The inconclusive results of Israel’s Sept. 17 election have thrust Israeli politics into a gripping deadlock. The center-left has no way to form a coalition, but for the first time in many years, neither does the right. This political paralysis reflects a profound change sweeping Israeli society in the last decade in the debate about the conflict.
For years the Israeli left promised: If Israel withdraws from the West Bank and permits the creation of a Palestinian state, this will bring peace and security. But election after election, Israelis rejected the left’s generous offer and voted for right-wing governments. In the recent elections, for the first time, the Israeli right made a counteroffer: an annexation of swaths of the West Bank. But the election results show that neither proposal is acceptable to the Israeli public. Just as they rejected the two-state solution, they also rejected an annexation that would create a one-state reality. In other words, Israel’s political deadlock reflects its ideological deadlock: Most Israelis oppose annexation of the West Bank just as strongly as they oppose a withdrawal.
To understand why Israelis oppose a withdrawal, just look at the Gaza Strip. In 2005 Israel pulled out of Gaza, removing the army, uprooting the settlers and shutting down its local intelligence operations. The move backfired. Ever since, every Israeli town within 10 miles of the Gaza Strip has been under threat of rocket attacks. Israelis look at life on the Gaza border and imagine what life would be like along the West Bank border after an Israeli evacuation. A 10-mile radius from the West Bank includes the greater Tel Aviv area and Jerusalem: Israel’s demographic, economic, and cultural heartland. If central Israel is exposed to constant rocket attacks, Israel would simply cease to function. So it is easy to understand why Israelis are so wary of a withdrawal from the West Bank.
But it is also easy to understand why Israelis are wary of an annexation. Just take a look at Lebanon for a look at life in a Middle Eastern country where no national group has a clear majority. Lebanon is deeply polarized and fractured, and in order to avoid importing Lebanese-style anarchy, Israel must do everything to stop becoming a binational state. Israel’s continued control of the West Bank, home to more than two and a half million Palestinians, imperils its Jewish national majority and risks thrusting the country into binational chaos.
Most Israelis are acutely aware of the trap they are in: Withdrawing from the territories would jeopardize their national security, but annexing the territories would jeopardize their national majority. In the recent elections, this conceptual trap produced political deadlock. And the only way out of this deadlock (and to avoid a third election) is to form a national unity government, in which the Likud Party and Blue and White share power. Such a government would give political expression to an emerging consensus in Israeli society. But ironically, this consensus is not about what must be done but what must not be done — no to a territorial withdrawal, and no to a territorial annexation. This raises the concern that a unity government will settle on perpetuating the status quo.
But there is another way forward, an alternative to trying to “solve” the conflict or “manage it”: shrinking the conflict. Israelis have started talking about steps that Israel could take to avert the threat of a one-state reality without increasing the risk of rockets on Tel Aviv. This third way could include paving a network of roads connecting all the Palestinian autonomous areas to each other, and transferring these roads to Palestinian Authority control. Israel’s defense establishment already has various plans that could realize this goal, of achieving autonomous transportational contiguity for the Palestinians. Such a mighty initiative would eliminate Israeli checkpoints and give Palestinians full freedom to move across the West Bank. Israel could also give the Palestinian Authority more land for development around the major towns and support the construction of new Palestinian towns, along the lines of the successful Rawabi initiative. Other steps might promote the Palestinians’ economic independence and prosperity.
This third way, of shrinking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, wouldn’t solve or end the conflict — a hope that doesn’t look realistic. It would contain it, it would lessen it. It would broaden the Palestinians’ freedom of movement, their freedom to develop and their freedom to prosper — all without an Israeli military withdrawal, and therefore no security dangers for Israeli civilians. Since this third way enhances the Palestinians’ effective independence, it would mitigate the risk of a deterioration into a one-state reality and create new horizons for diplomatic progress.
Yet why has no government done so yet? The right-wing objects for obvious reasons: For many, the land is sacred and not even an inch can be given away. But surprisingly, the left also objects. For many, “concessions” should only be made in the context of a permanent peace accord that solves the conflict as a whole. Hence, a paradox: By making a full peace treaty a condition for progress on the ground, the impossibility of reaching a full peace treaty guarantees that there will never be progress on the ground. And thus emerged a baffling, implicit alliance between the right and the left. Both of them support a form of the status quo. Paradoxically, faith in the sanctity of peace is as much a contributor to the status quo as faith in the sanctity of the land.
If they form a national unity government, the Likud and Blue and White have a golden opportunity to govern from the new political center. To reject the right-wing vision of annexation and the left-wing vision of peace and embrace a centrist vision of shrinking the conflict. This is a vision that refuses to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. A national unity government could liberate Israel and the Palestinians from the rigid ideologies that have perpetuated the unsustainable status quo and dramatically transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Micah Goodman is the author of “Catch-67: The Left, the Right and the Legacy of the Six-Day War.”
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