Allan Massie: Isolated Israel needs friends more than ever
It is expected that Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud party will still be the biggest in the Knesset, but that it is unlikely to have a majority along with its partner in the outgoing coalition, Yisrael Beitenu led by the foreign minister Avigdor Liebermann, recently charged with corruption.
This would mean that Netanyahu would have to find another coalition partner, and the likelihood is that this would be Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), led by the election’s star, Naftali Bennett, a software millionaire. The alternative for Netanyahu is to bring two centrist parties, Yesh Atid and Hatnua into his government.
Whatever the outcome, there will be no move towards a Palestinian state. For the moment the two-state solution is, if not actually dead in the water, motionless in a stagnant pool. Netanyahu has shown no interest in it, his line being that there is no-one, or no-one credible, to negotiate with. Now he is in danger of being outflanked on the right, and if he has to take Bennett and Jewish Home into his government, it won’t be so much a case of the two-state solution being put on the back burner, as of the back burner being turned off.
Bennett argues for the incorporation of two-thirds of the West Bank into the Jewish state. His views are shared by Danny Danon, a rising star of Likud. To do Bennett and Danon justice, however reluctantly, what they propose is the logical continuation of the planting of Jewish settlements in the occupied territory of the West Bank, a policy which Netanyahu has pursued in defiance of the United Nations, and to the displeasure of Washington. The US and the EU remain committed to the two-state solution, but there seems to be nothing they can do to bring it about, or at least nothing that the US is prepared to do to make that possible.
The outlook therefore is bleak, so bleak that even the Labour Party has said almost nothing about the Palestinians during the election. So it is probable that Netanyahu, pushed on by his right-wing allies will permit more settlements to be established, even if he stops short of the formal annexation Bennett calls for. Each new settlement means the seizure of more Arab land, and leads towards a de facto extension of the Jewish state.
At the same time, it leaves Israel more isolated. When the two-state solution was alive, the theory was that Israel would trade land for peace – the land being the occupied territories of the West Bank, which were for 20 years part of the Kingdom of Transjordan, until the Six Day War of 1967. The Bennett line, in effect, would trade the prospect – admittedly the distant prospect – of peace for land. Some Israelis speak of handing parts of the West Bank back to Jordan. But there is no evidence of enthusiasm for this in Jordan.
Israel still has many friends in the West – and not only in Washington. They are worried by this development, or, if they are not worried, they should be. In the short term, the Jewish state might be strengthened, but this would be at the cost of its long-term security, and indeed its interests. Israel is a small country surrounded by Arab states. The more isolated it becomes, the greater the opportunity for its numerous enemies. More settlements, even if there is no outright annexation, are, objectively speaking, in the interests of Hamas, not of Israel. Some day, if Israel is to survive, it must address the Palestinian issue and reach an accommodation with its neighbours.
The US is not going to abandon Israel, which still enjoys huge support in Congress and the American media. Yet it is also clear that president Obama’s relations with Netanyahu are frigid, and that Obama recognises that unquestioning support for whatever Israel does weakens the US position in the Middle East.
The simple truth is that if Israel did not exist, no foreign country, not even America, would now choose to help create a Jewish state. It is also clear that Israel can no longer be sure of winning a war against an Arab alliance – however unlikely such a war may be in the near future. The Israeli Right believes it can tough it out, and the extreme religious right hopes to extend sovereignty over the whole biblical land of Israel. Anyone who encourages the Israeli government to pursue this aim is no true friend of the Jewish people.
The cooling of relations between Netanyahu and Obama has one welcome consequence. It is inconceivable the US president would now approve an Israeli bombing raid on Iran’s nuclear facilities, or even turn a blind eye to plans for such a raid.
In his inauguration speech, Obama spoke of the end of a decade of war and called for more “engagement”, which “can more durably lift suspicion and fear”. Unless something changes, we can expect dialogue with Iran, while sanctions are maintained to put economic pressure on the regime there.
Obama will surely tell Netanyahu that Israel’s interests are best served by conciliation of the Palestinians and re-building of relations with Turkey and Egypt. Whether Netanyahu will listen may be doubtful, but he may come to recognise that the US and the EU will no longer offer Israel unquestioning support, because this is neither right nor in their own interests. The belief this was so has encouraged the Israeli government to pursue its policy of planting settlements in the West Bank and its denial of the claims of the Palestinians to a viable state of their own.
It is just possible that Netanyahu and his allies are going to be compelled to recognise the reality of their position, which is that, by refusing to try to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians, they are acting against the long-term interest of the Jewish people. Israel needs friends ready to say that its present course is unsustainable.