The Israeli-Arab conflict is often reported as the longest protracted conflict of the Middle East, but since June 2021 Israel is being ruled by a new “Government for Change” determined to achieve a breakthrough in Jewish-Arab relations and, most importantly, to restore unity and cohesion in Israeli society living within the Green Line while vying for peace and prosperity beyond that same Line.
The Bennet-Lapid government ended 12 years of personal rule by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu building a wide-ranging coalition of 8 different parties coming together from the Left to the far Right, including the Arab-Israeli Islamist party Ra’am. This marked a historic turn in Israeli politics, where Arab parties have used to boycott Zionist Jewish majority-led governments usually committed to deepening the occupation and ignoring Palestinians’ right of return (the last time anything similar happened was in 1994 with the Rabin government, with the Arab parties only providing external support). Naftali Bennett became the new PM thanks to only six seats that enabled him to act as tiebreaker in the formation of a new government that is bound only by a fierce anti-Netanyahu stance, and became the first PM to wear a kippa, proud of both his right-wing and religious beliefs. So far, though, his government has proved to be much more stable with less bickering than expected, and, as David M. Weinberger poses, it has already showed that “there is life after Bibi” (The Jerusalem Post, September 20, 2021) and that both Israel’s diplomatic standing and the political achievements Netanyahu used to claim for himself are surviving his political tenure.
In fact, Israel’s strategic ties remain not only with traditional partners, such as Russia and India, but also with the new Abraham Accords co-sponsors, such as the UAE, Morocco, Sudan, and Bahrein, with African countries, such as South Africa, Ethiopia, and with older Arab ‘cold peace’ signatories such as Egypt and Jordan. Since June, Bennett has held meetings with US President Joe Biden, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and even with Jordan’s King Abdullah, with whom relations have been strained under Netanyahu’s tenure, and particularly after his proposal to annex Area C by July 2020 and the last round of Jewish-Arab clashes at the al-Aqsa mosque in May 2021. With Jordan, a country in dire need of water, the Bennett government recently signed a major deal doubling the amount of water provided despite Amman’s interdiction of its airspace for Israeli planes. So far, restoring ties with its neighbours with few strings attached while avoiding overlap with the Palestinian conflict seems to be the golden rule of the Government for Change.
In domestic politics, nevertheless, Netanyahu’s constant calling on the absence of a trustworthy Palestinian partner to move the conflict forward still echoes among most coalition parties, with the exception of two (Meretz and Labour) counting for little within the current government (holding relatively minor portfolios such as the Ministry for Transports and Road Security, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Internal Security, the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, the Ministry of Regional Cooperation, and the Ministry of Environmental Protection). In his United Nations General Conference (UNGA) speech on September 27, 2021, Bennett did not once mention the Palestinians, but instead remarked that Israelis are normal people, that they “don’t wake up every morning thinking of the conflict. They, like anyone else, want to lead a good life and care about their children and their future”. He was echoing in reverse the Left’s usual complaint about Israeli public opinion’s shallow attitude in turning a blind eye to the crimes committed by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) over the Green Line, choosing to be blissfully unaware of what happens in the West Bank and Gaza. For years, indeed, the Left has claimed that millions of Israelis are deplorably enjoying their productive life without caring about the conflict. Most of them do not do it out of spite, but only because they do not see a way to have a daily impact on the conflict; however, whatever their reasons, they end up entrenching the occupation while showing little or no empathy for Palestinian suffering. By echoing the same wording, Bennett meant instead to highlight the normalcy of Israeli life to state that, given the long stalemate of the two-State solution (deadlocked since 2014) and the lack of potential diplomatic alternatives, the conflict is no longer making headlines in the Israeli news and thus both Jews and Arabs would do better to use their energy in more productive ways.
The idea gaining consensus among members of the current government is that of “shrinking the conflict”, first formulated by the Israeli philosopher Micah Goodman in his famous 2017 book “Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War” (published in English by Yale University Press in September 2018), which provides a strategic framework to acknowledge the stalemate reached in negotiations with the Palestinians while charting a course to go beyond the current management of the status quo, endorsed by the Likud-led government so far. He invites the ruling coalition to take a proactive stance on paving the way for a stable and positive life environment for all the four “tribes” of Israel (the Arabs, the ultra-Orthodox Jews, the national-religious and the secular) plus the two additional Palestinian tribes held hostage in the West Bank and Gaza. Goodman’s thesis relies on the assumption that the status quo is no longer sustainable and that dragging it on in the same conditions will only periodically reignite the conflict and consequently the internal cleavages between the Left and the Right within Israel, but it also acknowledges that the arguments advanced about the conflict by the Left and the Right were both right. The latter has always perceived the Palestinians as a security threat to be kept under control to secure the current, and possibly whole land for the Jews (the ultimate political objective of Greater Israel), while the Left has been desperately looking for Palestinian partners with whom to sign a peace agreement, establish their own State and enforce national separation between the two people. A paradox ironically synthetized by Goodman in a single phrase: “One camp is afraid of returning to Egypt, and the other camp is afraid of turning into Egypt”.
Goodman’s main concerns, in line with that of the “Government of Change” and Bennet’s own, are instead to: prevent Israel from turning into a new Bosnia, that is a single multicultural and multinational State, and to avoid any superfluous rifts within the Jewish majority. He thus proceeds to portray his concept as a life-saving and morally defensible way out catering to both Israelis and Palestinians. The overall idea is very simple: he proposes to improve Palestinian conditions while concomitantly expanding their dominion of self-rule. “Shrinking the conflict” measures should therefore seem to be confidence-building steps allowing Palestinians to gradually regain a certain degree of freedom of movement, freedom of choice, freedom from Jewish control as much as from the most chilling aspects of the occupation.
Goodman’s argument aims to provide both a theoretical framework for improving Israeli-Arab relations and a pragmatic toolkit for deferring another round of conflict or a new Intifada in the future. He maintains that the false dichotomies traditionally linked with the conflict spring from a religious mentality dividing all options into binary choices, whereas intractable conflicts can only be overcome by avoiding the trap of binary and mutually exclusive alternatives; for example, an iconic religious-ridden dilemma is that of portraying Israeli security and Palestinian freedom as mutually exclusive. He claims to have identified many ways to keep the current level of security unchallenged while substantially improving living conditions over the Green Line by decreasing the “perceived” or visible level of occupation, for example giving Palestinian autonomy over all roads connecting area A cities with each other. The practical result being that Palestinians would be able to commute from place to place in the West Bank without meeting either soldiers or checkpoints on their way. He claims that Palestinians should be free to travel abroad, to move freely within their “autonomous areas” but also to Jordan and neighbouring Arab countries, to file for documents in Arabic by their own authorities and institutions, to directly trade with Arab countries and the EU with no additional burdens and tariffs and enjoy the service of top-tier and high-tech facilities, but more generally to enjoy a Shin Bet and IDF-free life where Jewish soldiers and policemen will no longer pose a constant threat and humiliation to their lives. All this without affecting the overall Israeli West Bank security architecture, based on IDF, Shin Bet, and Shabak’s free access to Palestinian towns, on the Jordan Valley’s military control, on the no-fly zone enforced on the West Bank’s airspace and on the Israeli-only use of the West Bank’s cybernetic networks.
Turning ideas into policies
Goodman’s view does not provide any recipe for a final arrangement, but rather several steps to iron out some difficulties and enhance coexistence here and now. Yet his ideas perfectly suit the plans and interests of the current Israeli government, willing to avoid internal strife and to focus on issues engaging wide consensus. On the day he took office, Bennett solemnly pledged to the Knesset that there would be a “reduction of frictions and the shrinking of the conflict”, an objective which met broad support within his coalition. Despite Goodman being revealed as one of the PM’s secret advisors (The New York Times, September 30, 2021), Bennett’s understanding of the “shrinking the conflict” strategy is at most a scaled-down version; in line with his predecessors, he is resolved to improve Palestinian economic conditions, such as providing fast-speed internet connection (4G) and lending 156 million NIS (shekel) to the Palestinian Authority, allowing 15,000 additional workers into Israel, regularizing the status of thousands of people deprived of residency rights, and, to a certain extent, embarking also on several de-escalation measures, such as reducing army raids in area C. However, there is no other long-term political goal in sight, beyond boosting governance effectiveness and holding together his coalition until the budget will be passed by mid-November.
In fact, twenty-six years after the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, also known as Oslo II, Israel still tightly controls Palestinian civilian life through the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. The recent ban imposed on six Palestinian NGOs supporting the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine labelled as a “terrorist organization” and the green light given by the government to realize more than 3,000 housing units between the E1 area of Jerusalem and Givat ha-Matos – all disputed settlements located in the Jerusalem area – prove Bennet’s unaltered aim to retain full Jewish control of both Jerusalem and area C no matter the circumstances (including the disapproval of 12 EU States and the United States).
“Shrinking the conflict” could easily turn into an empty mantra if not supported by real commitments on the ground, that is at least signs of goodwill by the government to restrain the emergence of illegal settlements and to call a halt to existing ones while relinquishing power and control over the West Bank. As Meirav Zonszein of the International Crisis Group highlights, it is hard to reduce the conflict without reducing the occupation, because at the end the occupation always lies at its centre, “prioritizing Israeli interests, resources and expansionism” (The New York Times, September 20, 2021). To which argument Micah Goodman would object that Israel cannot in fact stop the occupation, but it can fix it, by pragmatically linking the benefits derived from the occupation with the gains resulting from relieving tensions with the Palestinians. As for their own view of such prospect, so far no one has so bothered to ask – at least publicly.
Cover Photo: A joint press conference by Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C), Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (C-L), Defence Minister Benny Gantz (2nd-L), Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman (L), Justice Minister Gideon Saar (R), and acting deputy prime minister Lior Natan (2nd-R) – Jerusalem, June 13, 2021 (Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP).
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