A Thin Line

A Thin Line

Mini Teaser: Benyamin Netanyahu's election as Israel's prime minister on May 29 was greeted by a great international gnashing of teeth.

by Author(s): Adam Garfinkle

Benyamin Netanyahu's election as Israel's prime minister on May 29 was greeted by a great international gnashing of teeth. Dismayed hordes of experts and pundits charged that, efforts at rhetorical placation notwithstanding, the Netanyahu government would thoroughly befoul the peace process and touch off retrograde motion in every dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict in consequence.

Well maybe, maybe not. Lost amid the bewailing is a critical fact: Netanyahu's election reflects an already existing crisis, that being the anemic record of Palestinian autonomy, the experiment in limited Palestinian self-government conceived at Camp David in September 1978 and attempted after the Rabin-Arafat handshake of September 1993. On balance, autonomy has failed to deliver the goods: security and a sense of genuine Arab acceptance for Israelis; economic relief and restored honor for Palestinians. Israel's Jewish electorate reacted unmistakably to autonomy's failure, voting 55 percent for Netanyahu. From the looks of the Palestinian Authority's (PA) much reduced popularity, the Palestinian electorate would react similarly were an opportunity to do so at hand.

As a form of diplomatic art, autonomy is a good idea: The parties cannot agree to more, yet a majority in both communities is sufficiently dissatisfied with the status quo to settle for less. But if autonomy is not made to work as advertised, the peace process cannot proceed. To that end, the local parties, and the United States too, must beware of getting dizzy in the rarified air of Israeli-Palestinian final status questions, or of falling for the fool's gold of "real peace" between Israel and Syria. Old business before new.

But can Netanyahu and Arafat fix autonomy? The answer will tell us if the basic foundation of the peace process, as defined in Oslo in the summer of 1993, is sound. If this foundation withstands the pressures of the next few months and emerges stronger, we will know that it is mightier than the personalities that formed it, sturdier than the tempests of Israeli and Palestinian domestic politics that have buffeted it. We will know that Rabin's design required Netanyahu's hand to achieve success, which would raise Israeli security politics to a near poetic zenith. And if they do not fix it, we will also have learned a lot--as it is said, the hard way.

Despite three months having passed since the election, fears over the Netanyahu government's projected course have neither abated nor been vindicated. The reason is that the government has so far proved more adept at planning its administration than at actually doing anything. In most areas beyond the domestic economy, the government has gone out of its way to postpone major decisions and avoid specifics whenever possible; indeed, it has not yet developed a policy toward the pa at a level specific enough to allow even its principals to know where it is going. Meanwhile, everyone is watching for signs revealing true intent, and signs there have been--ambiguously matched to near perfection. Infrastructure Minister Ariel Sharon orders roads and bridges built that suggest further Israeli territorial digestion, but Netanyahu says Israel will redeploy the Israeli army around Hebron. The Israel Defence Force (IDF) will redeploy there, yes; but not until the terms are thoroughly renegotiated. The settlement freeze is lifted, but no new settlements are (yet) authorized. Even the spate of secret diplomacy regarding Syria and south Lebanon appears to have been designed as tactical delay, to keep the Americans deflected from the Palestinian track and to place any onus for the lack of progress between Israel and Syria squarely on Damascus.

All of this reflects the fact that the new government is experiencing on-the-job training. Its principals did not, it seems, expect to win election, and a combination of inexperience and early tenure-shock has produced to date a clumsy coalition-building process, an abundance of intra-cabinet policy conflict, and an unprecedented catfight between the prime minister's office and the foreign ministry. Obviously, it is better to temporize than to be sure but wrong; still, it makes for an unusual fluidity. No Israeli government can tread water in this fashion for long, especially one elected to make changes; fixed calendar points loom and decisions must be made. Its options are many, and its choices truly matter.

Things Might Work Out Well . . .

There is a case for expecting the right choices to be made. Not every aspect of autonomy has gone wrong, whatever Likud principals predicted three years ago. The trade already made--Israel's relinquishing responsibility for the majority of the Palestinian population and the pa's assuming it--is one both parties accept. That neither the Palestinian nor the Israeli "street" relishes a return to intifada and counter-intifada is benignly sobering, as is the fact that Netanyahu well appreciates the peripheral benefits of the peace process: the economic boom it helped midwife and the growing normalization of Israel's position in the region and beyond. He has worked hard on maintaining both in visits, so far, to Washington, Amman, and Cairo.

Moreover, while Netanyahu can barely bring himself to say "Oslo", he recognizes that he cannot deliver personal security to Israelis under current circumstances without the pa. It was a fetching campaign slogan to claim that the Labor government had "subcontracted Israeli security to Yasir Arafat", but it was a double distortion. Israel could still act unilaterally when necessary, proven by the fact that the IDF segmented and subdued the West Bank this past March within thirty-six hours after a grisly spate of terror attacks; and Palestinian police and intelligence forces have become a serious if still flawed partner with Israel. So Netanyahu may not do what he said he would--send the IDF throughout the West Bank and Gaza in search of terror suspects "over the heads" of pa policemen. Israel would end up with less security and more terror, not the other way around.

Most important, Netanyahu was not elected to stiff-arm the peace process but to reduce its costs and enhance its benefits. His ministers are right to argue that they are in a better position than Labor to demand compliance from the pa. Shimon Peres, they point out, was associated so closely with the process that his demands necessarily reflected prior failures, so he was reluctant to press them until exploding buses and body parts littered the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The new government has no such problem and no such reluctance, and there are, to be sure, demands worth making. The Palestinian leadership must do more to quell terrorism, turn over captured terrorists to Israel as required by agreement, stop praising murderers and calling their acts "jihad", and respect the rules over Jerusalem. For its part, Israel is obligated to withdraw from most of Hebron, release the last security prisoners it promised to release, create a safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank as agreed, and ease the closure if the pa does its part on the security side.

There is no inherent reason why patient diplomacy cannot achieve this amalgam of transactions. Even a good faith effort would be worth much; success would give the peace process the broad support it needs to approach final status negotiations. Since both sides are at least dimly aware of what the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship would mean, this is by no means an impossible outcome.

. . . Or They Might Not

While there is a logic for expecting progress, logic does not always hold pride of place in the Levant. There is also, as ever, a prospect for calamity.

Palestinian expectations of the peace process have always been excessive, and of late Yasir Arafat, careening from misjudgment to misjudgment, has fanned these expectations with repeated proclamations of the imminence of a sovereign Palestinian state "with its capital in holy Jerusalem." Meanwhile, formal Likud positions--not on just some, but all, final status issues-in-waiting--are so unforthcoming as to engender despair among Palestinians, elite and commoner alike. The current Government Program calls for the existing territorial status quo to be frozen, for existing Jewish settlements to be expanded and new ones established, for no Palestinian sovereignty ever over anything, for not even symbolic compromise over Jerusalem, and for a freer hand for the IDF in the territories.

In short, while Israeli and Palestinian expectations of where the peace process would ultimately lead have diverged ever since the evening the Oslo accords were initialed, never have those expectations seemed as starkly contradictory as they do now. The pa's willingness to cooperate with Israel on security problems naturally depends in large part on its expectations of a satisfactory outcome, so if the peace process is expected to lead essentially nowhere, or nowhere beyond where it is already, then one has to wonder how strong Arafat's incentive is to be a full partner when doing so undermines his still shaky position amid a riven Palestinian community.

This brings us to hamas and Islamic Jihad. Arafat's aim all along has been to co-opt his Islamist opposition rather than confront it, and as long as the peace process moved in a direction that bolstered his nationalist credentials, that strategy worked steadily in his favor--as the January 1995 election and any of several polls show. But Arafat's strategy did not work for Rabin and Peres because the cost of the Labor government's forbearance of Palestinian political adjustment was paid in the coin of Israeli trauma. Arafat acted too slyly and too slowly toward his opposition, and now he faces a process with Israel unlikely to bring him successes that he can use to solidify his tenure. The leaders of hamas know this and, though their organization has been much weakened, they have strong incentive to take advantage of the pall of expectation that has descended over the Palestinians in recent months. To throw a wrench into any Israeli-pa attempt to refashion their political accommodation, a new hamas spate of terror would aim to discredit Arafat by provoking Netanyahu to unload on the pa. A few murderous suicide bombs could easily lead to an Israeli reaction that would reduce Arafat to a political eunuch and virtual "collaborator", and that would, in turn, shatter Israeli-pa police and intelligence cooperation. The way would then be open for a terror campaign of truly gruesome proportions.

In these circumstances, Israel would have to resume the full burden of security, an undertaking that, by reversing the two year flow of authority to the Palestinians, would almost certainly spawn new terror recruits. If, at the end of such a process, the large Palestinian towns, designated as Zone A in the Oslo II agreement, were all that was left to pa control--and if terrorism is known to flee, hide, and incubate there--Israel might re-enter those "cities of refuge" even against its initial desires. And if it did, who knows how many of roughly twenty thousand armed pa policemen would try to stop them? Arafat himself, amid a burgeoning new intifada that he can neither staunch nor manage--and that may be fed further by Israeli settlement expansion--might exile himself from the scene lest he be buried trying to control it. hamas would inherit the vacuum, and the Oslo process would be dead.

The line between an acceptable outcome and a messy one in the Israeli-Palestinian peace track is very thin, and, like all lines, it takes its basic direction from the first few points drawn. How those points will be plotted depends most of all on the leadership qualities of the new prime minister. If Netanyahu understands the political dynamics on the Palestinian side as well as he gauges those on his own, his hand will remain steady. But if he allows himself to be pushed by the Likud's brawling "princes", he could well imperil Israeli security rather than enhance it.
No one knows what will happen, but one thing is clear: Netanyahu is a man whose career has so far posted no failures, yet whose talents have been perpetually underestimated by his opponents. Even most of those who did not vote for him must be hoping that his winning streak continues. After all that has happened, it would be tragic if Yasir Arafat finally reconciled himself to being an effective partner to Israel only to find that his new counterpart either could not or did not want to reciprocate. With any luck, this is one tragedy that will remain forever theoretical.

Peace process anxiety was the major issue in the Israeli election, but not the only one. Israel, like America, has its culture war over aesthetics and values both, and its politicians appreciate its power--or invite failure if they do not.

The Likud is no less secular a party than Labor, but in recent decades it has drawn closer to the religious camp over questions of territorial compromise, which Likud and most of the religious parties oppose--though for different reasons. The Likud also devoted more attention to Israel's culture wars in the recent campaign than did the overconfident Labor Party, and it paid off at the polls. Labor has never bothered to cultivate the significant minority of religious Jews who favor the peace process and it associated too closely with Meretz, a stridently secular party that ran campaign ads featuring a young head-shaven, ear-ringed tzfoni (i.e., a north Tel Aviv punk-rocker), saying tartly irreverent things about the Orthodox religious establishment. Thanks in part to such ads, Meretz's Knesset representation dropped from twelve to nine, and Labor suffered a negative coat-tail effect from it.

All of this was Israeli politics as usual, not illustration of the supposed lost soul of the Labor Party. Outside the country, however, some observers of this Jewish war have become confused about particulars. Partisan politics has been known to produce rhetorical exaggeration, and a few pro-Likud English-language articles published before the election seem to have persuaded many American observers that the entire Israeli Labor Party, swallowed whole by Israel's self-absorbed literary Left, has gone "native"--in the Biblical sense--and become veritable Canaanites. Some on the far secular side of Israel's cultural spectrum have indeed suggested despicable things aimed at driving both God and Judaism from Israeli public life. But to claim that these individuals guide Israeli culture writ large, or speak for the Labor Party, is like saying that E.L. Doctorow, Gore Vidal, and Noam Chomsky guide American culture and speak for the Democrats. This, thank God, isn't so--in either country.

Not that fears about Israel's future as a Jewish society are baseless. Some very thoughtful Israeli traditionalists worry that the typical secular Israeli will soon be indistinguishable from a gentile save for the peculiar fact that his native language happens to be Hebrew. There are problems, many stemming from Israel's growing prosperity--as similar problems arose from similar causes in ancient times, and as the Prophets were bold to declaim. But few Jews who have actually lived in Israel for more than a few weeks, who have sent their children to either secular or religious schools, and who can get around reasonably well in the language, fail to see such fears as exaggerations. Most so-called secular Israelis are not spiritually vacuous and their kids are not Hebrew-speaking mall-rats; they do, however, resent being coerced by a state religious establishment. Surely, any American even vaguely familiar with the conditions of his own country's founding can understand that.

Alas, the political battles of Israel's culture wars are not so simple. Sometimes they are more than meet the eye, sometimes less. Compared even to the puzzles of the peace process, trying to understand Israel's culture wars from afar--and in the wrong language--is roughly the political equivalent of plumbing the secrets of kaballah (Jewish mysticism) without a good teacher. In both cases, the uninitiated should beware facile interpretation.

Essay Types: Essay