Israeli national security strategy can seem baffling. Many observers in the United States and Europe, for example, wonder how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could have warned for years that Iran’s nuclear program posed an existential threat to Israel yet has balked at the international community’s attempts to defang it. By raising concerns about the nuclear deal between Iran and five great powers without offering a convincing alternative, Netanyahu has appeared to oppose any solution at all. Instead, as Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, said in July, Netanyahu is acting as though he would prefer a “permanent state of standoff” with Tehran.
Nor do Israeli leaders seem to have a clear answer in mind for how to solve the country’s conflict with the Palestinians. The country faces nearly universal opprobrium for its occupation of the West Bank and the looming possibility that it will have to sacrifice either its democracy or its Jewish demographic majority should it not pursue territorial partition with the Palestinians. Yet few in the Israeli government offer realistic strategies for ending the conflict. Netanyahu himself has gone back and forth, declaring his support for a two-state solution in theory, indicating that he does not believe one can emerge in the foreseeable future, and offering no alternative solution in its place.
What lies behind the absence of a constructive Israeli national security agenda, however, is neither illogic nor confusion but rather a belief that there are currently no solutions to the challenges the country faces and that seeking quick fixes to intractable problems is dangerously naive. Kicking problems down the road until some indefinite future point at which they can be tackled more successfully therefore does not reflect a lack of Israeli strategy; rather, it defines Israeli strategy. This strategy is at times wrong, but it is not absurd.
Israel’s strategic conservatism—the notion that it can be better to bide one’s time and manage conflicts rather than rush to try to solve them before the conditions are ripe—is not inherently bad and has in fact served Israel well in some cases. In others, as in the conflict with the Palestinians, it has damaged the country’s prospects. Whether or not this strategy is effective, U.S. policymakers need to grapple with it as they make their own decisions about how to address the problems in the Middle East.
Playing it safe
At his core, Netanyahu is not so much hawkish as conservative: determined to avoid revolutions, wary of the unintended consequences of grand policy designs, and resolved to stand firm in the face of adversity. He is deeply pessimistic about change and believes that Israel, a small country in a volatile region, has a minuscule margin for error. Despite what many progressive Europeans think, such a worldview does not constitute warmongering. Nor, as some Obama administration officials have suggested, does it constitute weakness or cowardice, even though Netanyahu’s rhetoric relies heavily on fear. Instead, at its best, it is a view of leadership as stewardship rather than transformation, one in which potential losses loom far larger than potential gains.
Applied to the Palestinian case, this worldview is best articulated not by Netanyahu but by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon. In his 2008 book, Derekh aruka ktzara (A Longer Shorter Way), Yaalon decried what he termed “solutionism” and “nowism”—the idea that “Israeli society wants a solution, and it wants it now!” Such impatience, he argued, cannot accommodate chronic problems or open-ended conflicts; rather, it demands neat solutions, no matter the cost. For Yaalon and others in Israel, solutionism is perhaps best embodied by the can-do pragmatism of the American foreign policy ideal, which they believe assumes that any problem can be solved through sufficient will and enterprise.
Yaalon finds solutionism dangerous, since it feeds the belief among Israel’s enemies that Israel can be worn down though gradual concessions and prevents them from recognizing that Israel cannot be defeated. Today’s impasse, he believes, stems not from a lack of political ingenuity or will but from a Palestinian refusal to accept the essence of Zionism, which is that Jews have a right to a state of their own in the land of Israel. Only when that is no longer in question, he and Netanyahu believe, can a negotiated settlement emerge, and there is no reason to believe that will happen anytime soon.
This strategic pessimism is reflected in the vagueness of Israeli leaders’ descriptions of an eventual solution to the conflict. Netanyahu has expressed hope for some version of a two-state solution, but Yaalon and many others in the Likud Party reject it outright. Naftali Bennett, a senior cabinet minister who heads the right-wing religious party the Jewish Home, is particularly illustrative. At a June 2013 gathering organized by the Yesha Council, Israel’s main settler body, he described the medical dilemma of a friend from his military days who had a piece of shrapnel lodged near his backside. Operate to remove it, and the procedure could paralyze him; live with it, and he could continue to walk, although not without pain. He argued that Israel was in the same situation with regard to the Palestinians and that it should learn to accept the unpleasantness of the current state of affairs rather than risk catastrophe in trying to resolve the conflict.
A similar logic defines Israel’s policy toward Iran. In recordings leaked to an Israeli television outlet in August, former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was heard discussing details of a debate within Israel’s inner security cabinet about a possible military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Three times, Barak said, he, Netanyahu, and then Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman argued in favor of a strike, only to be blocked by other Israeli leaders (including Yaalon). Unwilling to pursue either a military strike (which would provide only a short-term remedy) or a realistic negotiated settlement, the government has opted for the perpetuation of the status quo—a policy of mobilizing forces to deter Tehran in an open-ended confrontation. U.S. President Barack Obama may have challenged the nuclear deal’s opponents to propose a better solution, but for Netanyahu, such a solution was never the point.
Under the Netanyahu-Yaalon approach, Israel’s relations with both the Palestinians and Iran are likely to remain unresolved until the distant future; they will remain managed stalemates that persist until there is some sort of fundamental shift in the landscape, such as a generational change in attitudes or a regional upheaval.
The evolution of Israeli skepticism
This worldview is far from unusual in Israel. On the Palestinian issue, in fact, Yaalon is an exemplar of middle-of-the-road Israelis, who genuinely hoped that the peace process of the 1990s would succeed and were deeply disillusioned by its failure.
Yaalon grew up in a left-leaning home and initially supported the Oslo Accords, the agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, starting in 1993, that aimed to pave the way to a final-status deal between the two sides. As the chief of Israeli military intelligence in the years that followed, however, he came to reassess Palestinian intentions. He observed frequent calls for violent resistance by Palestinian leaders, denials that Jews could self-identify as a nation or that they have a historic connection to the Holy Land, and the failure of the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat to crack down on terrorism in the run-up to the Hamas-led bombings of early 1996.
Over time, the Israeli public echoed Yaalon’s loss of confidence in the peace process. Many Israelis grew disillusioned with Arafat after watching his actions during the negotiations at Camp David in 2000 and especially during the second intifada that followed. Barak, then prime minister, had made more concessions in the negotiations than most Israelis had expected, only to be rebuffed by Arafat and answered with a violent uprising. “The picture that is emerging, is that there is apparently no partner for peace,” Barak said in October 2000, and many of his compatriots agreed.
During this period, Israel started to try to solve its regional problems unilaterally. Israel withdrew its forces from southern Lebanon in 2000 and then evacuated all settlements and troops from the Gaza Strip in 2005. But when attacks against Israel continued to emerge from both areas, the Israeli public grew disenchanted with unilateralism as well.
The years since have not been kind to Israeli optimism about any of the Middle East’s problems. Multiple rounds of negotiations between Israeli leaders and Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, have failed to bring peace. Countries bordering Israel have erupted in political turmoil and horrific violence in the wake of the Arab Spring. And behind the rocket fire, kidnappings, and perennial flare-ups that have defined their more immediate anxieties, many Israelis have seen Iran’s hand: both in Hezbollah, which straddles the line between a Lebanese political party and anIranian proxy militia, and in Hamas, a Sunni Islamist militia that has at times received Iranian support.
With Israel having failed to achieve normalcy through negotiations, unilateral withdrawals, or brute force, most Israelis have concluded that normalcy is not theirs to be had. They need to brace themselves for a long fight and avoid the temptations of grand plans. They will not be fooled again. Indeed, in a poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University in August, 67 percent of Israeli respondents said that they did not believe that negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians would produce peace in the near future, even if most of them supported such negotiations.
In the absence of viable long-term remedies for the conflict with the Palestinians, some observers have developed half-baked alternatives. These run the gamut from one-state proposals with full citizenship for Palestinians (usually excluding those in the Gaza Strip) to condominiums of various kinds and even to a single state without full democracy. Even the Israeli leadership disagrees on the ends that ought to be sought with the Palestinians. Netanyahu has supported a two-state solution, at least in principle; Yaalon has rejected one; and Bennett has called for Israel to annex most of the West Bank, although he has also acknowledged that this is unlikely to be realized in the near future. Israel’s leaders agree only on the short-term means to pursue in the absence of a long-term strategy: to maintain what appears to be the status quo even as the ground is actually slowly shifting beneath their feet.
This short-term consensus also holds with respect to Iran. Although there have been sharp disagreements within the Israeli establishment over the wisdom of a unilateral military strike against Tehran’s nuclear facilities, and some disagreements on the nuclear deal, few Israeli policymakers see a solution to the problem besides organic, homegrown regime change. Netanyahu’s strategy by default has therefore been conflict management, the postponement of decisions, and deterrence. That this approach fits his worldview perfectly is no coincidence.
Where anti-solutionism fails
A conservative approach can be wise at times, and Netanyahu’s caution has served Israel well on some fronts. So far, he has generally done a good job managing Israel’s borders with Egypt and Syria, for example, mostly staying out of the turmoil in both those countries while protecting core Israeli interests. But on balance, Netanyahu’s strategic conservatism has damaged Israel’s international standing and restricted its room for maneuver.
Whether or not the Iran nuclear deal succeeds, there is little doubt that Netanyahu’s stance has isolated Israel internationally, strained its alliance with the United States, and strengthened critics’ view of Israel as rejectionist. Indeed, Netanyahu’s conditions for an acceptable deal with Iran were so stringent that they seemed to preclude any agreement at all, despite his claims to the contrary.
On the Palestinian issue, too, Netanyahu and Yaalon have set their policy standards so high as to block realistic progress. Their demand that the Palestinians accept the idea of Israel as a nation-state makes sense in the context of reconciliation between the two parties, especially in light of the Palestinians’ demand for the right of return for refugees and their descendants. Yet if a practical peace is ever to be achieved, Israeli and Palestinian leaders will need to accept that their demands will be only partially met. A full right of return for Palestinians, for example, will simply not be possible under any realistic settlement, and even those Palestinians who accept the existence of Israel are not likely to forget their dismay at its creation. Conditioning peace with the Palestinians on their acceptance of Zionism’s basic principle is therefore not only a stretch; it also confuses perfect conflict resolution for achievable peace—which tends to be ugly, practical, and unsatisfying. In this sense, Netanyahu’s anti-solutionism reflects just as much naiveté as the solutionism he and Yaalon have decried.
Properly applied, moreover, strategic conservatism should keep a country’s long-term options open. In the case of Israel, that would entail maintaining the possibility of a future Israeli-Palestinian partition, an objective that Netanyahu has claimed to support.
Yet Israel’s current approach is gradually ruling out this long-term objective. Yaalon and Bennett vigorously support settlement construction in the West Bank. Netanyahu has also advanced settlement construction, although often on a more limited scale. If the conflict lasts for decades, as Yaalon has suggested it must, such settlement construction will render Netanyahu’s stated goal of partition increasingly impossible. This logic is not lost on right-wing Israelis, many of whom support settlement construction precisely to eliminate the future possibility of a two-state solution.
Netanyahu’s muddled settlement policy reflects an attempt to accommodate both international pressure and the demands of his right flank. Yet his dance between progressives abroad and the right wing at home has convinced neither of his commitment. As in the immediate aftermath of the Iran deal, Netanyahu has failed both to persuade his critics of his sincerity and to effect change. Instead, he has cast himself as a rejectionist.
A cautious strategic approach, finally, makes sense only when the passage of time works in one’s favor. Time is indeed on Israel’s side with respect to many of its traditional Arab adversaries, which are so mired in internal conflict that they currently pose no conventional threat to Israel and are unlikely to anytime soon. Israel also has a dynamic economy and a robust nuclear security blanket.
With respect to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, time is decidedly not on the side of either Israel or the Palestinians. To begin with, Israel’s control over many aspects of Palestinian affairs has created widespread anger and disgust toward Israel abroad, with increasingly harsh consequences for its international standing and its relations with the United States. More important, Palestinian politics and society are unstable. As time passes and the prospects of a peaceful resolution to the conflict recede, the political fortunes of those Palestinians who advocate compromise in negotiations with Israel will wane, and those of Hamas and other militant groups pushing for violent conflict will ascend.
Israel’s open-ended control over millions of noncitizen Palestinians, meanwhile, has strained the country’s otherwise robust democracy. The festering conflict and the country’s lack of defined, recognized borders have encouraged extreme nationalism and divided Israelis. Indeed, Israel’s continued control over Palestinian affairs has strengthened chauvinistic, racist, and violent tendencies on the fringes of the Israeli right.
Israel’s strategic anxiety understandably derives from the Jewish people’s long history of persecution. Yet the overly cautious policies that anxiety has produced in recent years are an unfortunate departure from the can-do spirit that has historically characterized Israel. Indeed, twentieth-century Zionism was at once wildly idealistic in its goals and pragmatic in its execution, transforming Jewish history rather than succumbing to it. Israel’s current leaders should likewise seek to proactively shape their country’s future, even if the outcome falls short of the ideal.
What Washington can do
In some ways, Obama shares Netanyahu and Yaalon’s measured approach to the Middle East. With respect to Iran’s nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, U.S. and Israeli policymakers diverge dramatically. On both issues, Netanyahu has hoped for greater conservatism from Washington, which has instead sought bold moves toward resolution. Since neither party’s basic philosophy is likely to change much in the near future, it makes sense for both Washington and Jerusalem to recognize their basic differences—on which confrontation is hardly productive—and focus on identifying and actively addressing those areas where their divisions harm both countries’ long-term interests.
Iran’s nuclear program is the place to begin. Although it is possible that the lifting of the sanctions will create a more cooperative Iran, it is at least as probable that the regime’s nature and goals will remain grimly familiar. Should this be the case, the United States and other world powers will need to work hard to ensure that Iran complies with the nuclear deal for many years to come.
Netanyahu’s rhetorical opposition to the Iran deal has so far distracted from what is most needed in practice: a joint U.S.-Israeli strategy that deters Iran from violating the terms of the deal and sets the stage for a successful nonproliferation plan for after the deal’s elements expire. First, the United States should make clear that it is willing to bear the diplomatic costs of calling Iran out on even small infractions, because failing to do so would cause the deal to lose force over time. Next, Israel and the United States should better coordinate their monitoring of Iran’s compliance, which could help prevent an unintended blowup of the deal, for which either country could be blamed.
Finally, in its public messaging about the costs of violating the deal, Israel should stop undermining the United States. At present, the credibility of the American claim that Iran will face punishment for violations of the deal is the single most important asset that Israel and the United States have; Netanyahu and Obama should both cultivate it deliberately. Netanyahu has repeatedly said that Iran will be able to break the deal and get away with it; he should change his tune, making clear that he believes such violations will come at a serious cost, levied by the United States. Obama and the next U.S. president should likewise make sure U.S. threats are taken seriously.
On the Palestinian issue, meanwhile, the United States should resist the temptation—still present in some circles in the Obama administration—to try to push the parties toward a comprehensive solution in the near term, because such a settlement is currently unobtainable. This is not because a realistic two-state solution aimed at conflict resolution rather than reconciliation is fundamentally impossible, as Yaalon has argued, but because the current set of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and the current environment in the Middle East, is ill suited for the negotiation of one. Instead, the United States should focus on distinguishing between those short-term Israeli and Palestinian policies that will prejudice a future deal and those that will not. As it does so, it should pressure both sides to make choices that will keep options open in the long run.
With this in mind, the United States should change two major tenets of its current policy. First, Washington should promote interim steps between Israel and the Palestinians well short of a final-status agreement. The Obama administration has been loath to push for such steps, including Israeli withdrawals of settlers or troops from parts of “Area C,” the large portion of the West Bank that is under full Israeli administration. This reluctance stems in part from the understandable fear among the Palestinians, which Washington is sensitive to, that temporary agreements could become permanent, lessening the pressure on Israel without bringing fundamental change. And although the Netanyahu government has been open to some provisional steps, such as the easing of restrictions on Palestinian economic development in the West Bank, it has resisted settler and troop withdrawals, citing the perceived failure of Israel’s unilateral retreats from southern Lebanon and Gaza.
Many Israelis indeed believe that unilateral withdrawal was tried in Gaza and failed. But Israel’s 2005 withdrawal was made up of two components, each of which should be considered separately: the withdrawal of Jewish settlements from the heart of a highly populated Palestinian territory and the withdrawal of all Israeli security forces from the area. The uprooting of the settlements was no easy matter—whole communities were forcibly removed and their homes and buildings razed, causing a deep rift within Israeli society—but it was also a strategic success; today, Israel does not need to protect a small number of settlers in a crowded and hostile area. The military aspect of the Gaza disengagement, however, was far less successful. In the vacuum it produced, Hamas came to power, Israel instituted a blockade, and Israelis and Palestinians alike have found themselves in a cycle of conflict that has devastated the Gaza Strip and routinely sends Israeli civilians to bomb shelters.
The main lesson from the Gaza disengagement, then, is not that redrawing temporary borders between Israeli and Palestinian populations is inherently dangerous but that unilateral military withdrawal is a mistake. Indeed, some Israeli leaders in the center and on the center-left have proposed that Israel withdraw some of its settlers from the West Bank while maintaining the Israeli military’s freedom of action there. Although it is unlikely to be pursued anytime soon, this policy should eventually make a comeback, in light of the lessons learned in Gaza.
The second big shift Washington should make is to match its words with its policies on settlement construction. The contradictions of Netanyahu’s wait-and-see approach to the settlements must be tackled head-on; left alone, additional settlement construction will lessen the possibility of any future partition.
In 2009, the Obama administration demanded a blanket freeze on the construction of settlements, including any expansion of those that would remain in Israel in any future agreement. That proved untenable in the long run, because it rallied the Israeli public behind Netanyahu and against the Obama administration. Although the United States has effectively abandoned this position, it has not publicly articulated one to replace it. To fill the gap, Washington should develop a policy that distinguishes between settlements that seriously degrade the possibility of a future partition and those that do not. It should vigorously object to construction in the former—particularly in and around East Jerusalem, where settlement construction prejudices the outcome of a future agreement the most—and tacitly accept it in the latter. And the United States should push for a more stringent definition of the boundaries of Israel’s more benign settlement blocs, based on limits developed in U.S. mediation efforts in recent years rather than on Israeli interpretation. Although such an approach would be difficult for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to accept, it would offer each a tangible political gain: tacitly legitimized construction in limited areas for the Israelis and an effective freeze on construction in zones that actually count in the long term for the Palestinians.
There is also much that Israel’s leaders could do toward similar ends—from ceding partial authority over certain areas to allow for greater geographic contiguity among Palestinian enclaves to financially incentivizing the gradual return of Israeli settlers from their most remote outposts. Those steps might be unlikely in the immediate term, but they offer a way to help forestall a far worse future.
Clearing the path to peace
The Palestinians, for their part, can do much to keep open the possibility of a future agreement. To start, they should take greater responsibility for their own political mess by constructing a unity government for the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, one that is willing to forswear violence and accept the possibility of peace with Israel.
That will be difficult: many Palestinian groups, Hamas chief among them, are opposed to peace, and Israel has often objected to proposed Palestinian unity governments that have included Hamas for just this reason. But the possibility of a future agreement will necessitate a single Palestinian government committed to peace, whether or not every constituent party belonging to it is similarly inclined. And it will require a Palestinian government that can effectively control its entire territory and all Palestinian forces. To advance this objective, Abbas should assume responsibility for the border crossings into and out of the Gaza Strip, something he has refused to do since the end of the conflict between Hamas and Israel in 2014. By committing Palestinian Authority personnel to facilitating movement across the border between Gaza and Israel, Abbas could ease Gaza’s dire economic situation and help forestall future fighting between Hamas and Israel.
Next, the Palestinians will need to return to institution building, particularly in the security sector, which must be strengthened in anticipation of Abbas’ departure from office, when the risk of violence will be highest. When that time comes, the Palestinian Authority should uphold its ongoing security cooperation with Israel, which is unpopular among the Palestinian people but crucial for their well-being. Such cooperation is also important for the possibility of long-term conflict resolution, because it helps diminish the fear and distrust that come from active conflict and that are central to the current diplomatic impasse.
In the absence of a final-status agreement in the near or medium term, banishing anti-Israeli and anti-Palestinian incitement from public rhetoric will also become more important. During negotiations for peace in previous years, Israel’s demands for a halt to such talk among the Palestinians often seemed like a play for time. But today, with so much time likely to pass before peace is reached, calls for violence from either side can have a pernicious effect well beyond their apparent scope by encouraging terrorist attacks against both Israelis and Palestinians.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders are unlikely to take serious interim steps toward peace in the near term. Yet the conflict has had many ups and downs over the years, and there will be opportunities for creative policy before long. And because a full resolution is not likely soon, it is all the more important in the meantime that Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States devise coherent policies that are at once realistic about the immediate future and consistently committed to longer-term objectives.
Israel’s anti-solutionism is not absurd, especially in the context of the country’s current geopolitical situation. Yet Israeli leaders can nevertheless be blind to the long-term effects of their actions, and there is much that could be done to improve them. For the Israeli-Palestinian issue, as for many others, it is in the pragmatic middle ground between cynicism and idealism that the best policies can be found.