The Threat of Peace: The Process and Israeli Domestic Politics

History

Israeli politicians face a clear and present danger – and it’s not Iran’s nuclear program. Nor is it the risk that Egypt’s instability or the civil war in Syria will spill over into an Arab-Israeli conflagration. Rather, it is U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s forthcoming peace plan.

This plan will not contain major surprises. It will probably be a juxtaposition of previous plans, such as the Clinton parameters or the Bush road map. Israelis know what this plan contains, and what will be required of Israel if it accepts the plan.

The threat contained in the plan is threefold. First, this is a committed secretary of state serving under a second-term president who is focused on his legacy. This administration, perceived to be unsupportive of Israel, is not burdened by electoral considerations. For Israeli politicians, however, electoral considerations are a permanent concern. The shakiness of Israel’s current governing coalition, which binds extreme right-wing parties with more moderate centrist parties, poses a constant threat to the continued survival of the Israeli government.

Second, the Kerry plan comes amid growing international criticism of Israel’s policies. Israel has faced widespread criticism in the past. What is different about this wave of criticism, however, is that it is accompanied by an emerging trend of divestments and sanctions. This is a new and frightening prospect because it threatens Israeli economic and academic institutions and high-tech companies.

If this trend continues, it might pull the Israeli middle class out of its apathy. This is a frightening prospect. Israel has weathered the global recession of the last six years largely due to its financial and high-tech sectors. While the rising cost of living and economic inequality have resulted in widespread social protests, the macroeconomic indicators have been extremely positive. The threat of a recession due to boycotts and divestments is a huge concern.

The professional middle class can be a decisive electoral force. If it throws its support behind a certain political party – which it has done several times in the past – it could well tip the balance in an election. The newly formed Yesh Atid party won second place in the last election, largely on a domestic economic platform. It did not have a clear foreign and security policy agenda. Its decision to join a Likud-led coalition gave life to the current government. However, if it leaves the coalition, Israel will likely go to an early election – and there is a good chance that, if recession hits, this party will emerge as the big winner.

Third, Israeli politicians who have opposed territorial concessions in the past have always had a Palestinian ally. Their most convincing claim has been Palestinian refusal to sign offers presented to them. The argument that “there is no partner for peace on the Palestinian side” has been the most common tool in the Israeli public-relations toolbox. Palestinian violence against Israelis has given this claim a convincing ring even while Israel, through its aggressive settlement policy and human-rights violations, has actively contributed to reducing the chance of Palestinian accommodation.

Now, the relative calm in the occupied territories and a moderate Palestine Liberation Organization leadership make this claim sound empty and manipulative. Mahmoud Abbas is the most moderate Palestinian leader that the Israelis have faced. His recent statements suggest that Palestinians are willing to compromise in ways they were not willing or able to in the past.

Not surprisingly, the Israelis have raised the bar by requiring that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The Israelis are also concerned that the Palestinians will turn to a new, non-violent resistance strategy. If this non-violent intifada is met by Israeli violence, it will cause steep erosion in international support for Israel’s policies – erosion that may well be accompanied by practical sanctions.

Recent statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggest that he is increasingly aware of the fundamental dilemma that Israel is bound to face: If it holds on to the occupied territories, it will be forced to choose between being a Jewish but non-democratic state and being a democratic state but seeing the Jews become a minority in their own land. It is unclear whether this dilemma is a pressing concern for the current government, but the fact that Netanyahu brought it up is quite significant.

Can Israel respond positively to Kerry’s plan? The Israelis will wait for the Palestinian response before they commit. If the Palestinians accept the plan (probably with reservations), it will be difficult for the Israeli government to reject it outright. This could result in a shakeup of the government. The extreme right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party would likely leave the coalition. However, the government could survive by aligning with the Israeli Labor Party and/or the Shas religious party.

The Israelis are still hoping that the Palestinians will reject some of the key elements of the plan, making it easier for them to do the same. The idea here is to accept the plan in principle, but bury it in practice. The litmus test for the Obama administration is to prevent that from happening.

– written by Zeev Maoz, provided to BBJ by The Mark News

Zeev Maoz is the Founding President of the Israeli Association of International Studies and a former Director of the national security program at the National Defense College of the Israeli Defense Forces. He is currently Distinguished Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of California Davis.

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