brought to bear.  Only if ‘statist’ Israelis are faced with the dimensions of this capitulation, and with paying a price for it, can it be squarely confronted – let alone revisited.  

“Friends” of Israel from without would thus do well to reconsider their knee-jerk objections to criticism of the present Israeli government.  They might ask what would happen if a ‘statist’ discourse were to collapse completely.  Only a vibrant, engaged and relevant Israeli state, focused on political interests and willing to balance those interests against those of allies and rivals, can preserve a genuine alliance between Israel and the US: one, that is, with its own center of gravity outside of the deep pockets and lobbying acumen of AIPAC and the Christian right.  At present, these “friends” feel more like “enablers”: in helping subsidize a losing truce between Israel’s statists and its radicals, they both prolong the occupation, and defer a meaningful domestic conversation within Israel.  The domestic face-off needed can be helped along, before it descends into full-blown crisis: thus minimizing its hardships, and containing the damage.  

This, however, is not the work of so-called “honest brokers,” nor will even-handedness do the trick.  To understand the extent of the shift that is necessary in US foreign policy in the region one need only contrast the contemporary history of diplomacy among “friends” with a precedent in US-Israeli relations: in which, as it were, friends refused to let friends drive drunk.   After the IDF conquered the Sinai Peninsula in Fall 1956, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion stood on the rostrum of the Knesset and announced: “the armistice agreement with Egypt is dead and buried and cannot be restored to life.”  “In consequence,” he continued, “the armistice lines between Israel and Egypt have no more validity.”  For good measure, Ben-Gurion also declared that Israel would not consent to the stationing of “foreign forces” – a UN mission – in the territory it had captured.  Within months, all traces of Israel’s presence in the Sinai would be gone, UN peacekeepers having replaced them. The Eisenhower administration refused to treat seriously the directives of an Israel that had, for the first time but not for the last, come to believe that it could dictate terms to others instead of coming to terms with itself.  

The present Israeli government’s drumbeat of rejectionism conceals a muffled cry for intervention from a body politic that has lost its way.  They might yet find their way back: but they could use a little help from their friends.  

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