Even the bet on continued Jewish American fealty to the cause could bump up against overreach by Netanyahu and the Israeli right. Israel’s prime minister was way behind the curve in protesting the manifestations of neo-Nazism in Charlottesville, Virginia. Alt-right leader, Richard Spencer, depicts his movement as “White Zionism” and the Breitbart website constantly claims it cannot be anti-Semitic because it is pro-Israel. All the while, official Israel is focused mainly on attacking the liberal left abroad for their criticism of Israel’s inhumane policies towards the Palestinians as well as the human rights and progressive voices of dissent domestically. In short, Israel is placing many liberal Jewish Americans in an ever-more impossibly uncomfortable spot.
Appeals to socially responsible investment, ethical sourcing and nondiscrimination, when placed alongside Israel’s illegal and unethical actions in the occupied Palestinian territories, pose potentially significant challenges to Israel’s comfort zone. Those appeals look more like the political and campaigning tools of the future, including the public prominence (with albeit limited successes thus far) of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement.
Palestinian leadership division and strategic ineptitude—as well as regional acquiescence and turmoil—are presumably also not something that has been decreed in perpetuity.
All these factors might change, and yet Netanyahu has undoubtedly scored some wins. The costs of occupation column on Israel’s ledger is a limited one for now.
The crucial question for Israel, and by extension its American ally, is the sustainability of this zero-sum effort to defeat the Palestinians.
Cleaning out the cobwebs on the failed Oslo paradigm could prove to be a good thing, but Netanyahu does not have exclusivity on what may replace it. If the logical endgame of the Netanyahu paradigm is expulsion, then the logical alternative to partition will be equality. National liberation may be a hard sell in the twenty-first century. Equality over expulsion, not so much.
Israel has proven able to make some geostrategically deft moves, but there are factors hard-wired into this conflict for which Israel has no good answers. For as long as the Palestinians steadfastly remain on the land, Israel has a control and governance problem, made all the more challenging by the existence of a numerically overwhelming Arab and Muslim hinterland. Israel cannot draw upon the reserves of white settlers who facilitated American or Australian pacification of numerically limited and isolated indigenous populations. That makes zero sum so high risk and ill-advised for Israel, even before one enters the ethical, moral or values dimension.
The Trump administration will shortly receive a reminder of the difficulties of supporting Netanyahu’s reach for victory. A U.S. peace-process delegation consisting of Jared Kushner, Dina Powell and Jason Greenblatt is now in the region for a seven-stop tour. Part of their efforts will center around exploring how the outer envelope of Israel-Arab state relations can create goodwill to improve the inner envelope of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
This so-called outside-in theory is flawed. Netanyahu has no interest in doing anything meaningful on the latter, and any Arab gestures on the former will be rendered ephemeral when they bump up against Israeli maximalism. The most recently issued reminder came with last month’s Al Aqsa crisis and Israel’s treatment of Arab and Muslim sensitivities.
Unless a Palestinian leadership or mobilization emerges that can assert strategic agency, Israel will continue to notch up points, but Netanyahu has not defeated the Palestinians. He has, however, upped the ante.
The damage Netanyahu has done to the partition paradigm is increasingly irreversible; the improvements he has made to Israel’s regional and international equities appear largely reversible. Indicted or not, the “victories” Netanyahu bequeaths to his successors will not taste sweet.
Daniel Levy is the president of the U.S./Middle East Project, based in New York and London and is a former Israeli negotiator.