Misdiagnosing Israel's Ills

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January 15, 2010

While many commentators got stuck on Henry Siegman’s use of the “apartheid” terminology in his recent article in The Nation, the point of the piece is one that needs to be considered critically and thoughtfully: that the only way this conflict is going to be resolved is by an outside power imposing a solution.

Siegman, the former head of the American Jewish Congress who has since moved on into the think tank world and become one of the harshest critics of Israeli and American policy regarding the occupation, is thus going well beyond the usual statement that the two sides “need help in bridging the gaps between them.”

It has long been an article of faith that an imposed solution is impossible. Siegman deems it necessary because the expansion of settlements, the division of the Palestinians territorially and politically, and the political conditions on both sides renders other options unworkable. But is an imposed solution possible either?

Imposing a solution doesn’t mean starting from scratch. The Geneva Initiative, the Beilin-Abu Mazen Agreement, Nusseibeh-Ayalon, the Oslo Accords, the Road Map, the Clinton Parameters—they all more or less describe the same contours of a final agreement. As many have said for years, the form of a two-state solution is there, it simply needs to be implemented. Siegman certainly seems to be intimating that any imposed solution would be along the lines of these earlier agreements and documents.

Such a step, however, would require very strong action by more than one outside force. The United States, the UN, the EU, the Quartet, the Arab League all have various interests and political concerns that would limit any one of them in an attempt to impose a solution. In fact, it would probably require most of the Western world as well as the Arab world to unite behind the imposed solution.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle would be a less tangible one: for the Western world to impose a new political regime upon a country that, however displeased it is with them is considered one of their own would be unprecedented. Israel remains a democracy, including for its Arab citizens (the discrimination against them, though serious, does not make Israel significantly different from many Western countries). The extent to which it rules masses of people who do not have equal rights before the law is the result of the occupation.

Because it is well integrated into the Western global economy and because it is by no means a dictatorship, political momentum for an imposed solution would only come if Israel becomes a global pariah. Sadly, Israel is on its way to that status due to the increasing perception that it is intransigent in negotiations and because of the increasingly harsh measures it is using in its conflict with the Palestinians, though it remains very far from being perceived so badly that Western governments would impose a new political regime on a fellow democracy.

Operation Cast Lead damaged Israel’s global standing much more than they’d care to admit. Moreover, repeated statements from top Israeli leaders about accelerated building in the West Bank after the period of settlement freeze, as well as the numerous “exceptions” that have been made during the freeze convince people that this was no more than a political gesture toward the Obama Administration and not a genuine Israeli attempt to move a peace process forward.

This all increases the potential for Siegman’s imposed solution. But while the political will for such a thing remains microscopic, there remains time for Israelis and Palestinians to find new political leaders, and maybe in some ways new political structures, that can enable the two peoples to make the tough decisions to resolve this conflict.

The method of imposing a solution would no doubt be economic. An imposed solution along the established lines would be welcomed by most Palestinians, and PA and Arab League pressure would deal with the rejectionists. Western pressure would mostly then be on Israel.

Israel should make no mistake about this: there is a significant number of Europeans who would back economic pressures and that number is increasing. Among Americans, such ideas remain outside the discourse, but it is starting to appear on the radar even here.

All of this is precisely why so many people, from a wide variety of points of view, believe the two-state solution is either dead or dying. For Siegman, he believes it is no longer possible for an Israeli government to remove the West Bank settlements, and therefore the only way two states can be achieved is by an outside party forcing the issue.

Siegman is actually more hopeful, then, than others who have declared the two-state solution dead, if only because he believes that settlements can be removed. I would go further and state that settlements can be removed by Israel, but that would require a strong leader who is clever and brave enough to take a short-term political hit for long-term gain for Israel.

But not only does there seem to be no such leader on the Israeli scene right now, Israelis seem determined not to confront the problem. A comparatively dovish Israeli strategist, Gidi Grinstein of the Reut Institute, recognizes that the siege of Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, and the 2006 Lebanon War have all seriously damaged the view of Israel around the world.

Grinstein believes Israel’s descent towards pariah status is the result of a sustained attack by its enemies and their supporters. Though he correctly, and very crucially, recognizes the danger of the growing “de-legitimizing” of Israel, he incorrectly sees it as based on an opposition to Jewish self-determination having nothing to do with Israel’s actions and policies.

In broader circles, it’s even worse. Grinstein sees more clearly than most Israelis the fact that Israel is being seen more and more as a state which disregards human rights and the dangers in this growing perception.

But outside the usual left-wing and NGO circles, there is little inclination to question whether Israel can address this by changing its policies. A recent editorial in Ha’aretz called for lifting the siege on Gaza, entirely for pragmatic reasons. The siege policies, as well as the larger military operations are still not being properly connected to the way it is being perceived around the world. When it is connected, it is seen as Israel being unjustly accused.

If Israel is not going to be concerned about the human cost of its policies, then similar pragmatism should dictate it take a more objective look at the effects those policies are having on Israel’s global standing. Until people like Grinstein are willing to confront the fact that there just may be some validity to people’s outrage over the more devastating policies Israel enacts, all the hasbara in the world is not going to save its image.

Grinstein believes this issue can be addressed by increased diplomacy, both professional and on the level of the individual citizen acting as an ambassador for Israel when she or he goes overseas. He is sadly mistaken.

That’s not a matter of public relations. The consequence of continuing to ignore the increasingly negative global opinion (and the decline is visible even among Diaspora Jews and Americans) is Siegman’s vision of an imposed solution. But by then, Israel may be regarded so badly that the concern for its security, which Siegman stresses, may not be so serious a concern for the outside parties.

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