Roman Siege of Jerusalem. By David Roberts, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10987959
On Sunday I returned from my second trip to Israel-Palestine in the last decade. Like the first, this trip involved conversations with a number of speakers (mostly Israeli, but some Palestinian) on the state of the peace process. The first trip was sponsored by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a decidedly neo-conservative leaning institution. The latest trip was associated with the Rabin Center. When I visited in 2008, many of the speakers pushed back against the idea that the Occupation was the central problem in the Middle East. If you recollect 2008, there was a growing belief in the United States that resolving the Israel-Palestine dispute was part of the key that would unlock the problem of the Middle East more generally. This view was held not simply among Palestinian advocates or on college campuses, but widely within the US national security establishment; among others, David Petraeus occasionally voiced the argument that a just resolution to the Occupation could help resolve broader regional problems.
The popularity of this idea in the US national security establishment had several sources; on the one hand, Americans were searching for reasons for the enduring problems of the Middle East that didn’t focus on US policy (such as invading Iraq, supporting Saudi Arabia, etc.). On the other, Americans were still willing to listen to diplomats and policymakers from Arab states, who at the time preferred to concentrate on Israel-Palestine rather than on Iran, or myriad other difficulties. In any case, the view from the national security establishment was quite instrumental; it had very little to do with establishing a just resolution to the Occupation, and very much to do with allowing the US to extricate itself from the various situations it had embroiled itself in. It also involved the (condescending, when you think about it) claim that the Israelis didn’t really understand their long term interests, and that they would be better served by doing what the United States asked them to. On the European side, the Israelis were hit with the often implicit, sometimes explicit claim that the trouble that European states faced with their Islamic minorities would quickly disappear if only the Israelis could give the Palestinians a fair shake.
As you can imagine, this push met with very little support from the Israelis I heard from back in 2008. Even the leftish two-staters (and these did not predominate in the 2008 visit) were extremely reluctant to grant that the Occupation was the proximate, or even antecedent, cause of a panoply of problems in the Middle East. Instead (and most of the speakers brought up these points without prompting), the real obstacles to Middle East peace (as opposed to “Middle East Peace”) resided in the imperial ambitions of Iran, the dysfunction and brutal authoritarianism of Arab states, and the direct action of the United States (primarily the Iraq War, which the Israelis had suddenly decided was a bad idea at some point between 2003 and 2008). Whatever the speakers may have thought about the settlement project from a policy or justice point of view, they nearly uniformly rejected the idea that one more or less settlement had much impact on the broader contours of Middle East politics. The Israelis were particularly (and unsurprisingly) incensed by the idea that the United States knew Israeli interest better than the Israelis themselves; this was the case even when the speakers displayed a strong aversion to the settlement project, and to the general conduct and maintenance of the occupation.
Obviously, these beliefs were deeply self-serving from the Israeli point of view. They were not, however, entirely wrong. The US did a lot of dumb stuff after 2001 (and before, obviously) that had nothing to do with Israel; it also did a lot of dumb stuff that involved Israel in some fashion. It grated on Israelis that Americans were blaming Israel for their own idiocy. At the same time, the Israelis correctly pointed out the multiple sources of Arab social dysfunction, and probably had a better sense of the regional impact of the growth of Iranian power (less in terms of the specific threat to Israel than in the ways the Sunni states would freak out) than the Americans did. And the struggles that European states have faced in integrating Islamic communities obviously have to do with much more than Israel-Palestine.
Let’s fast forward to 2016. Although the slate of speakers this time around concentrated heavily in the center-left Labour elite, the message resonated with 2008; not all of this mess is our fault. Even the left-leaning speakers made clear that the effort from 2008 (and thereabouts) to put Israel-Palestine at the center of Middle East dysfunction had utterly collapsed. The reasons for this are obvious: Syria is in the middle of a civil war that has killed more people in five years than all the dead of all the Arab-Israeli wars combined; ISIS has handily demonstrated the incapacity of the Arab state; Egypt has gone through two revolutions without noticeably changing, and the Sisi regime is arguably more responsible for suffering in Gaza today than Israel; Libya and Yemen have collapsed; the surviving Sunni regimes have made clear that they care a lot about Iran and not a whit about Palestinians; the Turks and the Iranians themselves have made clear that support for Hamas is little more than a elaborate public relations maneuver. If anything the Israelis were more contemptuous of the Europeans than the Americans, noting that Islamic communities in Europe appear considerably more prone to terrorism than Islamic communities within Israel itself.
Now obviously you can pull at a lot of those threads, and find some long-term Israeli culpability for how things have turned out in the Middle East, but it’s very, very difficult to say that the Israelis are flat wrong on these points. The implications that Israelis draw from this varies; for those who support the settlement project, this confirms the long-standing view that pro-Palestinian attitudes in the Arab states are anything more than authoritarian incitement, a sentiment that seems only mildly to conflict with the oft-implicit belief that Israel is most secure when surrounded by safely authoritarian regimes. Interpretations on the left are more cautious, combining a disdain for idea of Israel-Palestine centrality, with a degree of dismay that there are now fewer levers to push Israel into a long-term agreement with the Palestinians.
And so this is the backdrop to how Israelis (and to some degree, Palestinians) view the future of the peace process. Regional dynamics can be safely ignored for now, or at least for as long as the Sauds, the Hashemites, the Assads, and General Sisi remain in power. From the point of view of the Israeli right, the primary threat to Israel now lays with the legal-normative activity of the trans-Atlantic community, especially the EU but also the United States under Obama (read this excellent column by Aluf Benn on what Bibi actually believes). Most of the Israelis seemed to take BDS fairly seriously, perhaps even more seriously than the Palestinians. The Israeli strategy for managing this problem is the subject of my latest column at the Diplomat (yes; this post is basically an 1100 word introduction to a 500 word column).
But apart from the specifics of the India-Israel relationship, India plays an important role in Israel’s broader diplomatic strategy. In short, building a bridge with India, a country that no longer seems to care very much about the Israel-Palestine dispute, helps to insulate Jerusalem from European and American criticism. As with the effort to build good relationships with China and Russia, the Israeli effort in India (beyond its specific benefits) hopes to take advantage of the fact that most Asian countries have no direct interest in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. India is particularly valuable in this regard because of its history of non-alignment and anti-colonial activism.
Key to the Israeli argument is that it has become clear that the Israel-Palestine dispute is peripheral to the key military and strategic development in the Middle East. Although Palestine remains an important talking point for many regional players, Iran, Saudi Arabia, ISIS, Turkey, Egypt, and the rump Syrian government all have more important things to worry about than the plight of the Palestinians. This is an argument that Israelis have made for some time, and of course it serves Israeli interests to make it. But at the moment it has the benefit of being largely inarguable, given events in Syria and Iraq.
The upshot is this: Everyone now appears deeply skeptical about anything other than a unilateral resolution to the Occupation in the short- to medium-term, in part because regional dynamics have completely undermined pressure on the Israelis. Moreover, Bibi has a strategy for insulating Israel from future pressure, especially on the part of the trans-Atlantic community.