Israel should choose a strategy of confrontation
What a strategy of confrontation would look like in practice on the Iranian and Palestinian issues.
A reader posed a relevant question regarding last week’s column on the value of confrontation in achieving Israel’s diplomatic goals: Granted, confrontation sometimes works, but how could it work today to persuade the West to address Israeli concerns on either the Iranian or the Palestinian issues?
Regarding Iran’s nuclear program, the answer is relatively simple: Israel must make clear that its military option remains on the table if the current talks either drag on too long or produce a deal that doesn’t address Jerusalem’s concerns. Since Western leaders have repeatedly proven their deep desire to avoid an Israeli attack on Iran, a credible threat to attack creates a powerful incentive to take Israel’s interests into account.
A credible threat obviously requires countering the widespread view that Israel wouldn’t dare attack in defiance of Washington. This demands clear, consistent, public messaging, so the government made a good start by vocally denouncing the interim deal with Iran and declaring that Jerusalem won’t consider itself bound by a deal it opposes. But no less important is reminding the world of the relevant historical precedents – because contrary to the prevailing wisdom, Israel has repeatedly proven willing to defy superpower patrons when faced with something it deems an existential threat.
One particularly salient example, as I’ve noted before, is Israel’s preemptive strike on the Egyptian air force during the 1967 Six-Day War. At that time, France was Israel’s superpower patron, principal arms supplier and sole source of vitally needed fighter jets; Washington assumed those roles only post-1967. And Paris warned unequivocally that if Israel preempted, the French alliance – including those all-important arms sales – was over. Since Israel had no alternative arms source, that was a potent deterrent. Yet facing what it deemed an existential threat from three Arab armies, Israel defied Paris and preempted anyway. By contrast, defying Washington to attack Iran would probably be less costly, since Israel’s support on Capitol Hill makes an American arms embargo unlikely.
The Palestinian issue is more complex, because confrontation would entail reversing a 20-year-old policy: Israel would have to publicly reassert its own legal rights in the West Bank, which successive governments have shamefully allowed the world to forget.
This doesn’t require doing anything that could permanently stymie a two-state solution, like annexing Area C or embarking on massive construction in places the government envisions as part of a future Palestinian state. But the West has consistently opposed even steps aimed solely at protecting Israel’s negotiating interests, which Jerusalem should have taken long since. Thus Israel should make clear that it will finally do so if it’s pressured to accept a deal it deems unacceptable or if it’s blamed for the talks’ breakdown because it refuses to concede its red lines.
Step one is for the government to finally adopt the Levy Report. This document, drafted by a blue-ribbon panel of jurists in 2012, lays out Israel’s legal claim to the West Bank and refutes the canard that this is “occupied territory.” Adopting the report wouldn’t preclude ceding land for peace. But by putting Israel’s legal case in the public domain and forcing government officials to publicly defend it, it would change the negotiating dynamic (as I explain in detail here): Israel can legitimately demand concessions for ceding its own land that it can’t demand for returning “occupied territory.”
Second, Israel should exercise its legal rights via massive construction in areas that it intends to retain under any agreement: Jerusalem, the settlement blocs, the E-1 corridor linking Jerusalem and Ma’aleh Adumim, and perhaps the Jordan Valley. Construction reinforces Israel’s hold on these areas, since the more Israelis live there, the harder uprooting them becomes. Yet building in areas Israel would keep under any deal clearly doesn’t preclude a deal, and every peace plan ever proposed has assigned the settlement blocs, E-1 and Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to Israel.
One might ask why the West would seek to forestall such measures if they don’t undermine prospects for a deal. The answer is that Western leaders have adopted two key elements of the Palestinian narrative: First, the West Bank and East Jerusalem are “occupied Palestinian territory” to which Israel has no claim whatsoever; and second, despite being the ones ostensibly suffering under occupation, Palestinians are the ones who must be coaxed to negotiate by ever greater Israeli concessions.
Clearly, any assertion of Israel’s rights undermines this narrative and strengthens Israel’s negotiating position: If Israel has a valid claim to the land, it can legitimately impose conditions for ceding it, and is thus less likely to make the egregious concessions the West deems necessary to appease the Palestinians. This, of course, is why Israel should have been making its case forcefully all along. But it’s also why the West vociferously opposes any Israeli attempt to do so.
In short, precisely because both Europe and the current US administration back maximalist Palestinian positions, they see any Israeli move to counter Palestinian demands as contrary to their own interests. And this, ironically, provides Israel with leverage. Indeed, the efficacy of such pushback can be seen on the issue of security arrangements, where Washington has reportedly moved toward Israel recently – but only after being convinced that on this issue, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wouldn’t budge.
Until now, Israel has largely capitulated to Western pressure and refrained from taking steps such as building in E-1 or adopting the Levy Report, fearing to be accused of thwarting prospects for peace and slapped with financial sanctions. But both Washington and the EU have made clear that virtually regardless of why the talks break down, they intend to blame Israel and penalize it accordingly. If so, Israel would have no reason to continue refraining from these steps, which would bolster its negotiating position in the long run. And it should make this clear to its Western interlocutors.
For far too long, Israel has tried to appease the West’s pro-Palestinian sensibilities, even at the cost of seeing its international standing steadily erode. It’s therefore long past time to try a different tactic. For if Israel doesn’t stand up for its own interests, assuredly no one else will.