By Dr. Alon Ben-Meir
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been steadily deteriorating, making the prospect of reaching an agreement on the basis of a two-state solution ever more intractable. What is sorely lacking is effective opposition parties that could present an alternative to Netanyahu’s policy toward the Palestinians, and a national popular movement demanding change before the continued entrenchment of Israel in the West Bank becomes irreversible.
The leadership of the opposition have lost their political compass, promoting no ideas as to how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, they have been focusing on how to maneuver around one another to serve their narrow personal interests rather than that of the state.
The failure of the opposition to coalesce under a dynamic leadership and create a national movement to stop Netanyahu and demand peace now will put Israel’s future in jeopardy. Otherwise, none of these leaders will escape the harsh judgment of history for their dismal failure.
In recent years, Israel’s political scene has been increasingly shifting to the right, the latest manifestation of which is the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman (the leader of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party) as defense minister, which does not bode well for dealing with the Palestinian conflict.
This shift is transforming the country from its founding as a secular democracy with a Jewish majority into a fanatic conservatism with religious undertones, which are becoming ever more pervasive.
For the Netanyahu government, the occupation of the West Bank is only a problem to be managed rather than the most consequential conflict that could obliterate Israel’s Jewish character and its democratic institutions, while shattering the dream of the vast majority of Jews to live in peace and security in a state they have been dreaming of for centuries.
One of the most troubling developments is the slow transformation of the Israeli military from an independent, unbiased, and revered institution – and the melting pot of Israeli society – into an institution religiously influenced and increasingly leaning toward the right-of-center.
A growing number of top officers are deeply religious and committed to the preservation of the settlements, and if or when the time comes to evacuate many of the settlements scattered throughout the West Bank, future Israeli governments may no longer be able to count on the military to enforce an evacuation order.
Leave it to Lieberman to complete the task and make the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) not only a force to protect the legitimate national security of the country,but an instrument to sustain the occupation and protect the settlers in the name of national security.
The current relatively reduced hostilities and economic prosperity enjoyed by much of the Israeli population has made them ever more passive in the face of the simmering conflict, as the government continues to propagate the notion that it can manage the conflict indefinitely.
This lack of public awakening is extraordinarily troubling, for as long as there is no sense of urgency to resolve the conflict, the prospect of a solution is moving from bad to worse; as long as the political opposition remains silent, they are directly contributing to the destruction of Israel’s very foundation.
Unfortunately, the one time Israelis did take to the streets en masse (in 2011) was primarily about economic conditions, with no reference to the conflict with the Palestinians. Those protesters did not connect the fact that their own economic difficulties are, to a great extent, a direct result of the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent to maintain the occupation and legalize new and expand existing settlements, with no groundswell of public protest in response.
Growing public despondency, high unemployment, lack of opportunities, and other social malaises that impact the community are often the factors that precipitate the formation of national movements that protest against the prevailing conditions. The Arab Spring, and Egypt in particular, exemplified this norm, as it was a grassroots popular movement without a specific leader behind it.
The problem in Israel is that the socioeconomic conditions are not compelling enough to spark a national movement, as by and large the country is flourishing, and complacency – rather than political activism – has become the national mantra.
The only way to prevent the country from sliding into the abyss is for the opposition parties to coalesce around one leader who would raise the banner of political revolt to awaken the public to the imminent looming danger facing Israel.
Such an initiative should be spearheaded by centrist and leftist parties including Meretz, Yesh Atid, and the Zionist Union, with the support of the Joint Arab List, to put a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict atop the national agenda.
Unfortunately, leading opposition figures, including Yitzhak Herzog, Tzipi Livni, and Yair Lapid, have been more concerned about their personal interests and blind ambitions rather than what is best for the future of the country. I maintain that this is the most dangerous state in which Israel finds itself today, as there is no effective movement to counter the policies of the Netanyahu government.
To circumvent this trend, a new leader will have to be chosen from outside the political ranks with no formal background in party politics, particularly former Chief of Staff of the IDF Gabi Ashkenazi, who can exude public confidence in handling national security. He could lead a political bloc composed of all the opposition parties that can rival Netanyahu’s coalition and stand a real chance of toppling it in the next election.
Despite the array of domestic socio-economic and foreign relations issues that need to be addressed, however critical they may be, the opposition parties must set aside their differences and agree to make the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict front and center of the national agenda, as it directly impacts all other issues facing the nation.
To that end, they must develop a practical initiative that begins with a process of reconciliation—people to people initiatives—to start mitigating three major impediments to give any future peace negotiations a far better chance of succeeding at a later date: the deep distrust between the two sides, legitimate national security concerns, and disabusing significant Israeli and Palestinian constituencies of the illusion that they can have it all at the expense of the other.
I do not believe that there is any other alternative – not if ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is seen as the foundation on which Israel’s future as a democratic, Jewish, and secure state is the ultimate objective, and the raison d’être behind its very creation.
For Herzog and other politicians to even contemplate joining the Netanyahu government under any guise would be nothing but allowing themselves to be used to serve Netanyahu and his cohorts’ sinister schemes to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state in any form.
Time is against Israel, and as long as the Israeli public buys into Netanyahu’s argument that the Palestinians cannot be trusted and will remain an irredeemable foe, the continuing occupation becomes morally justifiable by a large segment of the population, even though it is pushing Israel closer to the precipice.
The two-state solution remains ultimately the only practical solution, and now that nearly all Arab states see Israel as a potential ally in their confrontation with Iran and their occupation with the Sunni-Shiite war of attrition, Israel must seize the opportunity. The opposition parties must promulgate the Arab Peace Initiative and persuade the public to embrace it, as it provides the foundation for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the context of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.
What is needed now is a mass mobilization of the people, led by major political figures who are committed to finding a solution to the conflict and campaign day-in and day-out to raise public awareness of the impending danger that Israel is facing if the Netanyahu government is allowed to continue along the same path.
Israel’s opposition political parties are facing a fateful national challenge. They need to wake up and understand the urgency of the hour. Time is running out, and as long as the opposition remains in disarray, they are further endangering Israel’s future and becoming nothing but complicit to Netanyahu’s perilous policy.
About the Author: Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.
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