American administrations have a tendency to blame the ‘radical’ settlers for torpedoing peace missions. The real problem, however, is with the ‘moderates’ who are complicit in maintaining the status quo.
There is a lot of talk in some circles about Naftali Bennett’s appearance at the Saban Forum last weekend (video below). Bennett, who heads the Jewish Home party and is the star of the Israeli Right, took to the stage with former special envoy to the peace process Martin Indyk. Bennett essentially declared that Israeli will never accept the two-state solution, that there will be no more “land for peace” and that he has the Israeli public behind him. “How many more missiles need to fall on Ashkelon until you wake up?” he asked Indyk, who remained mostly speechless. Bennett shared a clip of the event on his Facebook page.
Bennett, with his overtly confrontational attitude, is clearly the new boogeyman in the eyes of the Obama administration. According to mainstream thinking, if he ends up being appointed the next defense minister, the peace process will be as good as dead. This is a mistake: there is no hope for peace with Bennett, but this is not where the real problem lies.
American administrations have a tendency to divide societies into “good guys” and “bad guys,” or “moderates” and “radicals.” Moderates, they believe, are the ones you can do business with, and thus are the political forces worth cultivating. The Israeli case is no different: there is a non-stop effort to decipher whether or not certain politicians – specifically rising stars and potential leaders – are “moderates.” The settlers are always the radicals, while Labor leaders are the moderates as long as they show some interest in the Palestinian issue. Liberman was a radical; now he is a potential moderate. Netanyahu was the exact opposite; there was a moment when he had the ability to become a moderate, but is now considered a hopeless case.
While amusing, this game misses the point entirely. Besides a lot of wishful thinking, it betrays a simple misunderstanding of Israeli politics. What political leaders think or say is not as important as the balance of interests and the environment that shape their behavior.
The heart of the matter is this: the common denominator that allows coalitions in Israel to exist is an agreement on the status quo with regards to the occupation, or at least an agreement with a certain version of the status quo (*).
By “common denominator” I mean that Netanyahu, Lapid, Livni, Liberman and Bennett have different, often conflicting ideas on the way Israel should approach the Palestinian issue. However, they can all live with the status quo. Although they may want something else, they can still agree to maintain the current trends on the ground.
This is what allows these politicians (and the forces they represent) to sit together in the same government. They conduct a tug of war over some nuances – the rate of settlement construction, the “illegal” outposts, whether or not to talk to Abbas – but they never stray too far from the status quo, since doing so will make it impossible to share power. In fact, the status quo is so important that the government is ready to go to war in order to maintain it. This is exactly what Israel has been doing since the Second Intifada.
Despite the rhetoric, Bennett can live with the status quo just as Livni can. This is precisely why they sat together in this last government, just as Ehud Barak sat with the settlers in the previous one. When international actors scratch their heads wondering why peace missions fail again and again they shouldn’t be looking at the settlers, who were never even close to constituting a majority in Israeli society. Instead, they should be looking at their “moderate” friends, whose common ground with the Right is the basis for the status quo.
And here’s the punch: even in the case of an election upset that would see the emergence of a center-left coalition, it will likely need to be based on an unspoken agreement on some version of the status quo. This is the only way that Liberman, Kahlon, Lapid, Livni and Herzog can sit in the same coalition.
Electing “the right politicians” will never be enough for an Israeli government – any Israeli government – to make to real change. For real change to occur, the circumstances under which all politicians operate need to shift as well. In other words, the only way this can happen is if major forces in Israeli society decide they cannot live with the status quo any longer (most likely because the price they would pay for doing so is simply too great).
It is not enough that these politicians would rather see the occupation end; ending the occupation needs to be the new common denominator for their political approach. As long as we are engaged in the “moderates” vs. “radicals” conversation, we are simply not going to get there.
(*) A note on terminology: the term “status quo” is misleading. I use it to describe the political arrangements and the most important procedures Israel implements on the ground. However there is nothing static in the reality they create, as the last year clearly demonstrated.