For the Israeli right and its allies around the world, the greatest danger to Israel’s future is the unwillingness of Palestinians to make peace. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict does threaten Israel, but not, as the right would have it, because militant and even seemingly moderate Palestinians harbor plans to drive the Jews into the sea. Rather, the conflict threatens Israel because of the havoc it wreaks on the country’s internal politics. Since 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, its presence in those territories has played a central role in structuring Israeli politics, transforming a country once brimming with optimism into an increasingly cynical, despondent, and illiberal place.
By inducing a bunker mentality among Israelis, the occupation has bred an aggressive ethnic nationalism that privileges the interests of Israel’s Jewish citizens over those of its Arab citizens, who have come to feel that they will never be treated fairly in an Israel defined as a Jewish state. At the same time, by paralyzing the Israeli political system, it has strengthened ultra-Orthodox political parties, which have exploited divisions between the right and the left to become kingmakers. In exchange for their parliamentary support, they have demanded economic subsidies for their constituents, who often devote their lives to studying Jewish texts rather than participating in the work force. Educated, largely secular elites, frustrated by low pay and high taxes, have, until recently, been emigrating in substantial numbers, and the long-term prospects for reversing this brain drain are poor as long as the occupation continues. These are the real threats to Israel’s founders’ vision of a democratic, Jewish, and prosperous state.
Yet all is not lost. A centrist governing coalition could halt Israel’s slide toward illiberalism, offer its Arab citizens hope for equality and justice, compel its burgeoning ultra-Orthodox population to earn their keep rather than live off the state, and give Israel’s educated class a reason to stay. This is what must happen for Israel