Hinting at crazy
The latest Palestinian threat to leave the negotiations and turn to the international community to give it what it wants comes after the passage in the Israeli government of a proposal to attach the Jordan Valley to Israel. The principal promoter of the proposal is MK Miri Regev, one of the most outspoken of the parliamentarians in the right wing of the Likud delegation.
Most likely this will join several other efforts of Israeli politicians to threaten Palestinians and Israeli Arabs with something approaching an apocalypse. Remember the proposal of Avigdor Lieberman, repeated several times, to trade areas of Israel populated by Arabs, along with its population, for areas of the West Bank populated by Jews.
Lieberman is now foreign minister, and no longer speaking of trading off Israel’s Arabs. Regev’s proposal is not expected to go far in the complex process that the Knesset employs to enact legislation.
Somewhat lower in the level of threat are the recent expressions of Prime Minister Netanyahu, responding to the firing of five missiles from southern Lebanon to Israel (only one of which made it out of Lebanon, and that landing on an empty field) by describing the IDF response as immediate and destructive.
Reporters with access to the IDF described Israel’s retaliation as aimed for empty fields, and meant to hint at Israel’s concern rather than do any real damage. While the prime minister said that Israel would hold the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah responsible for any attacks, it was reported that those actually firing the missiles, and doing an amateurish job of it, were members of an al-Quaida linked factional group, most likely meaning to spur Israeli action against their Hezbollah rivals.
Why Israel’s bluster? Is it yet another case of smoke and mirrors? Or are they threats, more or less credible, but useful to the prime minister by way of providing him with the means to balance the crazies among the Palestinians, or what he may view as the extremism of the American secretary of state? They allow him to say, or perhaps only to hint, that if the Palestinians and Americans do not behave reasonably then the Israeli policy may actually move in ways that may be catastrophic for Palestine and unpleasant for their American and European supporters.
The prime minister may be suggesting to Kerry or the Palestinians that he risks losing control of his political party and his government to those on his right, and that the Palestinians and Americans must moderate their demands.
If they see Netanyahu as an extremist, he is a moderate compared to who may win control of the Israeli government.
Looming even deeper in the background is Israel’s massive military might. It can destroy much of Gaza and the West Bank, as well as Lebanon. In each case the IDF would cause massive flows of refugees outward, most likely before the international community can decide to act. And if Israel truly does have nuclear weapons, it has joined the club of countries that can be threatened only at the considerable risk of those who would threaten it.
How credible are such possibilities?
There are other indications suggesting that Israel is a long way from desiring a drastic solution of its problems.
One indication appears in Israel’s dealing with the highly sensitive subject of what Jews call the Temple Mount, and Muslims the Noble Sanctuary or Haram al-Sharif.
Israel has tolerated the daily management of the site by Muslim religious authorities. Jews are forbidden to pray there, and cannot visit it during Muslim times of prayer, holy days, or when Muslim authorities feel a need to flex their muscles. Israel has protested, but tolerated Muslim constructions under the surface that destroy archaeological evidence of Jewish temples, whose existence the Muslims deny.
Explanations of Israel’s postures focus on its desire to keep the Palestinian masses quiet, and to remain on the good side of Jordan, whose monarchy claims its supreme patronage of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.
As Arab spring has developed in the direction of considerable chaos throughout the Middle East, there are also signs of political change, Israel can ponder the attractive possibilities of participating with governments it can call “moderate,” currently prevailing in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunis, Morocco, and in several of the Gulf Emirates. With some of those places Israeli companies do considerable business, but in ways that none of the parties talk about.
The same explanations apply to Israel’s modest use of force, even when provoked, against Lebanon and Gaza. Israel does not want to make waves that may rebound to harm it, or limit its access to wider markets and support. Of prime importance for Israel is economic and cultural access to other democracies, without which its present quality of life is untenable.
Should Israel really become an outcast, it could expect damage from within by an exodus of the people it does not want to lose.
Netanyahu adheres to the rules of a game. He seeks to avoid extreme actions that will end discussions with Palestinians, and cause widespread blame of Israel. While few commentators are betting on a peace agreement, a number of them perceive that Netanyahu wants any blame for the failure to lay once again on Palestinian rejectionism.
Israel’s status is delicate, threatened by nasty rhetoric from governmental and non-governmental organs based in the countries with which Israel desires good relations.
So far, it is doing all right. Israel may not have formal ownership of the Jordan Valley, its West Bank settlements, or even Jerusalem, but there are no signs that anyone else is about to take them.
Settlements are at the focal point of the Palestinians’ anti-Israel campaign, and the issue resonates with American and European governments, as well as leftist activists and non-governmental organizations. To the extent that the issue also includes Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, it lessens the intensity shown by governments inclined to be reasonable. The other side of the same issue excites religious nationalists and the entire right wing of Israeli politics. Prime ministers from the 1970s onward have had trouble rejecting their demands to expand settlements in the context of Palestinians’ thoroughgoing rejection of anything that Israel has offered.
Israel can hope for wiser leaders than those currently in the White House and State Department, and better teachers in the universities that train the next generation of world leaders, but it should not expect miracles.
The United States and the major countries of Europe also aspire to maintain a balance of interests. No occupant of the White House or State Department, and no European government has ever given Israel anything like a blank check.
The essence of Israeli wisdom is moderation. An occasional threat, such as those of Miri Regev, Avigdor Lieberman, or Benyamin Netanyahu might be useful reminders to others of what Israel could do. Above all, however, we hope to avoid the point where the decision to actually implement such threats becomes more real than theoretical.
With wisdom and good luck, let’s hope we’re all here, reading, writing, and otherwise enjoying life throughout 2014 and beyond.
Ira Sharkansky is a professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.