It was 1978. The Litani operation in March saw Israeli troops push into south Lebanon to disrupt Palestinian terror groups in the region. In April, Israel won the Eurovision song contest for the first time with Izhar Cohen’s “A-Ba-Ni-Bi.” And in September, prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat signed the first agreement on the road to peace between Israelis and Arabs, the Camp David Accords.
The formal peace treaty, signed the following year, would prove unexpectedly resilient, surviving Sadat’s assassination in 1981, multiple wars in Lebanon and Gaza, a Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo in 2012, and broad Arab and Muslim anger at Egypt’s acceptance of Israel over the years. Through it all, Israel’s peace with the most populous Arab state — and the Arab world’s largest army — has held firm.
But back in Jerusalem that September, Begin faced condemnation from his closest allies on the Israeli right, who fumed at the surrender of conquered lands and the dismantling of settlements in the Sinai peninsula — and no less over the accord’s rhetorical nod toward recognizing Palestinian rights.
In the Knesset shortly after the announcement of the accords in the White House, Likud lawmaker Moshe Shamir slammed the agreement in terms calculated to sting for the proudly Jewish Begin. Dismantling the Sinai settlements, he railed, was a “blow to the Jew who has stood up straight and been prepared to fight back…. I have the impression that by making this decision this government has returned to a state of receiving the charity of others, of begging for handouts, of bowing one’s back to those who are one’s benefactors.”
Begin was “not bringing peace or security or honor. He is bringing us the repartition of the land of Israel,” cried another Likud lawmaker, Geula Cohen, who then complained to a reporter that Begin had “once said he would never send a Jewish soldier to expel a Jewish settler. He did everything he said he wouldn’t do.”
But Begin was unimpressed by the invective. “I had to decide,” he said. “The peace treaty was on one side of the scales and the settlements on the other. According to every moral code to which I subscribe the scales tipped on the side of the peace treaty. There is no other way. With the pain, the insults, the shouts — no other way. To my dying day, I will believe that this is the right choice. There is no evasion here, no flight from responsibility.”
To the talk of soldiers, Begin had his reply as well. “Peace is born, first and foremost, of our blood. For this peace, we have sacrificed 12,000 of our best boys, in five wars, one war after another, one battlefield after another. We want to put an end to that. This is the opportunity; this is the chance.”
The story of that exchange is told in a new book, Be Strong and of Good Courage, by two veteran American observers of the region, former presidential adviser and peace envoy Dennis Ross and Washington Institute for Near East Policy analyst David Makovsky. (The two also collaborated on 2009’s Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East.)
The long-term costs of indecision
The book is many things: a history of four extraordinary Israeli prime ministers, a polemic about the need for Israel to separate from the Palestinians, and a deeper warning — not routinely heard from deep within the pro-Israel camp — about the long-term costs of Israel’s present-day culture of indecision.
Four of the book’s five chapters tell the story of four Israeli prime ministers and the courageous decisions they took in pursuit of a safe and flourishing Jewish state: David Ben Gurion for his decision to declare independence at the end of the British Mandate, despite the nascent state’s diplomatic and strategic isolation and the certainty that Arab armies would soon invade; Menachem Begin and his decision, despite the opprobrium of many of his colleagues and allies on the right, to give up conquered lands and dismantle settlements in order to usher in peace with Egypt; Yitzhak Rabin and his leap into the Palestinian peace process, born of disquiet at the moral and diplomatic costs of the occupation and the belief that Palestinian politics could reciprocate Israeli retreats with peace; and Ariel Sharon, the longtime champion of settlements, who was unafraid to stare down the settlement movement and push a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in a bid to give Israelis their long-sought separation from the Palestinians after the peace process fell apart.
The fifth and final chapter, titled “Israel’s Fateful Choice,” then delivers the simpler of the book’s two points: the Jewish state faces a new fork in the road. It must decide whether occupation and settlement in the West Bank can be allowed to grow so deep and entrenched that it will not be removable in any future delineation of a meaningful border between Israel and a separate Palestinian state, dooming Palestinians and Israelis to the almost certain nightmare scenario of generations forced to live in the same territory and driven to endless bouts of conflict by their mutually exclusive national narratives.
The two-state solution is fast receding from view, and no viable alternative has been proposed in its stead, they argue. Israel must hark to its past, to leaders who could make “big decisions,” and find one who can take the steps needed to preserve a two-state outcome, even if no such outcome is possible in the near future.
This is obviously, then, a book about Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving premier who has held the reins of Israeli policymaking for the past decade. Throughout the text, the authors deliver assessments of past Israeli premiers in terms that are clearly a rebuke — and perhaps a coaxing — of Netanyahu.
The book opens with Ross recalling one of his last meetings with Ariel Sharon before his 2005 stroke. The two met “over shawarma sandwiches,” and Sharon offered this observation: “My generation [of Israelis] is the last one that is not afraid to make big decisions. I fear that the next generation will be led by politicians and they won’t decide.”
Those “politicians” are a clear reference to the troublesome Netanyahu, who led a revolt against Sharon in Likud following the August 2005 Gaza disengagement, and whom Sharon often referred to as an “anxious” and “afraid” politician.
The authors are not afraid to lay it on thick. Begin, a kind of political godfather to Netanyahu, was able to “embrace political realism, based on weighing the risks of action versus inaction,” they write. “Israel’s national interests mattered more than the attitudes or the anger of those in his own political camp. Leaders made decisions, even when it was painful to do so.”
And elsewhere: “In its relatively short history, Israel has faced critical moments calling for courageous decisions in war and peace. Until now, it has had leaders who were able and willing to rise to the moment. Those leaders did not retreat in the face of daunting challenges; they did not shy away or try to avoid the decisions that they believed had to be made.”
Near the end of the book, the authors ask why Netanyahu, who once openly endorsed the idea and the necessity of two states, has allowed himself to preside “over the current path that threatens to turn Israel into a binational state. Both publicly and privately, the prime minister has said that Israel will not become a binational state. Yet his policies belie his claims and lead in that direction.”
Perhaps, they wonder, he “has changed his views on a single state and, much like others on the right, believes that the world will learn to live with Palestinians having a form of self-rule under broad Israeli control. Or perhaps he hopes that if he equivocates long enough another solution will emerge — for example, a confederal arrangement with Jordan that permits Israel to retain maximum territory and absorb a minimal number of Palestinians…. Or maybe Prime Minister Netanyahu believes he still has time [to establish a Palestinian state] and just needs to form a different government with centrist parties.”
To readers mystified as to Netanyahu’s intentions toward the Palestinians, this passage is worth noting, as it demonstrates that Ross, a key pointman on Israeli-Palestinian peace for both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, has no idea either — and, indeed, that Netanyahu himself may not know.
All this is the simple message of the book, an almost cartoonish juxtaposition between the steel-willed giants of yesteryear and a present-day crop of weak-kneed tub-thumpers. It is an image many Israelis, on right and left alike, might agree with. But it is a shallow and easily dismissed image nonetheless.
After all, Netanyahu’s indecision on the Palestinian issue is not shallow. Indeed, it may be what his voters like most about him. The optimism that animated the imaginations of leaders like Rabin and Sharon — who imagined peace with the Palestinians, then unilateral separation and deterrence — is now understood by the vast majority of Israelis to be relegated to a more naïve past. The Oslo process in the 1990s ended in the suicide bombing waves of the Second Intifada in 2000, and the Gaza withdrawal of 2005 in the Hamas takeover of the territory in 2007, a result that may yet play itself out on a much larger scale if Israel pulls out of the West Bank. To most Israelis, the shift from the era of Sharon to the age of Netanyahu does not feel like a country somehow grown less ambitious or innovative — witness other fields of human endeavor in which Israelis continue to shine — but rather like a country that has become wiser and more aware of the limits of optimism.
Netanyahu’s refusal to initiate new peace processes is not just about what his rightist flank will say (though of course that is one pressure he clearly feels). It is also due to the simple fact that he is convinced it will fail. A peace process widely believed to be a certain failure will find few politicians foolish enough to stake their country’s well-being and their own legacy on the slight chance it might succeed.
So it is not enough to label Netanyahu a mere “politician.” He has shown that he can be decisive, courageous and as rude as any of his iconic forebears when he believes the times require it, as in his brazen and intensive efforts to torpedo the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
Thankfully, it is on this very point that the book shines. If Ross and Makovsky had stopped at this lament at Israeli dithering, this book could be safely consigned to the already crowded genre of new works trying to explain “what’s wrong with Israel.” But they didn’t.
The luxury of avoiding hard choices?
They understand that Netanyahu’s vacillation on the Palestinian question “reflects [the] Israeli public’s deep distrust of the Palestinians and the enduring impact of the second intifada,” as they wrote in an email exchange with The Times of Israel for this article. “It is not an accident that the leading opposition candidates in the 2015 [election], and the two elections this year, have not made peace with the Palestinians an issue. To do so would make them appear naïve to the public, and Netanyahu knows there is little to be lost politically by living with stalemate on the Palestinians.”
This is all well-trod ground in the debate over Israeli-Palestinian peace, and these authors are veteran trodders of that ground.
But there is another message in this book, a subtler critique of present-day Israeli leadership that begins by rejecting the usual run of the debate. Ross and Makovsky challenge the simplistic declamations of past US administrations and countless foreign observers that the occupation is “unsustainable.” The diplomatic costs, they note, “remain manageable” for Israel, as do the military and financial burdens of the conflict, if only because Israelis do not see better alternatives after the most recent withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza brought only further conflict and greater danger.
And that’s the key: Israel’s indecision flows not from decline, but from strength.
“Ben-Gurion, Begin, Rabin, and Sharon are not around today. They were all there for the founding of Israel and fought for its survival. They lived through the period characterized by the genuine fragility of the state. Maybe that made them see the choices through a different lens — a lens in which the new Jewish state did not have the luxury of avoiding basic, hard choices,” write Ross and Makovsky. “Maybe, as a result, Israel is past the point where it will have heroic leaders.”
Israel is powerful, and aware of its power. And what is power if not access to a broader array of options for handling threats and challenges?
A fragile Israel believed it must make difficult choices because it had little room for error. A powerful Israel, especially one bruised by the perceived failures of the most recent “difficult decisions” of decisive but perhaps over-confident men like Rabin and Sharon, no longer feels the urgency to make decisions in a timetable set by outsiders and opponents. Withdrawal from most of the West Bank may be, as Ross and Makovsky argue at length, in Israel’s best long-term interest. A powerful Israel is not immune to the danger of a binational outcome. But it believes it is more able to shape the outcome than the dire predictions of the left seem able to acknowledge. If millions of Palestinians begin to demand citizenship, a powerful Israel can withdraw then; why do so now, when the danger of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the long arms of Iran and Hezbollah are certain to step into the breach?
Power means options, and good leadership means not taking unnecessary risks when there may be better alternatives. That, at any rate, is surely how Netanyahu views the last 10 years of his governments’ policies. The old, precarious Israel resorted to heroism; the newly powerful Jewish state can afford to bide its time.
But this self-assurance is also a trap, Ross and Makovsky argue, because it can become a hard political habit to break.
Netanyahu may have started his waiting game with the Palestinians vowing to prevent a one-state future and seeking merely to improve Israel’s bargaining position. But the inner political logic of his motionlessness has driven him in the other direction, toward steps that increase the risk that Israelis and Palestinians will be plunged into the one-state abyss.
“It is not just stalemate [with the Palestinians] that is the issue,” the authors warn. “It is settlement building and now his plans for annexation that may make separation from Palestinians an impossibility.”
There is a malaise, born in Israeli power, that now afflicts Israeli politics. Power can make indecision the wiser path for a leader to take, but it is hard to sell indecision to a voting public. So politicians posture and pretend to be decisive, if only to buy more time for indecision. Netanyahu has spent most of the past ten years holding back larger-scale construction in West Bank settlements, as any settlement leader can attest. But there is a built-in time limit to that game. As the gap between rhetoric and action grows old and obvious and therefore politically untenable, action soon falls into line with the rhetoric, not vice versa. You can only pretend to be doing something for so long before the political cost of not doing it becomes unsustainable.
“The very skepticism of the Israeli public about the Palestinians makes them desirous of separation, but that goes against the core of Bibi’s base,” Ross and Makovsky write. “And, as prime minister, he very rarely goes against his base. When he is outflanked by those like [Yamina MK Naftali] Bennett, he finds a way to respond. Yes, his own ideology leads him to be very cautious about the Palestinians, but in the past he was open and vocal about Israel not becoming a binational state. His policies now, if not changed, will produce it. And, in saying this, it does not mean Israel has lost its nerve; rather, the drift toward one state for two peoples is simply more abstract than the very real threats facing Israel from Iran, its proxies, and Sunni Islamists like [Islamic State]. While abstract, this threat to Israel’s identity will prove real all too soon.”
It is possible, Ross and Makovsky are warning Israelis, to be right every step of the way but disastrously wrong in the end. Israelis no longer pay much attention to their politicians’ rhetoric, and the politicians in turn hardly bother to address the public with meaningful debates about the country’s future. Few observers of Israel are as sympathetic as the authors of this book to the underlying pressures that have driven Israel’s politics down this cynical path; and few are as worried that by the time Israelis awaken from this bad habit, they may discover that their overconfidence has rendered them exceedingly fragile once more.