Mr. Prime Minister, What Kind of Israel Do You Want?

March 15, 2013 Topic: Politics Region: Israel

Mr. Prime Minister, What Kind of Israel Do You Want?

Obama needs to resurrect LBJ's famous question when he meets with Netanyahu.

A few months after Israel's military victory in the 1967 Six-Day War put it in control of a large Arab population, then prime minister Levi Eshkol travelled to the United States, invited by President Lyndon Johnson to visit him in Texas. While the two were taking a walk at Johnson's ranch, the U.S. president turned to Eshkol and asked: "Mr. Prime Minister, what kind of Israel do you want?"

The late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, recalling the incident during a speech he delivered in 1993, suggested that after a quarter-century of occupying the West Bank and Gaza it was time for his countrymen to decide what kind of an Israel they wanted: A democratic Jewish state living in peace and security or a militarized Jewish ghetto in a permanent war with its neighbors. Rabin insisted that the first option, which he preferred, would require Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

The image of Rabin shaking the hand of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn had raised the expectations of that his vision would win the day in Israel. But the assassination of Rabin, the collapse of the U.S.-led Israeli-Palestinian talks and the ensuing breakout of the second Palestinian Intifada had strengthened the hands of his ideological opponents—the proponents of the vision of Greater Israel led by the Jewish settlers in the occupied territories. The vision of the two-state solution seemed to be fading away.

As President Barack Obama embarks on his first official visit to Israel, he may not be in a position to help achieve an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians or even to revive the dormant "peace process." But as the representative of Israel's main global patron, he has the power and moral authority to influence a divided Israeli public opinion and shape the national agenda of the Jewish State, which continues to evolve day by day.

President Obama could do that by asking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that same question that Johnson directed to Eshkol close to a half-century ago: "Mr. Prime Minister, what kind of Israel do you want?" Yet this time the question should not be asked in a private meeting, but in an open forum. It should be addressed not only to the prime minister but to all Israeli citizens.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1967 War, when the question was first asked, the prewar territorial status-quo of a democratic Jewish State with a small Arab minority occupying the area inside the 1949 ceasefire lines was burnt in the minds of most Israelis. But answering the question "what kind of Israel you want" is no more academic in nature, but reflects different and concrete political realities and agendas.

“We live in a country that is divided into four states, all of them within the boundaries of the Land of Israel,” is the way renowned Israeli historian and Hebrew University professor Yehudah Bauer put it in a recent interview for Haaretz. “In a small country that lies between the Jordan and the sea is a state called Israel. Next to it, in Gaza, is the State of Hamastan. In the West Bank there is the State of the Palestinian Authority, which is under Israeli occupation, and within all of these is the State of Judea of the settlers, on whose behavior Israel exercises a certain influence.”

Like many Israeli Jews, Bauer recognizes that continuing to perpetuate the policies of Likud Party and its radical Zionist allies would ensure that the dream of a Jewish democratic state will come to an end. “A democratic state within the 1967 boundaries, with certain territorial exchanges, will be a Zionist Jewish state that is obliged not only to make peace with its Palestinian and Arab neighbors, but offers the possibility for national-cultural development and full equal rights to the Arab minority living in the State of Israel,” Bauer concludes. “The settlement policy is working against us and endangering us.”

Hence, realizing Rabin's vision from the 1990s would require removing the majority of the Jewish settlers from the occupied territories that according to the Oslo Accords were designated as areas of the State of Palestine. But doing that would have to follow a long and probably bitter debate inside Israel. This could culminate in a civil war between those Israelis who want to maintain the current territorial status-quo, strengthening Israeli control over the West Bank, and those who would be willing to accept the so-called Clinton Parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. (A similar debate and civil strife would be expected on the Palestinian side.)

In a way, the political-ideological divide among Israelis is a deep as the one that split American society on the eve of the Civil War (or the French during the Dreyfuss Affair). The assassination of Rabin and the violent opposition to the evacuation of the Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip were warning shots by the radical Zionist camp and the Jewish settlement movement of their willingness to use force if and when they conclude that the kind of Israel they want is not the kind of Israel envisioned by an elected Israeli government willing to make peace with the Palestinians.

But that debate has been put on hold in Israel since the start of the second Intifada. Likud and its allies are also gaining more electoral momentum as a result of changing demographic realities, including the influence of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union and high birth rates among religious Orthodox Jews.

At the same time, a sense of economic prosperity at home and the strong support by the George W. Bush administration for the policies of the Likud government helped create the misleading sense, even among Israelis who back the two-state solution, that maintaining the current status-quo is almost cost-free.

The growing socioeconomic unrest in Israel was manifested by a series of antigovernment demonstrations by young Israelis. Together with the election and reelection of Barack Obama, this started deflating Likud's confidence balloon. In recent parliamentary elections about half of the Israeli voters cast their ballots for other political parties, including Yair Lapid's two-state-solution-friendly party Yesh Atid.

That Netanyahu succeeded in bringing Yesh Atid into his coalition alongside the pro-settler the Jewish Home Party is a sign that many of those who support the two-state solution believe that the current status quo remains sustainable—and that the clash between the two visions could be postponed.

President Obama could try to affect the political balance of power by challenging the status quo and explaining what kind of path Israel is on. By refraining from making a decision they are not only delaying the inevitable. Israelis are also making it more likely that by building more settlements through the incremental annexation policies, the Greater Israel vision could win by default.

Obama needs to stress that the kind of Greater Israel envisioned by settlers would not be the kind of Israel that he and most Americans would be willing to support in the long run. In the meantime, Israelis should get back to him with an answer to Johnson’s old question.

Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.