The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
These days, Israeli opposition leader Yitzhak “Buji” Herzog is on everyone’s mind, and for good reason. Herzog’s Zionist Camp electoral bloc is the clear leader in the last polls allowed to be published before Tuesday’s election, raising the prospect of an opposition candidate unseating Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who is coming off two consecutive terms following his first term nearly two decades ago.
Herzog’s electoral prospects are not the only thing creating buzz, however. For those opposed to Netanyahu’s hawkish positions on Iran and the Palestinians—and his general worldview of an Israel beset on all sides by enemies (including, in some iterations, the Obama administration and the European Union), Herzog seems to represent the possibility of genuine change. He has been described as Netanyahu’s “polar opposite” and would be Israel’s first truly left-wing prime minister since Ehud Barak in 1999. Many thus hope that his election could bring a significant turn in Israeli foreign and defense policies, including an end to Israeli opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran and a renewed push toward Palestinian statehood.
Those hoping to see a momentous shift in Israeli foreign policy, however, will be disappointed. No matter who emerges as the prime minister following the election and the inevitable weeks of haggling and horse-trading that go into forming a coalition, Israel’s foreign policy on the big issues will be marked by consistency rather than transformation. Although no one should casually dismiss Herzog’s markedly different tone and approach to the world, his and Netanyahu’s areas of disagreement are not as large as one might think. Further, in office, both would be similarly boxed in by circumstances beyond their control.
It is no accident that Herzog’s campaign, like the previous Labor campaign in 2013, has been largely run on domestic issues. Not only are economic and social issues the most pressing items on voters’ minds, the space between Likud and Labor on foreign policy can be measured in inches rather than miles. The big foreign policy matter that Herzog has seized upon is the faltering relationship between the Untied States and Israel, which he vows to improve. There is no doubt that the White House would immediately warm to a Prime Minister Herzog, given that he is far less abrasive than Netanyahu and would work to ease tensions, but that would be the case with nearly any other candidate. The personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu is so cold that an improvement in bilateral ties will be more about Netanyahu’s absence than about his replacement.
On the biggest policy issue dividing the United States and Israel, however, Netanyahu and Herzog speak with the same voice. Herzog’s denouncement of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress should not obscure the fact that, like Netanyahu, Herzog would never accept a nuclear Iran as a fait accompli and that Herzog’s perception of the Iranian threat is far more acute than Obama’s. The likelihood that Herzog would certainly work to keep his disagreements with the White House behind closed doors does not mean that there would be no disagreements and that Herzog would clear the path for a nuclear deal. In fact, he would not bring about a change in Israel’s fear of Iranian nuclear ambitions or the country’s correspondingly hawkish stance.
On the peace process and settlements, Herzog’s position is unquestionably different from Netanyahu’s. Even so, the ultimate outcome is likely to be the same. Herzog would certainly attempt to resume negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, but he does not seem ready to treat peace talks as the life-or-death issue that many on the left believe them to be. He did not use the word shalom (Hebrew for peace, which is a common catchword for the left during campaigns) on the campaign trail. And Herzog explained last week that “we have to be realistic and not naive about it. I don’t want to build expectations. I just want to do my best and move on.” Furthermore, even if Herzog were to press negotiations as the top item on his agenda, time might have run out, with a recalcitrant Palestinian Authority feeling burned by previous peace talks and showing signs of wanting to abandon the peace process altogether in favor of international lawfare irrespective of Israel’s electoral outcome. Any negotiation needs two sides, and if the Palestinian side no longer sees the benefit in sitting down, Herzog’s desire to reach a deal will go unrequited no matter how hard he may press the issue.
Settlement expansion is an issue on which Netanyahu and Herzog take decidedly different approaches. Netanyahu has never shown any sign that he views the settlements as a genuine problem rather than an excuse that the Palestinians and their international allies have conveniently seized. Herzog’s view, by contrast, is in line with his leftist background. In the past, he has urged the government to freeze settlement construction. It is widely assumed that, were he to become prime minister, he would freeze settlement building outside of the large blocs that Israel will presumably keep in any future peace deal. Yet despite Herzog’s presumed anti-settlement stance—and he has notably not allowed himself to become tied down to any specific promise during the campaign—his position is not one that will lead to a breakthrough with the Palestinians, or even necessarily decreased tensions with the international community over settlement expansion. Contrary to conventional wisdom, settlement population growth through the end of 2014 under Netanyahu was slightly lower than under his predecessors. In fact, even though the number of West Bank construction starts spiked in 2013, in every other year of Netanyahu’s current tenure, housing starts have been lower than in any single year under Barak, Ariel Sharon, and Ehud Olmert.
This is not to suggest that Netanyahu has been a dove on settlements, but it does mean that Herzog is unlikely to be able to improve upon his record in a significant way. The reality is that the most problematic settlement construction is, in many ways, that which occurs in the large blocs west of the security fence that neither man would end; the expansion of places such as Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel cuts farther into the West Bank and makes the contiguity of a future Palestinian state that much more harder to achieve than does building wildcat settlements on isolated hilltops. Furthermore, Netanyahu actually froze new settlement construction everywhere outside of East Jerusalem for ten months in 2009–10 in an effort to move peace negotiations along, but the effort failed since Mahmoud Abbas demanded a cessation to building in Jerusalem as well. The move did not even win Netanyahu much credit from the international community. Throughout Netanyahu’s tenure, Israeli settlement construction has only become a bigger point of tension in relations with the United States and Europe. Herzog may be able to improve the optics by not publically defending settlements in the same way that Netanyahu did. But the largest settlements are going to keep expanding irrespective of who is sitting at the head of Israel’s government.
Other issues that have brought opprobrium on Israel are going to remain constant as well. Herzog’s position on rocket fire from Gaza is identical to Netanyahu’s. A Herzog government would not suffer a fusillade of Hamas rockets in silence and refrain from retaliatory strikes or preventive incursions. The environment that has led to large-scale fighting between Israel and Hamas three times in a little over six years will persist, and, at some point, the next prime minister of Israel is almost certainly going to be embroiled in renewed warfare with Hamas, Hezbollah, or both. Even worse, if the Palestinian Authority follows through on its recent and increasing threats to cease security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank, Herzog would also have no choice but to massively ramp up Israel’s military presence in the West Bank, leading to tension, fighting, and quite possibly another Intifada. Much of the Western ire directed at Netanyahu has focused on the disproportionate number of Palestinian deaths during operations in Gaza, but further fighting between Israel and Hamas is inevitable and the basic structural variables that lead to a lopsided death toll whenever Israel and the Palestinians engage will not change under a different prime minister.
If, after Tuesday, Herzog becomes Israel’s next prime minister, he will bring a sunnier attitude, a less confrontational tone, and a friendlier spin on a host of Israeli security policies. He will enjoy a honeymoon period in Washington and European capitals as he voices a genuine desire to strike out on a different path than Netanyahu and makes real moves to re-engage on the peace process. But at the end of his tenure, Herzog is hardly more likely than Netanyahu to have engineered a negotiated two-state solution, a conciliatory approach toward Iran, or a sustainable armistice with Hamas. Those who have pinned all of Israel’s hawkish approaches solely on Netanyahu’s back are going to be disappointed to learn that a different tone does not always correlate with different substance.