Israel has nothing to lose from the status quo – so make it lose
Noam Sheizaf, +972
In previous posts, I have argued that (a) Israel’s security needs cannot be fully met, and that (b) the occupation is the Israeli rational choice – better than both the two-state and the one-state alternatives. For change to happen, there is no alternative to confronting the Israeli public.
Last week marked a decade since the Arab League put forward its plan for a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel. The Saudi Plan, as it was also known, had Israel withdraw to the 1967 borders in exchange for full recognition, normalization, and an end to the conflict. Even the refugee problem – considered by many the one issue on which Israel could never compromise – was to have an “agreed upon” solution. In other word, instead of adopting the Palestinian right of return, the entire Arab League gave Israel veto power over the number of refugees who would be allowed back.
This was all Israeli leaders could have dreamed of in the years leading to 1967. Even Iran joined the 2002 declaration. Yet the Sharon government simply ignored the Arab peace offer. It didn’t even make a counter-offer, or accept the initiative as a starting point. And two prime ministers who came after Sharon continued the same policy, despite the fact that the Arab League reaffirmed its offer again and again. The Arab peace offer and Israel’s decision to ignore it were the most stable elements in the Middle East during the past decade.
How can we explain this? One argument is that the peace offer didn’t properly address Israel’s security needs, mainly because it doesn’t vouch for the period after an Israel withdrawal, and the possible rise of hostile governments that would try again “to wipe Israel off the map.” Yet this particular concern could never be addressed since there is no way to guarantee future political developments. The Arab countries or the Palestinians will never be able to promise Israel security, only legitimacy. The Arab League offered total legitimacy, and apparently, it wasn’t enough. Why?
As I argued in the previous post in this series, the reason is simple: from an Israeli perspective, and above all from an Israeli decision-making perspective, the status quo is preferable to whatever offer is now laid on the table. Having to choose between a two-state solution, a one-state solution and keeping things as they are, the rational choice balance is clearly in favor of the third option. A two-state solution involves enormous security risks and a could mean civil war; the one-state solution is an even bigger unknown. But the status quo – though far from perfect – is pretty good.
The irony is that the better things get in Israel, the bigger the Israeli desire to avoid change becomes. Last week, some pundits pointed to Livni’s emphasis on the revival of the peace process as one of the reasons for her defeat to Shaul Mofaz in the Kadima premieres. Even if we don’t accept this theory, there is no escaping the fact that no Knesset party will run mainly on a peace platform in the next elections, and that all leading candidates have expressed their desire or willingness to join Netanyahu’s government. In fact, tiny Meretz is the only Jewish party to announce it won’t enter such a coalition. There is no political price in Israel for stopping the diplomatic process. Quite the opposite, in fact.
An inherently immoral situation is also the most desirable: From a cost-benefit perspective, Israelis are correct in recognizing all other options as worse than the current situation. The solution to this problem is simple as it is unpleasant: in order to change Israeli mind regarding the occupation, one needs to change their balance of interests.
In other words, between the three options we choose from – one state, two states and the status quo – the status quo, currently positioned as the best alternative, needs (at least) to drop to second place. If we want to create change, the Israeli decision-maker would need to suspect that keeping things as they are might lead to his or her downfall (whereas it’s now the other way around). To put it bluntly, the status quo should become really unsustainable.
This is how it worked in the past. “Advancement” in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was always preceded with events and moves that made the status quo undesirable and created Israeli demands of their politicians “to do something.” The combination of the first intifada and pressure from President Bush 41 led to the Madrid conference and the Oslo process in the 90s. The second intifada brought Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal. In both cases, Israeli leaders initiated changes following international pressure and a Palestinian uprising.
Peace plans that weren’t accompanied by a local uprising or international pressure, such as the autonomy plan that Egypt negotiated at Camp David, or Peres’ Jordanian Option from the 80s, failed to materialize; as long as everything was okay, there was no real incentive to take these routes. This wasn’t that different from the dynamic on the Egyptian front, where Israel rejected the peace initiative in 1971, but changed its mind in the years following the 1973 war. The same argument could be made regarding the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon.
The reason for this dynamic is not that the Israelis are short-sighted, stupid or cruel. It’s rational political behavior. At any given moment, it made sense to avoid concessions – until it didn’t.
As an Israeli, This is something that is hard for me to accept, let alone write. While I desire to end the occupation, I obviously want what’s best for myself and my community. I certainly don’t want another round of violence, even if it does bring a change in the status quo (those romanticizing or praising violence should also keep in mind that in the examples I cited, the Palestinians, the Egyptians and the Lebanese were the ones to pay the heavier price, even if some of their political goals were eventually fulfilled). So the problem remains: how do we bring change?
Since the question is not one state vs. two state but rather change vs. status quo, those looking to end the occupation should ask themselves what kind of pressure they are willing to support in order to make the status quo less desirable for Israelis. This is the toughest problem an Israeli, or a person who cares about Israel, can face – yet it’s probably the single most urgent moral dilemma on the agenda today. The rest of the debate, for the most part, is just propaganda.
We could begin by supporting any diplomatic initiative intended to apply pressure on Israeli governments. I have made this point in the past, and I haven’t changed my mind since. For Palestinians, the time has also come to seriously debate the role of the Palestinian Authority – one of the most important institutions in the preservation of the status quo. But I don’t like giving advice to Palestinians how to oppose our occupation, so I will stop here.
Israelis have many other ways to show their dissatisfaction with the status quo: They can boycott institutions that profit or take part in the occupation, avoid the draft, take part in Palestinian-led protests or lead their own demonstrations. Ultimately, this debate will also lead to dealing with the question of BDS, though it’s clear that actual support for BDS will remain very marginal in Israeli society. Still, as long as no real alternative for the occupation is brought from the Israeli side, I think it’s very important not to oppose any form of Palestinian non-violent resistance, even if one is not taking part in it personally.
All these steps – legitimate but not always legal – carry a certain personal price for Israelis, and more important, all of them put Israelis at odds with their own community. There is really no escaping this point. As I said, the status quo is indeed Israel’s best option, and by fighting against it, one is bound to work against the interest, the desires and the concerns of one’s own people. It is the nature of this moment.
We should also keep all options on the table: Not just the two-state solution but the single, democratic state as well. One state should be debated, argued about, planned – just as two states were in the last three decades. Since Israel is not willing to go either way, it’s only fair to keep discussing all ideas for change. Still, we should remember that for both societies, the moment of choice between the solutions hasn’t come, because the current political battle is over the preservation of the status quo.
One thing should be made clear: Those declaring that “no pressure at all” should be applied on Israel are in fact advocates of the occupation. They might declare their support for a Palestinian state every day of the week, but their real political choice is the status quo. By supporting the status quo – as, for example, most of the Jewish establishment and the American political leadership do – you are not simply avoiding the issue, or “waiting for the right moment,” but rather taking an active role in the daily oppression and injustice taking place in the occupied territories. The need to rationalize this position explains the American addiction to stories regarding how great life is in the West Bank or Gaza – an addiction found even in the most liberal circles.
The combination of local pressure – mostly by Palestinians, with the support of some Israelis – together with international pressure, both on grassroots level and on diplomatic and official channels, is likely to make most of the Israeli public hostile, angry and bitter, but also more open to change, as the status quo seems less and less preferable. This would be our moment of truth, in which we will witness what sort of transformation – if any – our country is still capable of.