An Historic Moment: How Israel Can Bolster Its Standing and Strengthen Alliances
Counterintuitive as it may seem, the ongoing regional disarray in the Middle East and electoral uncertainty in America and other Western democracies actually provide the nation of Israel a great opening for an initiative to reinforce its legitimacy, and ascend to a leadership role on the world stage.
Delegitimization of Israel is a much larger problem than we may think. Israel has always done what it needs to do in the face of unwavering rejection and physical danger from most everyone in its neighborhood. Its citizens and leadership have been molded for centuries by values of individual and collective responsibility for their families, communities, the nation and the people — immediately and without hierarchy and concern for public relations. That’s why the recent Orlando one-man siege would have been highly unlikely to last for four hours in Israel. It also explains why Israel is prospering while the rest of the neighborhood is disintegrating, and Western democracies are at best drifting. In the West’s case, it appears that decades of prosperity and isolation may be diluting personal responsibility and breeding habits of entitlement,
Yet, while Israel’s fierce independence and indifference to outside opinion was probably essential to its survival as a fledgling democracy in hostile surroundings, it’s a harder posture to sustain for a thriving intellectual and economic power — especially in the decentralized marketplace of ideas of social media culture. And it’s even easier to see why Israel is continually savaged in both social and traditional media when even the United States Secretary of State has labeled it a potential “apartheid state.”
What supporters generalize as a “media bias” disfavoring Israel seems to be a reflection of individual observers’ sympathy for the underdog. That used to be Israel. Now people think it’s the Palestinians, even though Israel’s position as an oasis of democracy, prosperity, and civility is ever-more vulnerable in this troubled region. Israel could help set the record straight with an initiative as simple as establishing a pro-active media war room to clarify its own narrative in real time.
Meanwhile, Israel’s leadership has enabled the Palestinian underdog myth by playing along with the United States and the Palestinians over a “Two-State Solution,” instead of stating from the very start the only two real conditions for any final resolution: security and an acknowledgment of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. It seems fair to say that Israel’s strategy on this issue for the past several years has been a counter-productive waste of time and goodwill.
But the path to peace is not by an agreement, because the Palestinians continue, to this day, to decline any proposed resolution that recognizes and accepts that the State of Israel even exists. It’s understandable for people to have sympathy for the Palestinians’ desire for a homeland, but isn’t it time to end the war of independence that led to Israel’s recognition by the international community almost 70 years ago?
Decades after Oslo, it looks like Israel’s only chance to break the impasse is to unilaterally grant the Palestinians any portion of Judea and Samaria that Israel is able to secure without dismantling major settlements, or giving up critical religious sites.
Critics will say that the unilateral approach will fail, as it did in Gaza. But Gaza was only disappointing because the withdrawal was premised on the hope it would pave the way to a broader agreement. It’s probably better to forget a final settlement for now, just move forward in everyone’s interest to give the Palestinians a country, and let the world clearly see them, should they forsake the initiative. The initiative in that case would at least have transparently exposed the historical Palestinian position for what it is: the Palestinians would still be hoping for a one-state solution, with no Jewish presence at all.
This is also likely to help Israel in the region. The Sunni neighbors have a lot bigger problems to worry about than the Palestinians right now. Their sectarian rivalry with Shiite Iran, and the need for modern technological progress, is, at least pragmatically, drawing them closer to Israel. These states might even apply some pressure on the Palestinians to accept the initiative for the moment, if asked. It’s precisely because the regional problems are so complex and engrossing, that any sign of progress on the Palestinian issue could be celebrated as an early victory not just for Israel, but for the region, the West (especially the next American president), and the world as a whole. And Netanyahu is ideally positioned to do this: as the initiator of “facts on the ground,” he would be the man to thank any settlers who would be inconvenienced for their patriotic service to the nation of Israel.
We don’t need to re-analyze the disasters of both Bush and Obama policies in the region for Israel to work constructively with the Sunnis who are now at their door. But it will be important for Israel and its democratic allies to pay attention to the long game: While El Sisi might be a a lot better for Israel than the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Saudis might be friendly now, neither regime is likely sustainable in their own country over the medium term: El Sisi is corrupt and extractive, and the Saudi royal family is at greater risk than realized of being overrun by the jihadist movement they themselves created, and continue to fund as a foil for their own version of popular exploitation.And, the recent rapprochement with Israel notwithstanding, Turkey’s Islamist-leaning leader Erdogen is raising more concerns than he’s answering about Turkey’s secular democratic future.
In this context, cultivating a Shiite counterbalance to the Sunnis was probably one of the very few helpful foreign policy objectives that Obama pursued during his eight years in office. The problem is that the execution was way off, and not for the reasons often argued (it’s no news that the Ayatollahs of Iran want to wipe Israel off the map). The greater concern is that, by leaving Iran with so clear a path to nuclearization, the “agreement” seems certain to lead Saudi Arabia to aggressively pursue nuclear weapons, which could one day fall into the hands of whatever replaces the monarchy. That’s not just a problem for Israel and the region; it’s a much greater threat to humanity than the comparatively rationally-calculated US-Soviet nuclear equation of the Cold War. If Prime Minister Netanyahu had advanced that particular narrative, there likely wouldn’t have been an Iran “agreement” at all.
All these risks ironically open the chance for Israel to play an unprecedented leadership role by promoting regional economic (technology) integration, and promoting the development of the rule of law that can help lay the groundwork for more moderate, popular, and sustainable regimes in the region.
Germany’s former Defense Minister, KT zu Guttenberg, and I have together called for a “Geopolitical G-X” diplomatic initiative to begin the discussion of culturally appropriate governance models that might stabilize the Muslim world. We know the region isn’t ready for American democracy. Is it something closer to the benign authoritarian models of Morocco or UAE, or something else? This dialogue needs to start. It needs to involve the “moderate” Muslim people and nations. And Germany and China should initiate for the G-20 here (not the US and Russia, which are compromised by post-colonial Middle East baggage). Events are moving Israel, too, toward a unique vantage point from which it can step up as a pivotal player itself on the global stage.