The Call

Israelis and Palestinians: the coming fork in the road

Israelis and Palestinians: the coming fork in the road

by Ian Bremmer

As President Shimon Peres begins consultations with Benjamin Netanyahu, Tzipi Livni, and others over formation of the next Israeli government, let’s take a step back and a longer-term view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Over the course of the next few years, the problem will likely get worse, not so much because of who will lead the Israeli government, Hamas, Fatah or Hezbollah, but because inevitable technological changes will tilt the balance toward intensified conflict.

Israelis have proven many times that they’re tough and creative enough to face down new threats to their security. But in the not-too-distant future, militants will have weaponry that is technologically sophisticated enough to effectively target Tel Aviv from outside Israel — from outside even the “buffer zone” established in southern Lebanon by international peacekeepers to keep Israeli Defense Forces and Hezbollah further apart following their war in 2006. Once Hezbollah can hit Tel Aviv with a rocket equipped with a relatively sophisticated guidance system from anywhere inside Lebanon, life will be much tougher for Israelis.

Everyone knows that Israel is a small country. But many outsiders don’t realize that more than half its population — and the core of its economy — are based in and around Tel Aviv. That makes the country and its security especially vulnerable to longer-range, increasingly accurate ballistic missiles.

I’m not talking about a threat to Israel’s very existence. This is a country that’s been in plenty of tougher fights over the past six decades. But as Tel Aviv becomes directly vulnerable, Israel’s extremely mobile and globalized population — and its strong activist diaspora — will become a weakness, because they will be the most vulnerable to attack and the first to leave. We’ve seen this problem in other countries with strong diasporas — like Armenia and Lebanon — both of which hollowed out economically as a result.

At that point, there’s a risk of a sharp shift to the right in Israeli politics, much sharper and further to the right than the one we’ve seen in recent months. Under this circumstance, we’d likely see the most democratic government in the region in much more direct conflict with Israeli Arabs. We’d also see a spike in violence in Gaza, the West Bank, and within Israel’s borders.

Once this point is reached, Israelis, Palestinians, the United States, and the governments of neighboring Arab states will find themselves at a fork in the road. The more optimistic view is that the potential for regional conflagration will force the United States and Arab governments to step in with pressure (and promises of funding), to create their own security and economic solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, the Jordanians could take on the burden of the West Bank with Egyptians doing the same in Gaza. That requires a high degree of political stability and self-confidence in Egypt and Jordan, and it could only work if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict already threatened them far more directly than it does now. There are other possible solutions, but the principle problem, as with so many other “intractable conflicts” around the world, is that no consensus in favor of a solution can be reached within the international community until the conflict reaches a hard boil and threatens to spill across borders.

The second scenario, wholly possible, is that Arab states can’t agree on a way forward and instead make demands on Israel that its increasingly embattled population won’t allow its government to accept. Under this scenario, there is a much higher likelihood that Israel would become economically unviable and an isolated political pariah — one that cannot count on support even from the United States. That’s a very bad scenario for the broader Middle East. 

Which scenario is more likely? I’m an optimist, and the Arab countries in question are probably moderate enough to agree on a way forward that averts worst-case scenarios for the region. But we can’t discount the problem of Arab infighting and indecision, even in the face of potential disaster. I’ll go with the first scenario as the more likely, but not with much confidence.