The U.S. Can Neither Ignore nor Solve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Washington Must Actively Manage a Dispute It Can’t End
In 1996, Ehud Barak, who was then Israel’s foreign minister and would later serve as prime minister, characterized Israel as “a modern and prosperous villa in the middle of the jungle.” Twenty years later, as political turmoil and violence engulf the Middle East, that harsh metaphor captures better than ever the way most Israelis see their country and its place in the region. Their standard of living has never been higher. Their country’s economy is robust, and Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit remains the envy of the world. In 2015, Israel ranked as the planet’s fifth-happiest country on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Better Life Index, topped only by Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Switzerland. In its first half century of existence, Israeli soldiers fought a war virtually every decade against well-armed conventional Arab armies. Today, the threat of such a war has vastly diminished, and the Israeli military has never been stronger, both in absolute terms and relative to its neighbors.
Now, however, it is Israeli civilians, not soldiers, who are the primary targets of Israel’s enemies. They are vulnerable to rockets fired by Hamas from Gaza and by Hezbollah from Lebanon, which have killed over 100 Israelis since 2004. And in the past year, new forms of violence have emerged, as Palestinians have targeted Israelis in over 150 seemingly uncoordinated stabbings and more than 50 attacks in which drivers have intentionally rammed pedestrians with their cars. Israel’s citizens feel more vulnerable in a personal sense, walking their streets, than they have since perhaps the 1948 War of Independence. Even during the second intifada, the Palestinian revolt that lasted from 2000 until 2005 and claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Israeli civilians, Jews believed they knew where it was safe to go and where it wasn’t. That’s not true today: in a recent poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, nearly 70 percent of Israeli Jews surveyed said they greatly or moderately feared that they or people close to them would be harmed by the wave of violence that has swept the country since last October.
Meanwhile, chaos appears to loom across almost every border. A bloody and devastating civil war rages in Syria, where the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the jihadists of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) seem intent on outdoing each other in brutality. Neighboring Jordan has long served as a buffer of sorts to Israel’s east, but it is now struggling under the burden of hosting more than a million Syrian refugees. And ISIS and other jihadist organizations roam the virtual no man’s land of the Sinai Peninsula, which the somewhat wobbly Egyptian government has struggled to secure.
Confronted with threats at home and disorder all around, many Israelis have come to feel that the idealistic aspirations of earlier eras—all those dreams of peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians and with the greater Arab world—were naive at best and profoundly misplaced at worst. A sense of bitterness, resignation, and hopelessness now prevails. Many Israeli politicians seem to see greater advantage in stoking, rather than countering, such sentiments. For example, rather than point to the benefits that peace agreements and negotiated territorial concessions have produced, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasizes how other territorial withdrawals—ones that were unilateral and unaccompanied by peace agreements—have resulted in further attacks against Israel.
Yet inside Israel’s defense establishment, headquartered at the Kirya military complex in Tel Aviv, the picture is more nuanced. Israel’s security chiefs share their compatriots’ sense that the Middle East has become chaotic and that today’s threats are more diffuse and inchoate than those Israel used to face. But these officials also recognize that their country is far from defenseless and that the threat of a conventional conflict has virtually disappeared. As the army’s recently leaked National Intelligence Estimate for 2016 concluded, Israel faces no current threat of war and only a low probability of war in the coming year. In fact, the analysts who prepared the document argue that the turmoil sweeping the Middle East may even have improved Israel’s strategic position.
The disconnect between public attitudes, political rhetoric, and military risk assessments reflects a kind of sensory overload. Israeli strategic planners can agree on a long list of threats and challenges but not on how to prioritize them. Like Israel’s political leaders, they suffer from a deep sense of strategic confusion. So far, their response has been to hunker down and ride out the turbulence. That is a natural reaction. But it’s also a risky one, which could lead Israel to forgo the kind of subtle, clever approaches it has adopted in the past when faced with complex threats. For all the danger Israel faces today, the current turmoil has also created real opportunities for Israel to improve its strategic position. But these will come to naught unless the government can see them clearly—and find the strength to take advantage of them.
Although the chaos and violence currently tearing apart the Middle East is deeply unsettling, the changes that have swept the region in recent years have actually led to a closer alignment and stronger relations between Israel and its only official partners in the Arab world, Egypt and Jordan. The peace treaty that Egypt and Israel signed in 1979 removed Israel’s single largest military threat and effectively ended the era of all-out war between the Arabs and the Israelis. It remains one of the most important contributors to Israel’s security, since it ensures that the country will not be attacked by multiple armies on multiple fronts simultaneously, as it was in 1948, 1967, and 1973. Despite the tumult of the 2010–11 Arab uprisings, including an Egyptian revolution that briefly brought the anti-Zionist Muslim Brotherhood to power, the peace treaty has proved durable and critical for both countries. Even the Islamist Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi acknowledged the treaty’s importance and never sought to challenge or abrogate it. When the military deposed Morsi in July 2013, Egyptian-Israeli ties grew stronger than ever, with both sides firmly aligning against Hamas in Gaza, which is sandwiched between them. Egyptian and Israeli national security interests have converged to such a degree that in 2014, when Hamas rocket attacks provoked an intense 50-day Israeli military campaign in Gaza, Egypt clearly sided with Israel and even waved off U.S. efforts to bring an early halt to the fighting.
In the post–Arab Spring period, Israel has also drawn closer to Jordan, the country with which it shares its longest border. The open cooperation facilitated by the peace treaty that the two countries signed in 1994 has proved crucial to Israel’s domestic and regional security interests. Jordan has played an instrumental role in helping defuse tensions at the Jerusalem holy site known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as the Temple Mount. Jordan is also helping absorb some spillover from the unrest roiling Iraq and Syria. Security cooperation between Israel and Jordan is flourishing, particularly since both share a common interest in securing Jordan’s border with Syria and in countering Islamists across the region.
Farther afield, Israel has also made some new friends and strengthened ties with old ones. In a sense, it has developed a new version of the “periphery doctrine” that the country pursued in the 1950s, when it established warm ties with important non-Arab states on the outer edges of the Middle East, such as Ethiopia, Iran, and Turkey. Since Israel’s strategic relationship with Turkey broke down in 2010, Israel has forged new partnerships with Cyprus and Greece, both bitter foes of the Turkish government. Israel has also developed closer ties with a number of African countries, which has allowed it to increase its influence on the continent and to interdict arms flows to militants in the Sinai and Gaza. And India—which, as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, once kept Israel at arm’s length—has developed extensive commercial, military, and diplomatic ties with the Jewish state in recent years.
Israel’s citizens feel more vulnerable walking their streets than they have since perhaps the 1948 War of Independence.
Relations with Russia have also improved markedly: indeed, Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly enjoy a better relationship with each other than either does with U.S. President Barack Obama. Washington and Moscow have argued viciously over the civil war in Syria; Israel, in contrast, appears to have established some clear rules of the road with Russia for operations there. According to press reports, Russia even temporarily transferred some military officers to Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv in order to improve coordination and prevent accidental clashes in the skies above Syria.
Despite such gains, Israel still faces many threats and potential dangers, and the country’s leaders can’t seem to agree on which are most pressing. President Reuven Rivlin, currently one of the country’s most popular and widely respected officials, recently suggested that ISIS might be the greatest present danger. Yet few in Israel’s defense establishment—which comprises Israel’s military, intelligence, and national security agencies—agree with that position. They largely see ISIS as an indirect problem, one that represents a bigger threat to regional stability and the viability of Israel’s neighbors than it does to the country’s own security.
The more direct and urgent danger, most believe, comes from Iran and its two main militant allies: Hamas and Hezbollah. Indeed, in January, then Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon declared that he would rather face ISIS in the Golan Heights than see Iranian troops or their proxies occupy that area. Israeli leaders see Iran as a rising revisionist power and have watched nervously as it has built significant influence, if not quite dominance, in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.
Yet underneath this general consensus, Israeli leaders don’t agree on the precise nature of the danger Iran represents. In recent years, Netanyahu has warned that Iran (or at least a nuclear-armed Iran) could constitute an “existential threat” to Israel. Yet that formulation has been vigorously disputed even by other security hawks, such as Barak—despite the fact that Barak reportedly advocated a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities as recently as 2012. To them, a nuclear-armed Iran would represent an intolerable threat but not an existential one.
Netanyahu continues to object to the deal Iran struck last year with the United States and other major powers that requires Iran to significantly curtail its nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions. Yet many of Israel’s security professionals have adopted the view that the agreement, although flawed, has pushed the Islamic Republic further away from acquiring a bomb—even further, perhaps, than an Israeli military strike would have. They believe that Tehran has significantly reduced its stockpile of enriched uranium and the number of centrifuges it operates and that Iran’s ability to produce plutonium has been eliminated, for the time being.
Still, virtually all Israeli officials view Iran as implacably hostile and expansionist. And Israel has taken it upon itself to act as the most stringent international monitor of Iran’s compliance with the nuclear agreement, vigilantly pointing out every infraction. But Israel is struggling to determine what, if anything, to do with the additional time—somewhere between five and 15 years—that the nuclear agreement with Iran has put on the clock.
For many decades, Israel enjoyed a high degree of freedom when considering how to respond to the various threats it faced. David Ben-Gurion, the country’s founding father, pursued a delicate strategy of “nonidentification,” courting support from global powers but avoiding the constraints of formal alliances. Today, Israelis still ferociously cling to this idea of independence and to the need for the country to be able to “defend itself, by itself,” as the popular phrase goes.
Yet the reality has long since shifted. Like other medium-size powers, Israel cannot match every possible threat by itself. Most Israelis recognize that truth, and the state has grown increasingly dependent on its only reliable friend, the United States, with which it has developed a de facto strategic partnership over the last 30 years or so.
Many in Israel’s defense establishment believe that the turmoil sweeping the Middle East may have actually improved Israel’s strategic position.
Israel’s lack of complete independence was demonstrated most dramatically during the standoff between Netanyahu and Obama over Iran. Israel had mobilized its formidable military and intelligence resources to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear breakout capacity. Even as the United States and other great powers initiated talks with Iran, Israel’s air force stepped up its training, and its officials began planning a preventive attack. But faced with stiff opposition from the Obama administration, Israel’s government ultimately stood down. Israel had been deterred—not by Tehran but by Washington.
Still, that episode has created little if any new distance between the two allies; on the contrary, the Israelis have sought to move even deeper into the American embrace. Despite the sour personal relations between Netanyahu and Obama, their two countries are now negotiating a new ten-year military assistance program that will replace and expand an expiring agreement that has ensured over $3 billion in annual U.S. military assistance for the past decade. And it is almost certain that whoever moves into the White House next year will seek to improve U.S. relations with Netanyahu’s government.
Improving relations with Washington and perhaps changing the structure of the U.S.-Israeli relationship represent one of the best ways for Israel to take advantage of this uncertain moment—not by merely seeking a return to the state of affairs before Obama but by forging an even stronger bond with the United States. Israelis regularly refer to the Americans as allies. Yet the United States and Israel have no formal, treaty-based alliance. There have been times when Israel seriously contemplated pushing for such an arrangement. But in each instance, it decided against doing so, fearing that the price Washington would likely demand—territorial concessions to the Arabs—would prove too high.
Improving relations with Washington would be one of the best ways for Israel to take advantage of this uncertain moment.
Today, Israel’s ambivalence stems from different factors. First, the Israelis fear that an alliance with the United States would force them to relinquish even more of their military independence, potentially preventing them from conducting certain military actions, ones along the lines of the 2007 Israeli air strike against an incipient Syrian nuclear facility, which the Israelis undertook after extensive consultations with the United States but without American participation. An alliance would also challenge the idea of Israeli self-reliance, which is central to the country’s defining ethos.
But as the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program showed, when push comes to shove, Israel is already willing to constrain itself and accept a high level of dependence in order to protect its close relationship with the United States. And other U.S. allies, such as Turkey, have initiated military actions when they believed their national interests were threatened, regardless of Washington’s views. A formal U.S.-Israeli alliance, therefore, would not necessarily have a significant practical effect on Israeli freedom of maneuver. Israel’s other major reservation regarding an alliance stems from a belief that the United States backs Israel partly because the Americans know that the Israelis will never ask U.S. soldiers to fight on Israel’s behalf. But a formal alliance would still allow Israel to maintain its commitment to not ask for American boots on the ground.
An alliance would offer significant benefits to Israel. First and foremost, it would provide an ironclad security guarantee: any attack on Israel would be met and rebuffed by the United States. During the Iran imbroglio, Obama repeatedly pledged that the United States “will always have Israel’s back.” But he never specifically, publicly promised to protect Israel against an Iranian attack. A treaty with Washington would ensure a lasting commitment of exactly that kind.
A formal alliance would also allow the Israelis to stop worrying, as they frequently do, about the contingent nature of their partnership with the United States. How much longer, they wonder, can Jerusalem safely rely on Washington to maintain their informal, quasi alliance? Many Israelis worry that the two countries will drift further apart as each undergoes demographic, political, and social changes. This may be happening already. A poll recently conducted by the Pew Research Center indicated that each U.S. generation is less sympathetic toward Israel than its predecessor. There is no guarantee that the strong pro-Israel consensus that has long been a bipartisan feature of U.S. politics will endure forever. Now is therefore the time for Israel to lock in the existing benefits of its relationship with Washington.
Closer to home, a second extremely important opportunity for Israel to consider involves its relationships with a number of Arab states that have historically wanted nothing to do with it. In ways unforeseen and largely unintended, Obama may have made a greater contribution to improving these relationships than he ever thought possible. His efforts to pivot the United States away from the Middle East while negotiating with Iran highlighted a number of interests that Israel shares with the Sunni Arab countries—the very same states Israel battled ferociously during the first 50 years of its existence.
In the last decade, the centuries-old Sunni-Shiite divide has grown into a chasm, fueled by—and, in turn, fueling—the rivalry between the Sunni Arab powers and an Iranian-led Shiite bloc. The sectarian split has replaced the region’s traditional fault line—the Arab-Israeli conflict—and has begun to reorder the Middle East in surprising ways. Israel and the Sunni Arab states now more clearly share a chief foe, in Iran, and a sense of concern over U.S. retrenchment.
Israel should leverage this change to shape a better future for itself among its neighbors. Some Israelis worry that the Sunni Arab states may be too unstable or unreliable to act as partners. But Israel should seize on their sense of weakness and their openness to explore a formal peace initiative.
Talking with the Arabs might have strategic benefits even if it fails to unlock the stalemate with the Palestinians.
In September 1967, following the Arabs’ devastating defeat in the Six-Day War—during which Israel captured all of Jerusalem and the west bank of the Jordan River—the Arab League convened in Khartoum, Sudan, and issued its now-infamous declaration of what came to be known as “the three no’s”: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel. Israel responded by casting itself as the reasonable party, willing to trade territory for peace, and took every opportunity to portray the Arabs as inexorably hostile and belligerent.
But the Arab wall of rejection cracked a decade later, when Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat traveled to Jerusalem and made peace. And the wall arguably crumbled altogether in 2002, when the Arab League collectively endorsed a proposal put forward by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah (who was king from 2005 until his death last year) that offered Israel the prospect of peace, security, and normal relations in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders, a move the Arab states see as the only way to begin resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Israelis had ample cause for skepticism. First, the timing was poor. One day prior to the Arab League’s endorsement of the plan, Israel suffered a massive terrorist attack in which 30 Israelis in the coastal city of Netanya were killed at a Passover Seder; the bloodshed left the country in no mood to negotiate with its enemies. More substantively, the Israelis doubted that the Arabs could ever be flexible enough on their demand for a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees. And the Israelis also believed that the Arabs were only pretending to reach out to them in order to curry favor with Washington so as to gain leverage in the run-up to an anticipated U.S. invasion of Iraq, which the Arab states opposed.
But the Arab Peace Initiative has proved to be more than a tactical ploy: for the past 14 years, the Arab League has stood by it, even in the face of intense public anger in the Arab and wider Muslim world over Israel’s military actions in Lebanon and Gaza. On the “right of return,” the Arabs have called for “a just and agreed solution,” suggesting there may be some room for flexibility. And in 2013, the league even made modifications to the plan to make it more attractive to Israel: for example, the proposal now incorporates the notion of negotiated land swaps between Israel and the Palestinians, which shows that it is not a take-it-or-leave-it proposal. Emissaries from Egypt and Jordan have traveled to Israel on behalf of the Arab League to allay Israeli apprehensions. Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and former ambassador to the United States, has met publicly with prominent Israelis and reached out to the Israeli public through interviews with various Israeli media outlets. Throughout, however, Turki has made it clear that there can be no progress in broader Arab-Israeli relations without addressing the Palestinian issue.
The Israeli government has yet to offer an official response to the plan, and Israel’s leaders have essentially ignored it. There have been a few exceptions: Dan Meridor, a former Likud deputy prime minister, and Yair Lapid, who leads the center-right party Yesh Atid, have both supported the idea of considering the Arab initiative under certain conditions. And a number of former chiefs of the Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service, including Danny Yatom and Meir Dagan, have decried Israel’s lack of a positive response. But for the most part, the Arab plan has been met with Israeli silence. After decades of bemoaning Arab rejectionism, Israel now finds itself branded the rejectionist party itself—by the Arabs.
The staunchest Israeli critics of the Arab Peace Initiative argue that given the chaos and instability plaguing the region, it’s not even clear how long the current Sunni Arab governments will stay in power: Why negotiate with them when they are so weak? Critics also point out that the Palestinians seem unwilling or unable to conclude a deal—so why give them a veto over Israel’s regional relations? The answer is that talking with the Arabs might have strategic benefits even if it fails to unlock the stalemate with the Palestinians. Better contacts between Israel and the Sunni Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, could help forge a more united front against Iran. Israel could test the Arab plan’s sincerity and in doing so open up a channel to the broader Arab world by expressing a desire to negotiate with Saudi Arabia and other Arab League states, while maintaining certain Israeli reservations about some of the plan’s elements. As one senior Israeli official recently told me, “Never before have we been offered so much while being asked for so little in return.”
If Israel prefers not to deal with the Arab Peace Initiative, then it should consider offering up its own regional peace initiative, which Netanyahu has declined to do. Many Israelis, even within the prime minister’s camp, have been frustrated by their leader’s passivity on this front. Indeed, Netanyahu’s tenure has been defined not by right-wing extremism, as many of Israel’s detractors claim, but by risk aversion. In his more than seven years in power, Netanyahu has neglected to articulate a vision—much less offer a clear plan—for how Israel could achieve peace and consolidate its security and economic gains. Given the narrow right-wing base on which his government rests, Netanyahu is understandably reluctant to hint at the types of concessions he would be prepared to make for peace. But in adopting a wait-and-see attitude toward the political changes that are roiling the Middle East, Israel is forfeiting a chance to help set the international agenda in a way that would be favorable to it.
Every previous Israeli prime minister has recognized that when it comes to statecraft, Israel can play either offense (initiating peace negotiations on its own terms) or defense (resisting attempts by its friends and adversaries alike to force it to the table on terms Israel dislikes). Offense—taking the battle to its adversaries—is far more consonant with the traditional Israeli political ethos. Israel would gain considerable support from its friends and allies by outlining a vision for peace and an approach toward realizing it. And the country will continue to pay a price if it fails to do so.
Israelis rightly point out that their conflict with the Arabs no longer defines the region’s politics. But that condition will not last forever: an almost inevitable future outbreak of violence in Gaza, the West Bank, or Lebanon will surely return the world’s attention to Israel, and the major powers will once again call on it to try to make concessions. What is more, while Israel sits on its hands, the other parties to the conflict are pushing forward with their own agendas. Israel’s friends, including the United States, are weighing plans to propose new peace efforts before the end of this year. Meanwhile, Palestinian officials are seeking new ways to confront or isolate Israel, by gaining ever more official recognition at the UN and by mobilizing international boycotts of Israeli goods and scholarship.
By outlining a plan for peace now, precisely when the Middle East is experiencing unrest and turmoil, Israel has an opportunity to explore the possibility of new relationships in its neighborhood and better ones in the rest of the world. Israel ought to apply to its foreign relations the same innovative, entrepreneurial spirit that has allowed the country to thrive in the technological and military realms. Laying out a vision would not imply a naive denial of harsh realities. Instead, Israel would improve its standing by deciding, after many years of inaction, to simply try.