The Peace Camp’s Self-Interest Dilemma
By Ron Skolnik
The willingness of a growing number of Arab League nations to normalize ties with Israel even in the absence of any movement along the path toward peace presents a fundamental challenge to Israel’s anti-Occupation camp and its ability to sway the Israeli (particularly Jewish-Israeli) populace. Should this normalization trend continue and expand, it might compel the peace camp to discard one of the more powerful components in its PR “arsenal” – or, conversely, perhaps double down on it instead.
Over the decades, Israel’s peace camp has made its case to the country’s citizens by relying on a one-two “punch” of claims. Interestingly, the two approaches are widely dissimilar in nature. One category of arguments stresses the moral imperative of ending the military occupation; the other appeals to Israelis’ self-interest, individual and collective. One summons prophetic Jewish values of justice and equality; the other taps into the Jewish people’s learned sense of vulnerability in face of a historically hostile world.
Arguably the prophetic approach of the anti-Occupation forces is best symbolized by the veteran NGO, B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. Founded in 1989, B’Tselem’s mission focuses on high ideals, on what Abraham Lincoln once referred to as the “better angels of our nature”: “To end Israel’s occupation, recognizing that this is the only way to achieve a future that ensures human rights, democracy, liberty and equality [for] all people, Palestinian and Israeli alike.” B’Tselem specifically references Jewish tradition as its point of departure: Noting Genesis 1:27, which states that, “In the image [B’Tselem] of God did He create [humankind],” the organization defines respect for universal human rights as a Jewish moral edict.
B’Tselem has done wonderful work for three decades, documenting the human rights abuses that inevitably arise in a situation of rule via military force, and campaigning to bring the Occupation to an end. But this approach, while vital, doesn’t translate easily into the world of electoral politics, where high ideals and moral edicts are generally not the basis for voting choices. No different from individuals elsewhere in the world, Israeli voters, as evidenced by repeated polls, are motivated by issues that impact their perceived self-interest and day-to-day lives: Physical security, employment, the cost of living, education. Abstract values tend to be luxuries that few voters feel they can afford to prioritize.
In this light, it seems clear why Israel’s anti-Occupation forces have not limited themselves to the moral imperative, and have sought to frame the Israel-Palestine conflict as an issue that puts Israeli voters’ self-interest at risk. Early efforts drew on a “guns vs. butter” approach, and endeavored to win over rightwing, mostly Mizrahi, voters by demanding that government budgets be directed to “underprivileged neighborhoods, not the Settlements.” But with the Likud and its allies framing the conflict as a zero-sum game in which only Jewish Israelis or the Palestinians would emerge victorious (or even survive), it appears that not many voters were persuaded by this slogan.
One of the risks of appealing to voter self-interest, of course, is that such appeals can easily veer into darker corners. One common anti-Occupation argument, for example, has depicted the Palestinians as a “demographic time-bomb” (or “demographic threat”). The core claim here is that, should Israel hold on to the Occupied Territories and fail to create a Palestinian state, Palestinians would soon outnumber Jews between the Mediterranean and the Jordan, and Israel would be forced to relinquish its Jewish majority if it wishes to remain a democracy (or waive any claims to being a democracy, should it refuse to accept the Palestinians as full citizens). While this core claim expresses a true dilemma, the menacing portrayal of the Palestinians has reinforced racist bias within Israel’s center-left.
But even this scare tactic has been rather successfully parried by the Israeli right, which has devised plans to maintain control of “Greater Israel” while granting Palestinians “limited self-government” – code for local autonomy in disjointed cantons instead of either true Palestinian statehood or full Israeli citizenship. By and large, Jewish Israelis have been unfazed by their government’s anti-democratic program to eternalize the Palestinians’ separate and inferior legal status and keep them under Israeli control while excluding them from Israel’s citizen body.
Since the years of the Second Intifada, a newer warning from the peace camp has become central to the message of self-interest – that the international community was poised to turn against Occupier Israel and punish it. In 2011, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered the most iconic expression of this claim, famously submitting that, should Israel fail to present a comprehensive diplomatic initiative vis a vis the Palestinians, “a diplomatic ‘tsunami’” would rise against Israel and undermine its very legitimacy.
Contrary to Barak’s prophesy, the Obama Administration was more bark than bite when it came to Occupation and Settlements, and so Israelis gained a growing trust for Binyamin Netanyahu’s assurances that he understood the United States better than any other Israeli politician and knew how to manipulate its leaders. Netanyahu’s star shone even brighter after he hitched his wagon to the Republican Party during Obama’s second term, bet on its electoral success in November 2016, and then cashed in when its President warmly embraced his expansionist and anti-Palestinian agenda.
With the peace camp already struggling to convince Israelis that they might a pay a steep price if they didn’t give up their hawkish ways, news broke over the summer of Israel’s normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates and, subsequently, Bahrain. These deals made it even more difficult to make the case that Israel was facing international isolation. Reports now indicate that Sudan will be next in line to normalize, with the grand prize of Saudi Arabia slowly preparing for a similar step. Despite the routine grumbling that still emanates from Europe, Israelis are getting the clear message that while formal annexation of the West Bank might still be a bridge too far, the world is untroubled by unending Occupation and the act of de facto annexation via Settlement.
What is the Israeli anti-Occupation camp to do, then? What arguments can its activists now summon that could effectively convince the Israeli public to seriously reengage with the Palestinians and reach a solution based on the generally accepted international parameters?
Much depends on the result of the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections. Should Donald Trump be reinstalled by the Electoral College, all bets are off. As the chance to pursue a two-state peace via traditional diplomatic channels remains in the deepest of freezes, possibly never to re-emerge, Israel’s peace camp would likely splinter. Portions of Israel’s center-left would probably ditch the issue altogether and take after one-time Labor chair Shelly Yachimovich, who reasoned before the 2013 elections that a dovish agenda brought her party no electoral benefit and that the Occupation was an issue best left unmentioned.
Others are likely to trend in the opposite direction, focusing on the need to create a re-imagined Israeli left. Such a long-term project would be rooted in a high degree of Arab-Jewish political cooperation and pose the demand for equal rights for all who live within Israeli-controlled territory, sovereign or occupied.
While a Biden victory would theoretically re-open the option of a two-state solution, it would be far from a cure-all for the anti-Occupation camp. Whereas during the First Intifada in the late 1980s, many Jewish Israelis felt guilt and discomfort over their role as military occupier, and sought a moral high ground for the country, this sentiment is now held by only a small “bleeding-heart” minority. Due to the ongoing psychological impact of Palestinian terrorism and an unrelenting campaign by Netanyahu and the right to demonize the Palestinians and depict them as eternal, implacable, existential enemies, few Jewish Israelis are today inclined to invoke their “better angels” when it comes to the Occupation and human rights.
If a moral appeal seems DOA, can Israelis yet be convinced that a just and comprehensive peace deal is in their best interest? Perhaps – but only if a Biden Administration is more than a redo of the Obama presidency. While many Israelis chafed at Obama’s mildly critical language towards their government, they also took notice that his administration was willing to provide them with unprecedented levels of aid, even in the absence of progress to end the Occupation. A policy of carrots without sticks, therefore, is unlikely to move the needle.
But Biden can actually rely on the precedent of several Republican administrations to chart a different course. Drawing on Eisenhower in 1956, Ford in 1975, and Bush Sr. in 1991, a president Biden could stress that, notwithstanding the U.S.’s strong ties to Israel, American support cannot be a blank check – that the United States has strategic interests which Israel, as an ally and beneficiary, is required to take into account.
Biden is unlikely to take this path, of course. But should he somehow be persuaded to do so, it would be the thankless job of Israel’s anti-Occupation forces to provide support and cover – and endure the inevitable repercussions at home, including certain accusations of disloyalty. While it would certainly be difficult for peace camp activists to openly defend steps that would be interpreted in Israel as an American diktat that undermines the country’s security, it could be the last chance they have before the two-state solution finally and fully implodes and the world moves on to an updated paradigm for the region.
Ron Skolnik is an American-Israeli political columnist and public speaker, whose articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including Haaretz, Al-Monitor, Tikkun, and the Palestine-Israel Journal.