Yes, Israelis Are Open to a Palestinian State

Writing in Mondoweiss, Alex Kane argues that, based on the most recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, Israelis don’t actually want a two-state solution—contrary to a slew of previous surveys—because their version of a Palestinian state is so truncated and unviable that it’s not acceptable to Palestinians. He concludes that “Israeli society is too wedded to the continuing colonization of Palestine for a Palestinian state to come into being.”

Kane raises a fair point—that Israelis aren’t clamoring to leave the entire West Bank in return for a Palestinian state on the entire territory—but his argument rests on several presumptions that I don’t think can be taken as indicative of Israelis’ or Israel’s final position on a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

First, Kane assumes that public opinion polls determine outcomes. The general findings are that, in democracies, public opinion sets parameters rather than makes specific government policies, particularly in foreign affairs. This isn’t to say that governments can’t ever make policy with which the public disagrees; or that public opinion can’t constrain governments. But this general historical pattern, and indeed the specific historical pattern in Israel, indicates that if the Israeli public broadly and consistently supports peace with the Palestinians, which I think even Kane agrees is demonstrated in polling, then the government has the space to move forward on the peace process.

Kane draws a straight line from public opinion surveys to the specifics of a deal. But that’s not what public opinion is used for, nor how it’s properly understood. In some areas, for example, surveys on how people will likely vote, public opinion polls can be fairly accurate. But this is less so on critical foreign policy issues. It’s not the Israeli public that will determine the specifics of a deal. No-one has ever said getting to a final agreement would be simple, but we have plenty of previous official negotiations and track two efforts that show what Kane is concerned about may not be unbreachable obstacles when Israeli and Palestinian negotiators get close to the endgame. There’s nothing to support the conclusion that the Israelis will get everything they want, as expressed in the recent Israel Democracy Institute poll that Kane builds his case on; the negotiators themselves have said that “all issues” are on the table.

Second, Kane specifically mentions Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim as stumbling blocks, because most polls indicate Israelis want to keep them. They will probably prove to be two of the settlements over which negotiators will fight most. But that doesn’t translate into an inevitable inability to resolve the issue. If Israel keeps them, it might well be that Palestinians will be compensated for them through land swaps and a complex arrangement of corridors and alternate routes to Jerusalem and around the West Bank.

Third, Kane mentions the demilitarized nature of a Palestinian state as something likely to block an agreement. I’m not sure why this should be considered more of sticking point than Jerusalem or the right of return, but there isn’t anything to suggest that “demilitarized” can’t be finessed in talks. It might be a temporary Israeli or international military presence in the Jordan Valley; it might mean a defense treaty between Israel and Palestine giving the former the right to send soldiers through the latter’s territory to fend off a threat from the east; it might be a well-armed Palestinian police force but no military. It could mean many things—especially because there is a growing understanding in Israel that the Jordan Valley isn’t as necessary for Israel’s security as it once was. But being demilitarized isn’t something that will make or break a final agreement, nor is it the sin qua non for Palestinian statehood.

Fourth, the details of each poll that Kane references are important. At +972 Dahlia Scheindlin has a sharp and careful analysis of Israeli polls on peace talks. She points out there are real differences in the types of questions asked, and therefore the specific conclusions that commentators can draw from a single poll or question. Given these differences, it’s clear that there is considerable room to maneuver in negotiations, which gets back to my first point above. I highly recommend reading her piece in full.

Finally, Kane switches arguments to contend that Benjamin Netanyahu is not the leader to bring Israel into a final agreement. That’s probably where I agree most closely with him. I’ve argued that I’m skeptical Bibi will be the one to sign a final agreement. Maybe he will, but even if he doesn’t, a genuine process under Bibi will help maintain a positive atmosphere for continued negotiations under his successor. (I’m not suggesting the process continue for its own sake; I’m speaking of a serious set of talks.)

Even more importantly, the historical pattern favors Bibi. All of Israel’s prime ministers who engaged in talks with the Palestinians were hawks, all hardline in their own way. In his first term as prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin refused to consider the PLO a serious negotiating partner; as late as January 1993 he rejected direct talks with the organization. Yet he signed the Declaration of Principles and accepted in private the likelihood of a Palestinian state run by the PLO. Ehud Barak as Chief of Staff expressed considerable reservations about the Oslo Accords and as a politician abstained from the Knesset vote on Oslo II; yet at Camp David and Taba he broke longstanding Israeli taboos on final status issues. Ariel Sharon once said that “the fate of Netzarim [in Gaza] will be the fate of Tel Aviv”; in summer 2005 he withdrew all Israeli civilians and soldiers from the Strip. And Ehud Olmert was once considered a hardline rightist opposed to a Palestinian state; he now regularly talks about the coming division of Jerusalem.

What I’m saying is that the public declaration of leaders are important and need to be accounted for, but they aren’t necessarily the final determinant of their actual policies. The four prime ministers before Netanyahu are proof of this, while Bibi himself has been softening his own position on a Palestinian state. This is not to say that these Israeli leaders suddenly began to read from Mahmoud Abbas’s script; and clearly there were still gaps between their opening positions in negotiations and a fair, just solution for both peoples. But the difference between their previous statements and their later positions also cannot be ignored; it’s for sustained negotiation to bridge that gap.

If we want to look at Israeli public opinion and historical patterns, as Kane does, then they are at worst ambivalent about outcomes and dependent on conditions, and at best give concrete reasons why we can remain optimistic and hopeful for real change.

Working with Bibi

My piece in Open Zion yesterday argued that, although he’s not actively interested in withdrawing from the West Bank and helping create a Palestinian state in the entire WB, Benjamin Netanyahu is the Prime Minister of Israel, and so needs to be worked with. Moreover, he’s a pragmatist and opportunist; he can be pushed toward that end.

Follow the link for more.

Politics and Pathologies in Israeli National Security Decision Making

Yesterday in The Atlantic I wrote about the politics and pathologies in Israeli national security decision-making, with a specific focus on the National Security Council.

Here’s how it starts:

Imagine this: Israel strikes Iranian nuclear facilities, destroying some and damaging others. Iran fires missiles back at Israel and “activates” Hezbollah on the northern border. Hamas, deciding this is an opportune moment, starts shooting its own rockets into the southern and coastal areas of Israel.

This is an entirely plausible scenario. It’s also one that Israel expects. What’s less clear is whether Israel has thought through the rest of the implications of a strike on Iran: the impact on the economy; the length of time citizens will need to be mobilized for military service; the reaction of its friends, allies, and neutral states; and how it will coordinate a multi-tiered response on all these fronts.

Follow the link for more.

The Abba Eban Factor

This piece was originally posted at Open Zion:

Ehud Olmert’s appearance at the Saban Forum last week was a big hit in Washington. The former prime minister spoke passionately and combined an adequate amount of humor, politics, and mystery. He said all the right things: that Benjamin Netanyahu has done terrible things for the peace process and hinting that he, Olmert, might at some point return to Israeli politics to repair the damage. Observers loved it.

Call it the Abba Eban factor. Or, if you prefer, the Shimon Peres factor.

Eban was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations and Foreign Minister. Shimon Peres occupied several offices, and today is President of Israel. Both were seen as urbane and cultured—Eban’s Cambridge accent and Peres’s eastern European inflections were both endearing—and not at all representative of the quintessential Israeli quality of aggressive pushiness bordering on rudeness.

More than these qualities, though, was their orientation toward compromise with the Palestinians. Both were seen as having shifted from hawkishness to dovishness on the peace process. Eban was famous for referring to the 1967 lines as “Auschwitz borders” (though he later regretted the term) while Peres was one of the fathers of Israel’s defense industry and the one who fought Yitzhak Rabin on behalf of settlers in the early 1970s.

Today, both are considered to be smart former insiders who know what’s best for Israel. On this basis, both had larger, more dedicated constituencies outside of Israel than inside it. Eban was seen in Israel as a delusional leftist unaware of its real security threats. In addition to that accusation, Peres was for a long time viewed as a politician interested only in furthering his own position.

Olmert is their latest incarnation: he initiated two terrible wars during his term, but now speaks fervently of how close he came to peace. And his legal troubles, political maneuverings, and bad decisions are derided in Israel.

The near-hero-worship in Washington rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of Israeli politics itself. Natan Sachs has convincingly shown that neither the numbers not the politics add up to an Olmert victory in the Israeli election. Yet observers continue to hope.

This is facilitated by pundits’ direct comparison of Olmert to Bibi. (Blake Hounshell’s interview with Olmert is titled “The Case Against Benjamin Netanyahu.”) Let’s be honest: Olmert certainly comes off favorably. There is a real dislike for Bibi, who’s seen as something like an aggressive war-monger with a superiority complex. Steven Cook put it best when he tweeted during a conversation about the issue, “Olmert has a bigger constituency in D.C. (where polite company disdains Netanyahu) than Israel.”

There is also the conviction that Olmert has made a major transformation in the name of peace. There is great frustration in D.C. about Israeli actions on the peace process. Olmert, like Peres and Eban before him, is considered to represent the heroic Israeli who is willing to lay it on the line for peace.

When Olmert said near the beginning of his Saban discussion that the “Government of Israel has to be changed,” there was some applause from the audience. Olmert’s contention, reported in Open Zion, that he supports the Palestinian bid for non-member state status at the U.N. was tweeted over a thousand times. And in his write-up of the Saban meeting, David Remnick notes that Olmert moved “courageously to the left on the Palestinian issue.

For a while, analysts made the same mistake with Tzipi Livni. The latest poll has her eponymous party winning six seats. Contrary to expectations, that’s not enough to challenge Bibi, but it is enough to strengthen him —the opposite preference.

The longstanding admiration for Israeli hawks-turned-doves in Washington is a problem, because it leads to unrealistic expectations. Waiting for Israelis to elect the leader Washington prefers is simply not good policy.