Comment I wrote for a course; the topic is two articles in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, pitched as a debate on Israel’s current weak international position. The first is Ronald R. Krebs’ “Israel’s Bunker Mentality: How the Occupation Is Destroying the Nation.” The second is Yosef Kuperwasser and Shalom Lipner’s “The Problem is Palestinian Rejectionism: Why the PA Must Recognize a Jewish State.” Both articles are well-written and worth reading, but both, in my opinion, miss the mark.
It’s a bit disingenuous to blame all of Israel’s problems on the occupation. The occupation certainly does make Israel sweat from time to time—that’s why Israel has carefully avoided warfare with the Palestinians in recent years. Flooding the Territories with troops is expensive and risky. However, Krebs’ argument is more convoluted. Security divides the right and left, so the haredi parties are able to extract favors by serving as kingmakers. Haredi welfare programs then soak up wealth, increasing the Israeli tax burden and driving away productive citizens (it’s interesting to note that this is a rather rightist argument, despite the author’s apparent leftist sympathies). Meanwhile, security-worried Israelis across the spectrum have become more nationalistic, creating an Arab-Jewish divide among the state’s own citizens.
It’s hard to imagine an Israel in which there isn’t a very multipolar political system where small parties like the haredi factions can play a major role. Despite its theoretically mononational, monoreligious character, Israel is a deeply divided society. Key fault lines include wealth, religiosity, and regional origin. These have nothing to do with the occupation. Moreover, left and right are eternally opposed in every nation in the world, so the removal of security as a key divider in Israel’s more secular classes would not likely lead to some united grand coalition that could push the haredim out. The left-right divide might even become more urgent, as Israel’s growing inequality yielded massive leftist protests (perhaps 5% of the country participated, a truly unbelievable number).
Rising Jewish nationalism is also difficult to link to the occupation. Israel is living in the same tough economy that we are (they even quietly cut their defense budget). The challenge of Palestine was in fact much more urgent when Palestinians were blowing themselves up in pizza parlors and on buses—if that is not a recipe for anti-Arab feeling, what is? There has indeed been a deepening Arab-Jewish divide, as seen in the recent “price tag” attacks, but that has as much origin in the flotillas and in demographic shifts as it does in the West Bank. The Arab population on both sides of the border is growing, which challenges Israeli identity far more than a few extra checkpoints outside Jerusalem ever could.
Krebs’ article is not even really about the occupation—it’s a lament about the rise of the haredim, which is bound to happen when a population is expanding in a democracy. In that regard, we might see this as an intellectualized expression of coming haredi-secular tensions.
Kuperwasser and Lipner also err. The exact role of Jewish identity in Israel is a merely symbolic issue in the peace process, much like the assignation of blame for the Arab departure in 1948 or the right of return. The real sticking point in the peace process is the final distribution of land, the balance of Israeli security with Palestinian sovereignty, and how the two states would relate to one another in peace. Palestine could live in peace with an Israel whose Jewishness it is not enthralled with just as much as Israel could live with Palestine in spite of hardliners like Lieberman or Danny Danon in the Knesset.
The fundamental problem is that Israel has not worked out, and likely cannot work out, exactly what it means to be a Jewish democracy. Jewish identity is a famously problematic and amorphous notion, and this has led to tensions in the state—religious control over marriage and the status of many Russian immigrants are just two examples. Add to this Israel’s large Arab population. Despite very real questions about their own identity and loyalties (one Israeli-Arab commentator famously quipped that when the Israeli national soccer team plays, he wants them to lose but their Arab player to score five goals), Israeli Arabs typically vehemently object to plans to return their lands to Palestine. The growth of the Arab population has injected urgency into the question of Israeli Jewishness. There is potential for a gap to emerge in the “Jewish democracy” concept. The Israeli right tends to emphasize the “Jewish” side of the equation (though Yisrael Beiteinu’s inclusion shows that there is still no hard position on what Jewish identity is). The demand that Palestine recognize a Jewish Israel has emerged as a new issue thanks to this, and it is entirely a result of the Israeli domestic context.
That is not to say that the positions of some Palestinian factions are not blinkered (to put it lightly) and loathsome (to put it harshly). It merely means that the peace process has been given one more symbolic issue. This might create opportunity for compromise, as the Israelis will now have one more thing to give up in exchange for Palestinian concessions on the right of return.