Monday, June 14, 2010

The Ugly Stalemate: the Gaza Flotilla and Israel’s Conservative Adventurism

Daniel J. Levine, Colgate University
Daniel Bertrand Monk, Colgate University

Israel’s raid on the relief flotilla bound for Gaza has generated a media firestorm, but one familiar in its broad outlines.  The English-language press has engaged wise elder statesmen to discuss the future of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; the finer points of international law are parsed in accordance with this narrative or that (here and here); videos of preparations to repel Israeli commandos by ‘terrorists’ on the Mavi Marmara are juxtaposed against images of despoiled relief supplies at the Israeli port of Ashdod.  
A perfect storm is also brewing in diplomatic circles.  Turkey has recalled its ambassador to Israel and PM Erdogan has strongly condemned Israel’s actions; the Arab League, the UN Security Council and Human Rights Commission are calling for enquiries; Israeli diplomats in Egypt, Jordan, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Ireland, Norway, Spain and Greece were summoned for clarifications or protests.  US reactions have been muted, but the additional burden to an already strained relationship is apparent. This latest imbroglio seems to suggest that Israeli tone-deafness now spans the full spectrum of force: from botched covert operations like the recent assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, to high-tempo catastrophes like Operation ‘Cast Lead’ (the 2008/9 Gaza war), to the settlement expansions in East Jerusalem announced during the visit of Vice President Joseph Biden.  
 Indeed, Israel’s apparent and severe indifference to international opinion is now itself a recurring theme: policymakers, pundits and the blogosphere seem not to know what to make of it.   Looking at the extent to which the Netanyahu government is prepared to go to enforce the Gaza blockade – despite the risk of alienating allies on whom Israel has an enormous strategic dependence – observers struggle to make sense of a state that seems intent on meeting allies and enemies alike with a mix of intransigence and incoherence. 

Yet debates over the ‘rationality’ of policymakers turn naturally to the competing interests against which questions of state policy are hashed out.  In earlier essays, we suggested that both sympathetic observers of Israel, and professional policymakers, viewed domestic Israeli political developments through an outdated conceptual framework.  The Israeli state, we argued, was in full-blown retreat.  With its dissolution, the familiar dichotomy of a dovish ‘left’ and a hawkish ‘right’ had dissolved as well.  The larger consensus that had tempered Israel’s fractious politics in the 1980s and early 1990s – one in which both ‘doves’ and ‘hawks’ were united in their larger vision of Israel as a secular-national state, and divided primarily over those compromises that should be made to the Palestinian national movement – no longer exists.  To be sure, those old voices still exist, and many in the Israeli political establishment continue to treat them as the defining fault lines of domestic politics.  Yet they no longer combine to represent a critical mass of political views.

Rather, we suggested, one needed to think of Israeli politics in terms of ‘statists’ and ‘radicals’: between those who see the Israeli state as a political solution to the ‘Jewish Question’ in its nineteenth-century variant (the problem of Jewish statelessness and vulnerability in an era of nationalism), and those who see that state in broader, transcendental terms: as a stepping-stone toward some variation of a "Third Kingdom of Israel,” whether parsed through explicitly Messianic terms, or ostensibly secular ones.  The latter routinely threaten the use force to introduce an alternative form of governance if parliamentary democracy fails to serve their agenda:  by way of example, consider recent Rabbinical rulings calling on religious soldiers to disobey orders that involve the ‘uprooting’ of West Bank settlements.
In the midst of that challenge, statists from both the old ‘left’ and ‘right’ have had to band together. Labor and Likud seem to have converged to keep the essential institutions of the Israeli state – the Defense and Finance Ministries, the military, the courts and the central bank – out of the hands of the radicals.  The statists continue to govern, but they pay for the privilege.  First, by outright political bribery: rewarding junior ministries to the radicals, and showering their educational, social and political institutions with state resources even as public libraries and schools must take up their begging-bowls.  Second, and more importantly, by their inaction: by conceding the power to make substantive political decisions on foreign and security policy.  To remain in power, they temporize: showing intransigence to the Palestinians and the Syrians; by deferring difficult constitutive questions about Israel’s identity as a democratic society and the role of minorities within it; by staving off US and regional peace initiatives, without rejecting them outright.  An ugly, delicate stalemate between statists and radicals is thus – just barely – preserved. 

Israel’s actions on the Mavi Marmara need to be understood In light of this ‘ugly stalemate,’ which has its own political logic and pays its own kinds of political rewards. The statists need to preserve their coalition, lest another election depress their representation in Knesset and the government still further. Increasingly, the state and the coalition have been thus conflated with one another out of brute necessity. Unable to make a deal on Palestine – and under some pressure externally to do so – the statists can only govern by resort to what appears, from the outside, to be rank adventurism.   Yet it is adventurism of a peculiar kind, for it is not revisionist, but conservative: it represents the only possible path for maintaining some façade of statist predominance (and perhaps someday restoring its substance), in the face of challenges that would otherwise force statist into open and perhaps violent confrontation for hegemony with radicals.

Consider here debates within the Israeli cabinet immediately following the assault on the Turkish flotilla.  Israel’s Channel One reported a disagreement within the government: between Justice Minister Ya’akov Ne’eman and the Prime Minister, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Yvette Liberman.  What should be done with those 50 or so of the detained Turks who were suspected of links to terrorist organizations?  Should they be tried in Israel or deported?  Ne’eman called for trials, the others for immediate deportation.  One interpretation of this debate suggests a principled defense of the rule of law in Ne’eman’s position and political expediency in that of the PM and his allies.  Yet the Minister of Justice was not seeking to defend the rule of law; he was acting in the name of those sectors of Israeli society which reject rapprochement with the Arab and Muslim worlds.  To try the 50 detainees would perpetuate a crisis which – while detrimental to the interests of Israeli-statist notions of realpolitik, plays directly into the Manichean worldview of its radicals.  Ne’eman, for his part, has been on record advocating for the incorporation of Jewish religious law into the state legal system: the Jewish equivalent of a Sharia state that would transcend the limits of statist realpolitik.  Netanyahu, Barak and Liberman – who in this instance, has shown a Putin-like ability to move between statesmanlike resolve and political thuggery – rushed in to assure deportation.  Only by reserving for themselves the right to abrogate the rule of law could they preserve the statist-radical stalemate – even if doing so ultimately undermined the very ‘statist’ values they were ostensibly defending. 
Israel’s allies misunderstand the starkness of this “ugly stalemate.”  Reading it as simply a moment in Israeli politics where the political ‘right’s’ star is in the ascent, they have chosen to moderate their criticism of the Netanyahu government: why bring down what the Israeli electorate will simply vote back into office?  This is why, in the midst of their condemnation, US leaders are tempering their displeasure with reaffirmations of “Israel’s right to defend itself.” But in fact the problem runs deeper: the left and the right have dissolved into one another, and survive only by eating their political seed corn.  In failing to understand and address this reality, Israel’s allies and well-wishers abroad actually perpetuate it. So do those concerned with the Palestinian cause who understand Israeli adventurism as born of late imperial hubris, rather than weakness.

In the meantime, the statists keep up their end of the “ugly stalemate” only by actions which endanger their long-term political viability.  In the short term, the ‘conservative adventurism’ of the Mavi Marmara raid – like earlier Israeli adventures in Gaza and Lebanon – has garnered considerable domestic support (See poll data here and here.  But viewed over the longer term, there seems little doubt that it is unsustainable.  Consider a comparable imbroglio from Netanyahu’s first term as Prime Minister: in 1997, the Mossad attempted the poisoning of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, then in Amman.  The operation went awry: Meshaal’s bodyguards wrested him away from his would-be assassins, who were later captured by Jordanian officials.  Meshaal clung to life in hospital.  The late King Hussein demanded that Israeli deliver the antidote to the poison administered to him; failing that, the Mossad agents would be hanged and Israel-Jordan relations cut.  Netanyahu temporized, but ultimately handed over the antidote.  To smooth over official relations, he then releases some twenty Hamas prisoners (including the movement’s then-leader, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin) held in Israeli jails. 
Then as now, Israeli journalists decried the government’s ad hoc approach to major foreign policy decisions and its maladroit handling of the international press.  Then as now, humanists decried the state’s misuse of power.  Then as now, Netanyahu (“Israel’s serial bungler,” as the Economist would call him) was pilloried in the world media.  Then as now, there were calls for a State Commission of Inquiry. 

Yet then as now, too, Bibi’s ‘bungling’ did not fundamentally endanger him politically.  His parliamentary coalition – composed of statist right-wingers and religious and nationalist radicals – remained sound.  Calls for an independent Commission of Inquiry were staved off.  The Prime Minister instead appointed a ‘clarifications committee’ lacking formal judicial powers or independence, which duly cleared him of wrongdoing.

What ultimately did bring an end to Netanyahu’s government was instructive: not executive ‘bungling,’ but a betrayal of the burgeoning radical-statist status quo.  In October 1998, Netanyahu signed the Wye River Agreement, which promised to transfer some 13% of the territory of the West Bank to the full or partial control of the Palestinian National Authority.  His coalition swiftly abandoned him.  Then as now: Israel’s radicals can abide incompetence.  What they cannot accept are violations of the territorial and political status quo.
Between the attempted assassination of Meshaal in 1997 and the present Marmara crisis, the costs of the ugly embrace between the former left and right wings of Israeli politics have increased in direct proportion to its perceived necessity.  In 1999, ‘new Labour’ leader Ehud Barak was elected; his government would already be in crisis by 2000, and a new era of ‘zigzags’ among Likud, Labor and Kadima – itself a symptom of statist collapse – was inaugurated.   It was here that the old right and left began to dissolve into one another, in response to new political formations arising out of rapidly ‘nationalizing’ ultra-orthodox constituencies, elements within the traditional ‘right’ and immigrant and settler blocs. (This is the political soup out of which the radical camp would emerge).  The old political orders and movements had, by that point, long realized that they were caught in a new kind of political struggle: Shimon Peres, a paragon of old-school statism, explained his failed electoral bid for Prime Minister in 1996 as the “Jews” defeating the “Israelis.”  Moshe Feiglin – founder of the radical settler movement Zo Arzteinu [‘this is our land’] – agreed.  Both understood that what was at stake was not Israel and Palestine, but Israel and a new Judaea. 
The only question was what shape the new political structures and alliances would take: the statist-radical ‘ugly compromise’ was at that point only one of a number of emergent possibilities.  In the late 1990s, it still seemed to statists that a single magnificent burst of political resolve and parliamentary skill could save them, and defeat the radicals.  They are no longer under any such illusions; their weakness is – for now, at least – beyond dispute.  Indeed, in their own scramble to remain politically relevant, the statists have helped perpetuate it.  Today, the resort to ‘conservative adventurism’ represents, however paradoxical this may seem, a desperate effort on the part of the statists to maintain the institutions of liberal democracy.  For the idea of Israel upon which their actions rest – one in which the state is its own end – now only resonates clearly through military action. 

We thank Sara Lipton, Jonathan Rose and Alexander Barder for many of the sources cited in this essay.


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