Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Israeli Foreign Policy following the P5+1-Iran Agreement on Nuclear Weapons

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei

How should Israel react to the P5+1-Iran agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons?  There are two approaches to this question.  First, there is what we may call the “rational response.”  What should Israel do to minimize its national security risks in light of the agreement?  Second, there is the political response.  Here we refer to how Israel responds to the agreement in terms of domestic political considerations.

The response thus far by the Israeli government suggests that politics – not improving domestic security – is the main driver, if the words and deeds of the current Likud government are any indication.  The agreement is posed as representing an existential threat to the existence of Israel.  Prime Minister Netanyahu’s blustering tone is meant for American audiences, particularly members of the US Congress.
Governing with a razor thin margin in the Israeli parliament (Knesset), Netanyahu knows that any perceived flexibility on the Iran agreement could be interpreted as an opening for political forces to his right to mount an attack on his policies and even cause his government to collapse.  Thus domestic politics and a commitment to a regional foreign policy that continues to isolate Israel from the larger Middle East suggests that Israel is pursuing a self-defeating policy towards the Iran agreement.

The Netanyahu government and all Israeli political forces view ties to the United States as the central component of its foreign and security policy.  Unfortunately, the current Likud government views this relationship in static and historically outdated terms.  To assume that Israel can depend on the relationship that it established with the United States after its founding in 1948, and especially after it traded military ties to France for those with the US in the mid-1950s, is na├»ve and dangerous.

First, Israel is no longer viewed in most of the world as a small threatened outpost in a hostile Middle East ready to attack and destroy it.  For many states, including those in the European Union, Israel is increasingly viewed as a regional superpower which treats the Palestinian population in the West Bank, and its domestic Israeli Palestinian population, in a discriminatory, if not repressive manner. 

Second, many young Americans, including many Jewish-Americans, have moved from what once was a completely uncritical view of Israel to one that has joined the world-wide critique of its policies towards the Occupied Territories. The organization, J Street, is a good example of this new perspective among young Jewish-Americans (and many older ones as well). Israeli speakers on US college campuses have become accustomed to demonstrations against Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians that include large numbers of Jewish Americans students who are pro-Israel but against Likud government policies.

Third, the efforts of the US to end the nuclear arms race in the Middle East means that it is only a matter of time before the military relationship between the US and Israel will no longer continue to Israel’s advantage.  Indeed, if the nuclear agreement with Iran leads to a lessening of radicalism in its foreign policy, one could envision a change in the region such as happened following the visit of President Richard Nixon to China in 1973 which led to a significant decline in the importance of Taiwan to American foreign policy (although ultimately leading a significant growth in Taiwan's economic ties to mainland China and its status as one of the "Asian Tigers").

Fourth, with pressing domestic problems, a decline in the US defense budget and the concomitant rise in the cost of entitlement spending, as well as needed infrastructure investment, future Congresses cannot be counted on to provide carte blanche foreign aid to Israel at the levels that we have seen in the past.

Finally, Israel is suffering from many of the problem facing the political economies of advanced industrialized societies.  It has its own “99 vs 1%” political-economic cleavage as wages for much of the middle and lower classes stagnate, urban rents increase and home ownership becomes more difficult to realize.  The increasing gap between the well-to-do and the middle and lower classes means that a large segment of the Israeli population is more concerned with employment, housing, education and making ends meet than with the ideology of the ultra-nationalist Israeli right, especially the settler movement in the Occupied Territories on the West Bank.

What then would be a “rational” as opposed to a political response to the P5+1-Iran Agreement on nuclear weapons?  Despite the threat of Hamas rocket attacks (which Israel’s Golden Dome missile defense system has largely rendered ineffective) and possible rocket attacks by Hizballah to the north (highly unlikely with the huge threat that the organization faces from Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State and other Sunni extremist groups to the East), the possibility of Israel entering a conventional war with its immediate neighbors – Egypt, Syria and Jordan - is now a distant memory.

The old Hebrew slogan – ain breira (there is no choice) – meaning that the only way for Israel to confront its Arab neighbors is through force, a concept so eloquently critiqued in the Israeli director Ilan Ziv’s film Abraham and Isaac, no longer resonates with most of the Israeli populace.  To be sure, security, especially in relationship to Iran and terrorist attacks within Israel, remains a major concern for Israelis.  However, the old Labor Party–Histadrut quasi-socialist society that ruled from 1948 until 1977 is long gone and Israeli concerns are currently focused as much, if not more so, on domestic rather than foreign problems.

An effective strategy that has long-term implications would entail Israel developing a coalition with Palestinians in the Palestine National Authority on the West Bank and with the Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan.  This collaboration already has a precedent.  During the period following the Oslo Accords of 1993 and up until the second Intifada of 2000, there were tentative efforts to develop joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian companies, e.g., the Salam-Shalom real estate and tourism venture.  Even today, there are many Israeli companies operating in Jordan, e.g., in factories along the Amman-International Airport Road, run by Israelis and making products marked “made in Israel.”

A tripartite coalition linking Israel, the PNA and Jordan could isolate Hamas, which has only brought misery to the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip.  This outcome would result both due to political stability, and through the economic prosperity that would result from a true economic integration of the three economics –which largely exists in any event today, but largely to the Palestinians’ detriment.  If Palestinians in the PNA could become true and equal partners with Israel and Jordanian firms, a mini-common market could be developed to the benefit of all three nation-states.

Of course, these developments would neccessitate a major realignment of Israeli politics.  But Benjamin Netanyahu has always been more concerned with his personal political power than with ideology.  If he could shed the small ultra-nationalist parties upon which he currently depends, and form a more centrist coalition, aligning with political parties which are amenable to new foreign policy initiatives, this would allow the Israeli government to halt construction of settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem – the first step towards rapprochement with the PNA and building trust and hence a stronger alliance with Jordan.

The Israeli government could begin by not only ending new housing construction on the West Bank but ending government subsidies for the settlements.  Many in the West are unaware that a large number of Israelis on the West Bank live there to benefit from cheap mortgages, and housing, electricity and other subsidies, rather than for ideological reasons.
Second, the Israeli government could develop a “buy back” plan whereby the government would purchase houses on the West Bank at market value and turn them over to the PNA in return for financial compensation from the US, EU and other international financial agencies.  (There is at least one private Israeli organization, made up of ex-settlers, that is already engaged in such activity).

Without a doubt, the problem of Jerusalem would be the most difficult to solve.  However, many Palestinians are willing to allow the Gush Etzion settlements on the outskirts of Jerusalem to remain in return for Israel ceding territory elsewhere to a full-blown independent Palestinian state, e.g., in the Negev.  As far as Jerusalem is concerned, Israeli polls have shown that few Israelis (apart from the small ultra-nationalist community) want to live in Arab East Jerusalem and Palestinians have no desire to live in Jewish West Jerusalem.

The Old City of Jerusalem could become an interim “international city,” with the US as guarantor of its status, which could be renegotiated according to 5 year intervals.  In other words, every 5 years Israel and the new Palestinian state would sit down and see if they could negotiate a final status agreement for this critical but very small area (2%) that comprises the Old City of Jerusalem.  If they were unable to reach an agreement, the Old City of Jerusalem would continue as an “international city” for an additional 5 years.

Such a realignment of Israeli politics would draw immediate accolades from the European Union, elicit strong support from the Obama (or Clinton or even Jeb Bush administrations) because it would involve a major step forward in solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.  Further, it would open the door to Israel to develop stronger economic ties with other Middle Eastern states, including the Arab Gulf states and Saudi Arabia.  It would no doubt improve Israeli-Turkish relations as well, relations that Israel sees as critical to its regional security and economic interests.

Can’t happen, you say?  Who would have predicted the Egypt-Israeli Camp David peace Accords 12 years after the devastating June 1967 Arab-Israeli War.  Who would have predicted Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shaking hands on the White House lawn on September 11, 1993 when signing the Israel-PLO Peace Accord?  Who would have predicted the extensive talks in 2000 between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat that almost concluded a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement? And who, two years ago, would have predicted the historic P5+1-Iran Agreement that was signed this week in Vienna.

For all their failings – and there were many, Anwar al-Sadat and Menachem Begin, with the brilliant diplomacy of President Jimmy Carter, thought in terms of big ideas (even if their ideas excluded the Palestinians).  If Israel is to find its place in what may become in the next decade a post-nuclear Middle East, it must change its foreign policy.  It is time for all parties in the region breaking with the destructive policies of the past.  The peoples of the region deserve no less.