The Middle East Channel

‘There’s no there there’: The retreat of the Israeli state and US peace policy

In the aftermath of Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel, U.S. policy circles have been debating how and whether to re-engage in the Middle East peace process. Seemingly pragmatic in their approach, these discussions are oddly insular, almost academic: The Israel they speak of no longer exists. Misunderstanding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

In the aftermath of Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel, U.S. policy circles have been debating how and whether to re-engage in the Middle East peace process. Seemingly pragmatic in their approach, these discussions are oddly insular, almost academic: The Israel they speak of no longer exists. Misunderstanding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent intransigence for a hubris borne of strength, American policy intellectuals — even those ostensibly engaged in critiquing of the status quo discourse — fail to understand that the Israeli state is in a process of dissolution. It is this "retreat of the state" — to borrow a phrase from the late Susan Strange — that defines the present Israeli government’s position, and it is from there that would-be peacemakers need to triangulate their positions. 

This requires some explanation. For decades — until the 1970s — Israel was essentially a one-party state: Labor dominated the ‘commanding heights’ of manufacturing, the labor and trade unions, the media, and the influential military and kibbutz sectors.  Control of the government passed to Likud in 1977, yet Labor’s ongoing dominance in economic, military, and social circles, and a series of unity governments in the 1980s, preserved a clear horizon of political and ideological consensus.  

Since the early 1990s, however, the situation has changed. Key assets and industries were sold, the mass media was liberalized and marketized, and a series of electoral reforms gave the traditional "national" parties a distinct disadvantage vis-à-vis smaller "fractional" movements.  A slimmer public sector could no longer be mined for political patronage by the traditional power-brokers, while single-issue parties proved increasingly adept in wrangling coalition negotiations to deliver political "goods." Into this mix also came events that undid the existing political-security consensus: the first intifada and the end of the Cold War.

These dynamics pulled Israeli politics toward the fringes, a process which the collapse of the Oslo-Madrid process has only accelerated. The result: Israel’s traditionally state-centered "left" and "right" have been in a permanent state of decline. 

Since 2000, the former has found itself without a coherent narrative. Ehud Barak’s abortive "rebranding" (à la Tony Blair) of Labor in 1999 stressed physical separation from the Palestinians over any serious discussion of national reconciliation, leaving the party ripe to be outflanked by Ariel Sharon’s Kadima when final status talks collapsed. Hopes for a revitalized social-democratic agenda were dashed when Amir Peretz lent his support to the 2006 Lebanon "summer war." Labor and its traditional allies seem a spent force.  

Likud has fared better at the polls, but it has paid a price. Its traditional base — the adherents of Jabotinsky’s "Revisionism" — find themselves outflanked by a new generation of single-issue radicals united only by their rejection of Labor: Russian ultranationalists, Shas, and a new convergence between religious Zionism and the ultra-Orthodox. Likud’s survival depends on Netanyahu’s ability to keep this fractious group — only just — together. Its precarious nature actually grants him considerable freedom of action, but in a negative sense: The radicalism of his coalition partners provides him cover for not doing anything substantive on the land-for-peace front.

In other words, with the retreat of the Israeli state the electorate is no longer divided into a traditional "left" and the "right." The real division now lies between statists and radicals

By statists, we mean those who have inherited the state-centered discourse to which both Labor under Ben Gurion and Likud under Begin had — not without some fits and starts — committed themselves after 1948.  The illegalism of Zionism’s struggle for a state — in settlement, and in the population transfers of Palestinians in 1948 and 1949 — were justified by the founders as necessary evils, reluctantly undertaken: the consequence of Arab opposition, British indecision, and the genocidal policies of Nazi Germany. Once that state had come into being, Israeli Jews would naturally discard this illegalism. This is the vision enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and sealed in the post-independence confrontations by which the various right-wing Zionist militias were forcibly unified under a single sovereign authority. By radicals, we mean those who see the Israeli state not as an end, but as a means: to achieve some "higher" purpose, whether messianic or nationalist in inspiration.

Israeli electoral politics is thus divided between statists who acknowledge and fear a reality in which the state has come to symbolize only a means to an (essentially contested) end, and radicals who are not only partly responsible for this condition, but also willing to hold everyone else hostage to threats that they may finish the job if "pushed too far" — viz. any number of variations on a "Third Kingdom of Israel" and the neutralization of opponents within the Israeli body politic who might stand in the way. One of the more macabre jokes among the Israeli left goes thus: Q: "Why does every Leftist in Israel have a friend among the radicals?" A: "So that they can wangle a better job in the concentration camps." Israeli political commonsense for statists is obvious: "Until circumstances force us to make any ‘fateful compromises,’ it is better to let sleeping dogs lie."

Divisions within the statist camp are of lesser import.  For its part, Labor is trapped: If it leaves the government, it abandons everyday policymaking — issues of citizenship, women’s and minority rights, education — to religious and nationalist radicals. Yet if it stays, Labor alienates its base on key foreign-policy issues: peace and reconciliation with the Arab world, sustaining good relations with the United States, Europe, and the larger international community. Labor’s latest poll numbers are a dramatic testament to this losing proposition: to parry short-term threats to Israel’s democracy, it must sacrifice its medium-term survival. Since parliamentary elections would likely wipe it off the map, its constant decline in the polls binds it to Netanyahu ever more tightly.

The statist right finds itself only slightly better off: It can form governments by entering into coalitions with the radicals, but only if any hope of governing effectively is checked "at the door." This is the real significance of Eli Yishai’s announcement on settlement construction in East Jerusalem during the Biden recent visit — and of Netanyahu’s inability to control its timing.  

Statists on the left and right are bound in a death-embrace: Netanyahu needs Labor and Barak so as to not be overcome by radicals from outside Likud and within it; Labor needs Likud because without a place in government it has nothing.

Disaffected statist voters have, in effect, chosen to surrender peace with the Palestinians in order to avoid open confrontation with the radicals in their own midst: to purchase short-term domestic harmony at the cost of accepting an untenable, unending grinding down of Palestinians’ rights and hopes. To confront the radicals on these points is to risk civil-cum-holy war. Since they pay no immediate price for having abandoned the Palestinians to the tender mercies of the radicals, that bargain (if one can call it that) reaps benefits. Only if statist Israelis are faced with the consequences of their capitulation to the radicals, and with paying a price for it, can this tacit accord within the Israeli body politic be squarely confronted.

Coordinated U.S. policy could materially affect this complex state of affairs, but it must first recognize it. In failing to do so, would-be peacemakers in the United States merely invite further stalemate: borne of an (understandable) desire among statists to ensure their self-preservation in the face of a possible violent confrontation with radicals. Even worse, that failure threatens to leave the United States with blood — Palestinian certainly, and perhaps Israeli too — on its hands: for it would make the U.S. government complicit in the statists’ ceding Palestine to the radicals, and to those future domestic conflicts that might come, should the statists ever try to win back their lost predominance.

Daniel Bertrand Monk holds the George R. and Myra T. Cooley chair in peace and conflict studies at Colgate University, where he is a professor of geography and Middle East and Islamic studies. Daniel J. Levine is the postdoctoral fellow in peace and conflict studies at Colgate University. 

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