Israel has been waging a single war since the mid-70s. Its goal is to avoid sharing power or assets with the other people living on this land. The Gaza war wasn’t about creating a new order, but about maintaining the old one.
At the time of this writing, Operation Protective Edge has come to an end and the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel is delicately holding. Though indirect talks are taking place in Cairo, reports from the negotiations indicate an Israeli refusal to lift the siege on Gaza. Hamas has vowed to fight on if the ceasefire doesn’t hold, but the humanitarian crisis in the Strip is likely to make that difficult.
As things now stand, it’s clear that declarations by Israeli ministers and generals on “a new reality” in the south disguise a different, opposite goal for this war: Protective Edge was carried out in order to restore things to way they were before June 2014. In other words, to maintain the status quo.
This has been the goal of Israeli policy for many years now. Since the end of the 1973 war, Israel has been waging a single war against a single adversary – the Palestinians. The first Lebanon War, the Intifadas, Cast Lead, Protective Edge and most of the military operations in between were all part of “a military solution” to the Palestinian problem. Even the notable exception – the 2006 war in Lebanon – was leftover from the the 1982 invasion, which was conducted against the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Despite all the threats that came and went over the years – the Syrians, Iran’s nuclear program, the axis of evil, international jihad – at the end of the day, it all comes down to the Palestinian issue. The reason why all those threats are constantly debated and inflated in Israel is to hide this fact.
This is the heart of the matter: There are two population groups, Jews and Palestinians, living between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan Valley. They are nearly equal in size and almost totally mixed: there are Jews and Arabs along the coast line, Jews and Arabs in the north, Jews and Arabs in the south, and Jews and Arabs in the West Bank.
Jews living everywhere in this territory have full rights, while the Palestinians are divided into all sorts of sub-groups with differing sets of rights that are never equal to those of the Jews. Jews are represented and protected everywhere by a single unified, sovereign government, while most Palestinians are administered by different kinds of weak, partial local administrations. Jews hold almost all the assets – including most of the lands – while Palestinians have very few assets, and some of them are inaccessible or off-limits, like the natural gas fields inside Gaza’s territorial waters.
This is a unique order. I don’t know of any other country in the world that has held such a large part of the native population as non-citizens for such a long period of time. It is an inherently unjust order, and it will continue to create instability and to cast serious doubts over the legitimacy of the entire system. This will happen regardless of all the advocacy efforts on the part of the government, or the number of Zionist laws the Knesset passes. Reality has a force of its own.
In this context, keeping the Palestinians under control was, and still remains, the Israeli challenge; not killing. The violence is a byproduct, which Israelis would happily do without. The goal is to keep the existing order of things. Great resources are directed to this end: a massive defense budget; technological creativity; philosophy professors that come up with new ethics for this national project; the Supreme Court defines the legal boundaries for it – who can be killed and who can’t, what land can be taken and what not; all while a propaganda machine tries to market the outcome to the world and to our own citizens.
When the Palestinians accept the order of things instead of rebelling, Israelis can turn to other issues – talk about social justice, rising real estate prices, the culture war between the religious and secular, and between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews. But then something happens, and everyone goes back to dealing with the national project: How to keep the Palestinians under control.
The alternative involves sharing power, assets and land with the other people living on this land. This could be achieved by dividing the territory in two (the two-state solution) or within one unified territory. There are also hybrids of the two models. But as long as the Israeli goal is to keep as many assets as possible in the hands of the Jewish community, or to keep the Palestinians under its control – for example, through controlling the borders or the airspace of the future Palestinian state, or allowing the IDF to violate its sovereignty – there will be no compromise, and Israel will continue to carry out “peacekeeping missions,” continue “to restore order,” continue to “renew deterrence,” “mow the grass” and all those other euphemisms for keeping Palestinians under control.
As a side note, it should be clear that the Israeli tendency to try and determine who is a “legitimate” Palestinian leader and who should be dealt with by force – whether it’s Hamas’ Khaled Mashal or MK Hanin Zoabi – is also a part of this game. Recognizing only those who accept our terms in advance is simply another form of control.
The price of a fair compromise, one that really has a chance of working, is huge. Israel retains all the assets and, therefore, is the one that needs to pay and take risks. The Palestinians have very little “to give” Israel in return, save for legitimacy and some hope that things will pay off in the future. Even the much debated security arrangements are worthless. A Palestinian leadership can promise peace today, but who knows what will happen and who will be in power in five or 10 years. In the short run, the compromise is likely to lead to less security as increased political instability on the Israeli side.
It is therefore clear why at this moment in time, when Israel is so powerful and rich, a compromise doesn’t look too attractive for most of the Jewish public. Israel is caught in a tragic decision-making paradox: As long as things are going well, the motivation for compromise remains extremely low. For compromise to become a preferred option, things need to go horribly bad. Until they do, sending soldiers to restore order, to kill and be killed, will seem like the easy way out of any given crisis. And when the benefit-cost ratio finally changes, the price of the compromise is likely to rise, too.
Netanyahu chose the cheapest solution in Gaza: A unilateral retreat without an agreement, which is way less risky than taking the entire Strip, and way less daring than reaching an agreement that actually changes the reality on the ground for the better. Netanyahu usually resorts to cheap solutions. His political opponents – Tzipi Livni, Yair Lapid, Yitzhak Herzog, Avigdor Lieberman, Naftali Bennett, Gideon Sa’ar – are not that different. They might have their own ideas for solving the problem at hand – how to keep the Palestinians under control – but none of them want to change the question.