Palestinians Will Pay for Saving Israeli Democracy

Demonstrations against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, Israel, April 2023. Corinna Kern / Reuters
Demonstrations against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, Israel, April 2023. Corinna Kern / Reuters

After putting his plans for antidemocratic judicial overhaul on ice in April, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like to gear up for a second try. The legislative proposals would effectively neuter the Israeli Supreme Court and prevent it from acting as a check on executive power, but the project’s success is not guaranteed. Mass protests against the overhaul have continued unabated, putting pressure on the government to stall further or even compromise.

The longer Netanyahu waits, however, the more he faces discontent in the ranks of his far-right coalition government. Netanyahu has already tried to calm the waves with massive state subsidies for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population. His next move will be to pay off the radical religious Zionists and far-right politicians in his cabinet in annexationist coin: if he cannot muzzle the Supreme Court—long the bane of the Israeli far right—he may instead give the extremists in his coalition free rein in their efforts to bind the West Bank permanently to Israel, to annex the territory in everything but name. In fact, this process has already begun.

In other words, the battle over Israel’s democracy may further inflame conflict with the Palestinians. Neither the Palestinian Authority, nor Hamas, nor the Palestinian public is interested in a massive or sustained uprising against Israel. But a far-right Israeli government that seeks to effectively seize the West Bank and quash the last attenuated hopes of a sovereign Palestinian state will almost certainly lead to escalation with the Palestinians. For the United States, this looming confrontation offers only tough choices. The Biden administration is already preoccupied with Europe and the Indo-Pacific. It sees little advantage in embarking on a major diplomatic initiative that would almost certainly fail and embroil it with pro-Israeli voices in Congress ahead of an election year. But the United States still has a stake in avoiding an explosion of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

FROM THE FRYING PAN INTO THE FIRE

Israel’s coalition government reflects a devil’s bargain among three elements, each with its own narrow interests. Netanyahu, desperate to avoid further prosecution on corruption charges, needs allies willing to help him legislate his legal problems away, which is one of the objectives behind the planned legal overhaul. The ultra-Orthodox parties, which represent the haredim and are generally in tune with Netanyahu’s right-wing politics, mostly want more government funding for their religious institutions and even broader religious exemptions from military service for their constituents. Finally, there are the ultranationalists, all of whom seek eternal Israeli control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and many of whom hope the government’s bid to enfeeble the Supreme Court will allow them to enshrine their Jewish supremacist ideology in Israeli law.

In his efforts to cater to this menagerie of political sects, Netanyahu has thrown his usual caution to the wind. Satisfying the demands of the ultra-Orthodox has not proved difficult. Bezalel Smotrich, Netanyahu’s far-right finance minister, has left the treasury coffers wide open to the haredim, and Netanyahu has already agreed to provide additional funding.

More challenging are the demands of the ultranationalists. Many in this camp remain dead set on curbing the power of the judiciary and effectively subordinating it to the whims of the governing coalition—even in the face of mass protests, which continue to draw hundreds of thousands into the street every week.

If Netanyahu agrees to a compromise on the judicial overhaul—an outcome pushed for by Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog—he will risk the collapse of his coalition. Yet to preserve the option of somehow immunizing himself from prosecution or delaying his ongoing corruption trial, Netanyahu must remain in power. Thus, he will have no choice but to satisfy the ultranationalists’ long-standing wish: to further tighten Israel’s grip on the occupied territories, functionally turning the occupation into a permanent annexation.

Dozens of draft laws to this effect are already circulating in Knesset committees. Some would require the Israeli state to treat settlers in the West Bank exactly like residents of Israel proper. Other bills would further restrict Palestinian construction and access to land in the West Bank. Smotrich, the finance minister, is taking steps to build out infrastructure in the West Bank so its Jewish population can double to a million people. And Itamar Ben-Gvir, the outspoken far-right minister for national security, may only tolerate further delays to the judicial overhaul in exchange for renewed assurances that he can press ahead with his own pet project: an Israeli national guard that would, in practice, operate as his private militia to wield against the Palestinians and support the settlers.

The ultranationalists would prefer formal and outright annexation of the occupied territories to a more covert and gradual process. But they may accept something short of de jure control, especially if doing so means that Israel can expand its power over Palestinian lands and people but avoid the political and public relations problems raised by an overt annexation without equal rights for Palestinians. This scenario—Netanyahu making some concessions on judicial reform but keeping his coalition alive by all but officially annexing the West Bank—would be his second deal with the devil, for it would extinguish what little hope is left for a two-state solution.

The immediate outcome would be threefold. First, the weekly protests over the judicial reform would end. Second, the Knesset would pass a rash of annexationist and anti-Palestinian legislation. Third, there would be a measure of opprobrium from the United States, Europe, and some Arab states but little in the way of real consequences. Israel’s democracy would be saved; prospects for peace with the Palestinians would be buried.

THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM?

The extent of Palestinian blowback, should Netanyahu choose this path, is hard to predict with certainty. An explosion of violence in the West Bank akin to the first or second intifada is possible but not inevitable: as recently as April, Israelis and Palestinians managed to get through the confluence of Ramadan, Passover, and Easter—a time when religious and nationalist sensitivities run high—without the massive bloodshed that some had feared. Early May saw five days of clashes in Gaza between the Israeli military and an armed group known as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but the larger and better-armed Hamas stayed out of the fight, and the violence ended before it could spread to the West Bank. A few weeks later, even Jerusalem Day—which commemorates the city’s unification in 1967 and features a provocative right-wing Israeli “Flag March” through its Muslim quarter—came and went with relatively little violence.

But this is at best a respite. Hamas is eager to draw attention away from Gaza and its governance problems and to heat up other fronts, especially in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Independent, loosely organized Palestinian armed groups, such as the Lions’ Den in the northern West Bank, will continue to try to carry out attacks, prompting further preemptive and retaliatory operations by the Israel Defense Forces.

Extremist Israeli settlers, emboldened and defended by friends in Netanyahu’s government, will continue to harass and intimidate Palestinians and work with Israeli officials to create facts on the ground. One of their key initiatives is a push to legalize so-called outposts—that is, wildcat settlements in the West Bank constructed without Israeli government permission. These outposts make up a small but rapidly growing portion of Area C, the roughly 60 percent of West Bank territory that is under direct Israeli control. The ex post facto “legalization” of these outposts would continue Israeli settlement expansion.

Perhaps most revealing was this week’s decision by the settlers, with the tacit acquiescence of both the IDF and the government, to reopen the illegal Homesh yeshiva just a few hundred yards from its original location. This was done even though Homesh was one of four West Bank settlements that Israel agreed to evacuate at the time of its 2005 disengagement from Gaza—and despite opposition from the United States and European countries. Since Netanyahu appears open to such flame throwing by the settlers and by the extremists in his cabinet, a much more dangerous period lies ahead.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SALVAGE

The United States’ options for dealing with this situation are limited. This is clearly not the time for ambitious peace plans or negotiations on final-status issues, which would almost certainly fail. But the Biden administration can still try to defuse tensions and preserve the possibilities for future progress.

To that end, the United States, together with Egypt and Jordan, should hold the Israelis and the Palestinians accountable for the commitments they have made to each other at summits in Aqaba and Sharm al-Sheikh earlier this year. At these meetings, both sides pledged to curb violence, and Israel promised a moratorium on certain unilateral measures, such as halting the authorization of new settlement units and outposts for four and six months, respectively. With regard to Haram al-Sharif, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, both sides pledged to maintain the status quo (that is, Jews and non-Muslims can visit; only Muslims can pray). These commitments are not far-reaching, but they have the advantage of being agreed to by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and they are a useful starting point for rebuilding trust.

But with American, European, and Arab encouragement, both sides need to do more. The Palestinian Authority should renew its commitment to counter terrorist groups operating in areas under its control. Israel should likewise pledge to preempt and prevent violence and terror on the part of settlers. The United States, alongside Egypt, Jordan, and the European Union, should establish a committee to monitor the implementation of these commitments, and they should develop a set of responses in case either side fails to follow through.

Washington and the international community should also do more to improve the lives of Palestinians and ease the burdens of occupation. That means offering investment and other incentives for Palestinian infrastructure development, removing barriers to Palestinian trade and commerce, and generally supporting Palestinian businesses and economic autonomy wherever possible. It also means improving the Palestinian Authority’s fiscal situation. As weak and as lacking in credibility as the Palestinian Authority may be, there is no chance of even relative calm and stability in the West Bank without it.

On the regional diplomatic front, the United States is actively involved in facilitating the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Both countries have reportedly pressed Washington to play a significant role in this process. The Biden administration should make it clear that it will do so only if the Netanyahu government helps foster better relations between Israelis and Palestinians. Saudi Arabia may voice similar requirements of its own, but the Biden administration should not simply outsource this matter to Riyadh.

In the long term, Israelis and Palestinians alike will need to elect leaders committed to peace and reconciliation. Violence and hate speech have polarized both sides, pushing them toward ever more radical positions. The Netanyahu government, for one, will do little to bring about a positive change. Netanyahu might under certain circumstances be inclined to jettison his radical ministers and reach out to more centrist Israeli parties. But this is unlikely.

On the Palestinian side, there is widespread discontent and anger with the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, and most Palestinians are eager for new elections. Yet Abbas canceled last year’s legislative elections and seems determined to avoid facing the electorate. Still, by engaging the Palestinian Authority on broader issues of good governance, anticorruption, and transparency, the United States and the Europeans might eventually determine under what conditions Abbas would agree to hold elections. The risk, of course, is that given his unpopularity and lack of credibility among the Palestinian public, Abbas and his party, Fatah, might find themselves losing out to Hamas, which will not abandon its armed struggle.

As for Gaza, a new round of conflict may only be a matter of time. It is noteworthy, however, that Hamas was not pulled into the most recent battle in May, which averted a far deadlier outcome. And Hamas has at least some incentive to maintain calm since it will benefit politically if it can boost imports, address the humanitarian and infrastructure needs of Gazans, and increase the number of Palestinians who can work in Israel.

To be sure, none of these steps will achieve a breakthrough. At best, they might arrest the dangerous drift now underway. But not much more will come from a U.S. administration that is preoccupied with other foreign-policy challenges, sensitive to the politics of pushing the Israelis too far, and convinced that a solution is beyond the reach even of a significant U.S. effort.

If and when the moment is right for negotiations, the United States should consult with others to develop parameters and terms of reference that point the parties in a positive direction and build on progress achieved in the past. The Israelis and the Palestinians are in a dangerous cul-de-sac. And working with others, the Biden administration could certainly do more to help them begin to find a way out.

Daniel Kurtzer is former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel. He is S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs. Aaron David Miller is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment and a former State Department Middle East analyst and has served as a negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations.

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