Regime Change in Israel

Regime Change in Israel

It doesn't matter what Netanyahu really thinks. If he keeps pandering to Israel's right wing, a change is in order.

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.

If that concept sounds strange in light of the usual pattern of deference to whatever the Israeli political system serves up, as well as the democratic aspects of that political system, ask yourself how much hesitation there is in Israel to using available levers to influence American politics and political outcomes as well as U.S. policy. Another reference point is how the United States responded to the result of the Palestinian election of 2006, which by all accounts was as free and fair as any election in Israel (or in the United States). The response was to reject completely the result of that election and to acquiesce in Israel's unsuccessful attempt to strangle the election winner into irrelevance with a suffocating blockade of the Gaza Strip. Whatever the United States might do to try to influence the shape of the regime in Israel would be mild, to put it mildly, in comparison with that attempt to determine who should speak for the Palestinians.

The practical difficulties in shaping and implementing a U.S. policy of regime change are admittedly formidable. The policy should not be, lest it risk being counterproductive, a declaratory policy. Instead it should be a basis for shaping, behind the closed doors of policymaking councils, a strategy toward managing U.S.-Israeli relations—including carrots, sticks, and public messaging—in a way that improves the prospects for change.

Insofar as future elections to the Knesset might be an avenue for change, the electoral math in recent elections is not encouraging.The Israeli electoral system, which facilitates even fringe parties winning seats, is another challenge. Most of the Israeli electorate is sophisticated, however, and would understand messages built around the idea that, while the United States firmly supports Israel's security, the nature of the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the benefits of that relationship to Israel will depend on whether Israel is governed by people who pursue policies that are constructive and conducive to peace or by people who do not.

Future elections are not the only possible avenue to change. Negotiations over the composition of Israeli governments are another. It was not a foreordained conclusion after the last Israeli election, for example, that the hard right Yisrael Beiteinu Party would become part of the government and the centrist Kadima Party would not. Nor is it foreordained that the government line-up should stay that way.

Some of the issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians involve sentiments that are broadly shared across the Israeli political spectrum and are not solely a function of the power of the right. But I believe there is sufficient fairness, flexibility, and decency among Israelis generally to make peace possible. Those qualities are not now being represented by those who make, or who effectively exercise a veto over, Israeli policy. To have any reasonable chance for peace, that has to change.