Paul Pillar

Regime Change in Israel

I recently pointed out the illogicality of focusing on any one impediment to Israeli-Palestinian peace as the “main” problem while disregarding other impediments. But if I had to nominate right now a single problem that, more than any other, is hindering progress in what currently passes for a peace process, that problem is that the process has fallen into thralldom to the Israeli political right, including the extreme right. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu searches for ever new ways of pandering to—or outflanking—those Israeli elements farther to the right than he is, while proposing package deals ostensibly designed to get peace negotiations off the ground. In the process he has merely shed all pretense to principle in favor of principle-less bargaining, the main result of which will be to provide an excuse when proposed packages are rejected and the process breaks down.

Netanyahu's most recent offer was of a new moratorium on construction of settlements if the Palestinian leadership would explicitly recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. In so doing, he was offering to bend—slightly and temporarily—on an issue on which he had been justifying his obstinacy on grounds that a halt to settlements is an unacceptable precondition to negotiations (even though creating facts on the ground unilaterally through construction of settlements is the antithesis of settling matters through negotiations).  With his new offer he is trying to impose a new precondition that, in addition to placating or outflanking the Israeli right, prejudges the sticky issue of right of return. Understandably and unsurprisingly, the Palestinians rejected this artificial linkage, noting that they had long ago recognized Israel and were not going to get into the business of defining its character or ethnicity.

Another recent move by Netanyahu's government is to support legislation requiring a national referendum before any territory could be surrendered in a peace agreement. The Palestinians, who have talked about holding a referendum on their own side, have not specifically objected to this. But the clear purpose is to throw up one more hurdle that, the Israeli right hopes, would improve their chances of killing any deal requiring Israel to yield occupied land to the Palestinians. Danny Danon, a leader of the right wing of the Likud Party, makes no secret of this, saying, “Anything that adds another barrier to the prime minister seeking to give away land is a good thing.”

All this maneuvering leaves it unclear what Netanyahu really wants, and whether he is best described as a hardline right winger himself or instead as a political pragmatist and opportunist who merely wants to dominate those who unquestionably are hardline right wingers. But such questions about the inner Benjamin Netanyahu may not really matter. The actions of the outer Netanyahu mean that Israeli government policy on issues critical to any possible Israeli-Palestinian peace is effectively the policy of the hard right. Given the way the politics of influencing U.S. policy on the Middle East work, the policy of the current Israeli government gets equated with Israeli interests. And being accommodating to Israeli government policy gets equated with support for Israel, with everything that implies regarding how the concept of support for Israel sets severe limits on U.S. policy. The result is effectively U.S. accommodation of the fringe of one party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For all that gets said about the United States and Israel holding important values in common, this fringe is repugnant to important American values. It represents an intolerant, narrow-minded nationalism that is insensitive to the claims of others, disdainful of the costs of that insensitivity, opposed to self-determination, and opposed to the whole idea of negotiating a peace agreement. Prominent portions of this fringe are so eager to discriminate on the basis of religion and ethnicity that equal rights even for some of Israel's own citizens make them uncomfortable. And if you want a taste of how this fringe sometimes views the United States, look at the image in Tuesday's New York Times of Israeli rightists throwing shoes and eggs at a picture of President Obama.

The holding hostage to the Israeli right of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is sufficient reason to be profoundly pessimistic about any chance the current round of that process will yield results. Resolution of the conflict is so important that every chance must be pursued, and the Obama administration should not abandon its current efforts. But progress is unlikely until and unless the rightist-dominated making of Israeli policy changes. Regime change in Israel should be an objective of U.S. policy.