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Is Netanyahu's Israel drifting toward disaster?

Jerusalem's Old City
Jerusalem's Old City
Spencer Platt/Getty

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led his right-wing Likud Party to a surprising victory in last week's election, in part by denouncing his prior support for a Palestinian state and warning ominously of "Arab voters," it was to many Americans a wake-up call. Not just that Israel's leader is increasingly overt in his hostility to peace with the Palestinians (and to the Obama administration, for that matter), but that Israeli politics are trending more broadly in a scary direction.

To understand those trends, and where they point for Israel's future, I spoke to Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst for the International Crisis Group and a respected voice on the Israel-Palestine conflict. What follows is a transcript of our conversation — which left me deeply concerned for the future of Israelis and Palestinians — edited and condensed for clarity.

Max Fisher: With the election, there's been a lot of discussion about long-term trends in Israeli politics and Israeli society that are certainly not new, but are alarming. You've got the growth of the political right and of the far right. There's a growing overtness in anti-Arab and anti-peace politics, along with the wider apathy among Israelis about the Palestinians and finding peace. Meanwhile, European governments are tempering their support at the United Nations for Israel. Here in the US, Israel is becoming a more partisan issue, and you're already seeing symbolic gestures of withholding support that could one day become more than symbolic. You look at these trend lines and where they point, and it seems like nowhere good.

Nathan Thrall: I assume you're basically asking about whether we're heading toward a one-state scenario [of Israel absorbing the West Bank permanently], in which we don't have equal rights and Israel is ostracized and so forth.

Yes, those trends are alarming. Outsiders look at it and they say, "Wow, this is really crazy; how can they be willfully driving themselves toward this kind of future?" But the thing is that it's not so irrational for the Israeli voters.

That threat of a one-state scenario, even if it enfranchised everyone, and even if you didn't have conflict, armed or otherwise, among the different ethnic groups, would still dramatically lower Israel's GDP per capita. But the numbers who desire one state, in both societies, is well below 50 percent. You don't really have a looming threat of a mass movement for one state in Palestinian society.

And the attitude of an Israeli voter could easily be, "Sure, I don't want a one state, but I don't see that it's imminent, and if it becomes a serious threat, then we can unilaterally withdraw to, let's say, the separation barrier, which would mean de facto annexation of 9 percent of the West Bank. And then we'll have a border dispute like so many other countries have, and no one can demand we give the vote to the people on the other side of the wall. And we have a perfectly plausible backup plan in the worst-case scenario."

So all of these doom-and-gloom predictions that it's gonna be apartheid and a pariah state or what have you are actually wrong.

Max Fisher: It's certainly true that the Israeli far-right movement to permanently annex or control the West Bank is a relative fringe, that many Israelis favor peace and Palestinian independence in theory but don't trust the Palestinians and are unwilling to make the sacrifices to get there. But it reminds me of gun control here in the US, where the majority of Americans say they'd like more gun control, but they don't really vote on it. Meanwhile, you have this minority constituency that is singularly focused on maintaining extremely loose gun laws.

I sometimes look at the politics within Israel toward the West Bank, and it seems like there is something similar, where the constituency that is most invested in the issue is the pro-annexation far right, or at least a broader movement on the right to maintain permanent security control in the West Bank, as Netanyahu has advocated. Since that's the group in the driver's seat, and is most interested in what happens with the West Bank, is it not in a position to make that the policy?

Nathan Thrall: Yes, that's the best counter-argument to what I just said, and it's been made. There's a former Israeli ambassador and director general of the Foreign Ministry, Alon Liel, who is very much on the left. When I presented him with this counter-argument, he said, "I'm not worried about the imminence of a mass movement on the Palestinian side; I'm worried about our own society and how the people in favor of two states are steadily losing ground, year by year."

Definitely everything you said is accurate. The settler lobby is extremely effective. It's taken hold of the levers of power within the state bureaucracy and within the Likud Party. It's almost impossible to become a member of the Likud without appeasing them in some way.

When I've looked at internal polls, the support in Israel for annexation is very low. But annexation is really a formality — why do you even need it if you're effectively controlling everything anyway? Why antagonize the world, why are we making a big fuss over whether Israel takes this formal step anyway?

If you look at the numbers of those who are essentially in favor of maintaining the status quo, though, those numbers are huge. But again, it's a totally rational position for Israelis. No one can deny that moving toward two states does entail risk.

They know what the costs are of the status quo. They're experiencing them now. And they're pretty minor.

This is something the Palestinians had been saying for a long time: it's actually irrational for the Israelis to change anything right now, because they're more or less sitting pretty, and the costs of the occupation are very low. Since 1993, It's been financed by other people, in the sense that the self-administration of the Palestinian Authority is funded by others. Israel has a captive market for its goods; it collects several percent from all of the taxes it collects for the PA. And the levels of violence since the end of the Second Intifada have been very low.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty)

Max Fisher: It seems like part of the problem is that there's no one in the Israeli government who wants to take on huge risks for peace, and there's no real electoral constituency pushing leaders to do that. You know, no one looks back at 2005 when Israel withdrew from Gaza and then Hamas took it over and says, "That was great, let's do that again," even if an outside observer can look at that and say it's less bad and less costly than continued occupation.

So in some ways it seems like the permanent preservation of the status quo is the scariest scenario, because then you just go year-to-year, and there's no reason to ever really grapple with the implications of a full annexation or acknowledge what that would mean. Does an effectively permanent status quo seem likely to you, or do you think there's something at some point that would compel a unilateral withdrawal?

Nathan Thrall: First of all, I agree with everything you just said, but there's one caveat I would throw out.

Any party that is running on a platform of unilateral withdrawal would get no votes. At the same time, if you ask people whether they want to be back in Gaza — and if there's another war with Gaza, one thing out on the table is reoccupying Gaza — most people don't want to be there. In effect, even though the right [campaigns against] the consequences of the Gaza withdrawal, the vast majority, I think, actually prefer not to be in Gaza and certainly prefer not to be in southern Lebanon. So part of that is just an issue of marketing, I think.

But, yes, I think extending the status quo is in many ways the scariest outcome. The status quo isn't stasis — it's steadily making it more difficult to withdraw in the future, and certainly making it more costly to withdraw in the future. Many Palestinians and many on the Israeli left felt during these elections that the worst possible outcome is to have the national unity government formed [in which center-left parties join with Netanyahu's right-wing Likud].

A national unity government would probably have, let's say, [center-left political leaders] Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog demanding as a condition of joining that there be a renewed peace process. Then pressure on Israel would have been reduced in the world, and yet the policy changes would not likely have been very great.

[Palestinians and members of the Israeli left] feel that would actually be the best recipe for perpetuating the status quo, whereas now that we have this right-wing government, here you are writing an article about where the hell is Israel heading, and Obama's making these very strong statements even after Bibi's retraction.

So, that's a circuitous way of saying yes, I do agree that perpetuating the status quo is the most frightening of the possibilities. Because the status quo is perceived by the Israeli electorate as the least costly of the options. In a way, Bibi Netanyahu was the perfect candidate for that Israeli majority that doesn't want to change anything, and knows that the world disapproves of Israel not changing anything.

Who better to wink at the world and say, "I'm in favor of two states with many, many asterisks," while actually doing nothing to bring that about on the ground, than Bibi?

Max Fisher: As you said, the status quo is not static, and it seems like that's especially true for Palestinians, whose reality is changing even as Israeli policy remains largely the same.

Nathan Thrall: What is changing is that to some extent people in the US and Europe are no longer accepting the notion that this is temporary. That, for many Palestinians, was always the biggest fiction. Among Palestinians, the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority is at a real nadir, and there are many, many more Palestinians questioning the entire Oslo structure [of partial Palestinian self-rule under the Israeli occupation, as established in 1990s peace accords] and whether its costs outweigh its benefits.

More are arguing that it's not worth it, that Palestinians are worse off under the Oslo framework. Their voices are getting louder, not just among the intelligentsia but also among normal middle and lower classes. If there's a chance for real, significant change, it's going to come from Palestinian society pushing their leadership to find a new arrangement.

Max Fisher: What would that look like?

Nathan Thrall: You're already seeing the Palestinian Authority taking the steps of going to the [International Criminal Court for steps toward membership] and threatening to suspend security cooperation [with the Israeli government in policing the West Bank].

Those are responses to the popular sentiment that I'm describing. The leadership understands it's in very poor standing among the public. That's something that was greatly aggravated by the Gaza war, where Hamas got a huge boost in popularity. The big Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange [between Israeli and Hamas], as well. These have greatly strengthened the political adversaries of the [Palestinian] leadership.

So what you see is they're doing what they can to try to regain some legitimacy.

Israeli security forces patrol in Jerusalem. (Ilia Yefimovich/Getty)

Max Fisher: Let's say Palestinians push their leadership in the direction of suspending some security cooperation in the West Bank. It's worrying to think of how a right-wing Israeli government might handle that, and of what that might do to Israeli public attitudes more broadly, especially if you think back to the uptick in nationalist and anti-Palestinian attitudes during the last Gaza war. Where does that all lead?

Nathan Thrall: What the leaders in Likud have said is that they would increase their presence in the West Bank, and take over whatever it is that they needed to take over, and would begin to work with "local leaders." So it would become an even more — what's the word I'm looking for?

Max Fisher: More occupation?

Nathan Thrall: Sure, yes, but it would also be an even more variegated and ad-hoc administration of the West Bank, where we deal with this local mayor or that tribal leader. This was attempted in the past; it was something called the Village Leagues, in the late '70s and early '80s. It eventually failed, in large part because Palestinians regarded those leaders as traitors.

But the vision of many on the right is that that's how they would respond to it. And they pooh-pooh the extent to which that would actually be very costly for Israel, because they say, "Look, the security coordination isn't doing much for us, we're doing 85 percent of the work in the West Bank anyway, so let them stop, and if they want chaos in their own streets, they can have chaos in their own streets."

They already have a regime in place to protect settlers in the West Bank. There's a regime in place to prevent West Bankers from entering Israel itself. I think they don't actually think it would be all that costly; it's easy for them to imagine that the security coordination ends and Palestinians still continue to administer health and education in the West Bank.

Max Fisher: You hear a lot of warnings from the Israeli left about the erosion of democratic institutions in Israel. Obviously there's the lack of voting rights for West Bank Palestinians and then the kind of anti-Arab rhetoric you hear from the right about how it's bad to have Arab Israelis voting. But could the democratic rights of Jewish Israelis be eroded as well?

Nathan Thrall: As far as the erosion of democracy with the '67 borders [not including Gaza or the West Bank], that conversation was accelerated by the nationality bill that was going through the Knesset last year. [The bill would have legally declared Israel a Jewish state, which critics saw as undermining the citizenship of the roughly quarter of the population that is not Jewish, and thus as privileging Israel's Jewish identity over its democracy.] That general idea of prioritizing Jewish nationality, Jewish nationalism over democracy — that is what many on the left are worried about.

There is almost total consensus among Israeli Jews that there shouldn't, strictly speaking, be all the same rights accorded to non-Jewish citizens that there are accorded to Jewish citizens. There is a law of return, which allows basically any person claiming Jewish ancestry to come to Israel and get full citizenship. Of course non-Jews have a difficult time bringing family members over who are not Jews or marrying non-Jews who reside in Arab countries or in the West Bank or in Gaza. Nobody disputes that those are unequal.

The debate that's taking place is more broadly about how much priority to give to Judaism and Jewish nationalism within the Israeli state, within the Israeli education system, and how we ought to feel about being inclusive and what kinds of steps we're willing to take and not willing to take.

Max Fisher: Something I sometimes point out to American officials who work on Israel-Palestine issues is that a lot of the outside world is baffled as to why the US continues to support an Israeli government that is uncooperative to the point of belligerence, that seems hostile toward peace. The world really struggles to understand these moments where you'll see Netanyahu humiliating John Kerry, and then Kerry flies to Geneva to defend Israel at the UN.

The argument I hear them make a lot is that if Israel feels like it's lost its American or its Western support, then you'll see a great empowerment of the right in Israel and anti-peace politics. A lot of paranoia and nationalism will come about from a sense of insecurity and being encircled. Do you buy that?

Nathan Thrall: As Israel becomes more isolated, I think there will be two effects: One is strengthening of the kind of trends of right nationalism and sense that the world treats us with a double standard, that we've gotta persist and Europe was lost anyway and maybe the US, too. There has already been all this talk of increased isolation for Israel, and ordinary Israelis haven't felt it at all.

But if it reaches a point where that isolation affects the average Israeli, it could also have a counter-effect. If, say, an average Israeli can no longer travel to Europe without a visa, that's a significant impact, or if they're no longer able to watch their favorite soccer teams playing in the league they're used to playing in because they got booted out of, say, FIFA. If and when we reach that point, then you can potentially have an election with what we'll say is a course correction. That there is a price to our actions and a price to the status quo. It didn't make sense for us to do anything when we didn't feel it, but now actually we do feel something and we can get rid of these costs by doing X, Y, and Z. Then it becomes a very rational calculation.

Max Fisher: So a kind of milder South Africa scenario, then?

Nathan Thrall: Yes. And many young Israelis on the left are hoping that the Obama administration will go much further than it has considered going before. One Israeli told me the other day that the root of all this is this government believes it can do whatever it wants without any consequences. And if there are consequences, then those who argue for changing the status quo will have a leg to stand on, but they don't right now.

Max Fisher: It seems like the two scenarios you see as most plausible are the pessimistic scenario, of a perpetual status quo that becomes harder and harder to withdraw from; and then the more optimistic scenario, of a turn in Israeli politics so that there is a willful decision to say we've had enough, and it's time to step back from this.

It seems like, in your view, that really hinges on the degree to which regular Israelis feel pressured, either from withdrawing Palestinian cooperation or from international pressure, to make that change in their politics and take ownership over the conflict. That certainly makes sense as a way to address the problem of Israeli voter apathy enabling the perpetuation of the occupation and giving a free hand to the far right. But there's a certain level of risk associated with that path, right? To resolve the conflict by first increasing the conflict — it seems like that could backfire.

Nathan Thrall: There is just no denying that any such approach, in the view that it's gotta get worse before it gets better, will be unpleasant for Israelis and Palestinian alike. What's not guaranteed is that it would ever result in a better outcome, but what is guaranteed is in the short term, it would result in a worse one. That's why people are understandably reluctant to take that step.

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