The Rise of the Israeli Right: An International Politics Explanation

It is undeniable that since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 Israeli politics has undergone a dramatic shift to the right, manifested by disappearing support for the peace process, an expansion of Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, and a more antagonistic policy towards Israel’s Western allies. Populist politics has become a winning strategy and the Israeli center-left of Rabin has been decimated while the religious and nationalist right have enjoyed unprecedented electoral success. The Peace Process is dead and it’s not just the Palestinians’ fault. A recent alteration to the ruling party’s platform has removed even the token nod to a two state solution. This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed (see articles here, here, and here). However, existing explanations tend to focus on electoral fortunes of right-wing parties. Of course, electoral outcomes are exactly that, outcomes, and do not explain the rise of the right and Israel’s increasingly aggressive policies; they are merely its political manifestation. In order to truly understand the rise of the right, we must turn to theory. As it turns out, we do not need to search very far, but theories of domestic politics do not get us quite as far as theories of international politics. Changing conditions in the international system, combined with an appeal to theories of rational choice, do an excellent job explaining why the Israeli right has enjoyed such a meteoric rise (for example, see Gourevitch’s Second Image Reversed or Putnam’s Two Level Games). A severe and growing imbalance of power between Israel and the Palestinians combined with Israel’s successful escape from the consequences of an anarchic international system characterized by the self-help imperative suffices to explain the changing shape of Israel’s domestic political landscape.

Before continuing, allow me to assert what this argument is not. It is not a tirade against Israel or its lobby in Washington. It is not a claim that Israel killed the peace process, nor is it an attempt to marginalize the very true threats that face Israel today. It is categorically not an attempt to delegitimize Israeli politics or provide a comment on its appropriateness. And finally, it is not an attempt to explain why the peace process failed; it takes two to tango. The Israelis alone are not responsible just as the Palestinians alone are not responsible. Peace comes from the strategic interaction of self-interested actors. Instead, I hope to demonstrate that Israel’s turn towards a more aggressive form of populism can be explained by theories of international politics that appeal to environmental conditions, political incentives, and rational political behavior.

Self-Help and Political responsibility: The Harm of the “Special Relationship”

Over the past decade and a half, the relationship between Israel and the United States has undergone an unprecedented shift. While relations between the two countries had, for the most part, always been quite close, the power dynamic has shifted markedly since the presidency of George H.W. Bush. Presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan (Republicans both) were not afraid to flex their muscles to check Israeli actions when it contravened US strategic interests. While Israel would grumble, it would often fall into line. Not so anymore. At the same time, Israeli domestic and regional politics has undergone a rather dramatic shift since the days of Ben Gurion, Begin, and Rabin.

Realist theories of international politics claim that states live in a world of anarchy: survival is a constant struggle against hostile forces. States survive by adapting or they fall to the predations of others (Waltz A Theory of International Politics, Mearsheimer The Tragedy of Great Power Politics). However the reality of the international system is somewhat different. While anarchy remains the fundamental ordering principle, external guarantees of sovereignty for weak and ineffectual states have undermined the self-help imperative that once forced states to optimize their domestic politics in response to the international system or suffer the consequences. Israel, too, has largely escaped the self-help world that it faced once upon a time, largely thanks to a systemic shift towards unipolarity and the influence Israel exerts over the global hegemon. It is not my purpose to explain why this has happened. Certainly it is related to the massive technological superiority that Israel enjoys over its neighbors, but the evolution of Israel’s environment cannot be understood without reference to the United States, who has consistently provided political cover for Israel to conduct its domestic affairs since the Clinton years, shielding it from international pressures. In the past, Israeli leaders have acknowledged the necessity of maintaining favor in the international community and weighed its domestic actions against the probable responses of the international community. Thus, in 1967, even after Israeli leaders decided to launch a pre-emptive strike against Egypt, their deepest concern was the potential reactions from their patron, the US, and its adversary, the USSR (See Oren, Six Days of War). On the other hand, Israel did occasionally miscalculate, as in 1956 when the Israeli army occupied the Sinai. However, Israel was forced to back down in the face of Eisenhower’s threats.

This suggests two important characteristics of Israeli policy. First, Israel was not any less belligerent when they were under threat, but nor were they any more. They were willing to take certain risks for the sake of their security, both in the realm of diplomacy and war. Second, Israeli action was undeniably constrained by the necessity to maintain international favor and UN support. The threats posed by this delicate international balance pushed Israeli leaders to eschew populism and make difficult decisions that may have been politically unpopular in the short run, but represented investments in long term security. Consequently, Israel became and maintained itself as the most powerful state in the region, even before the technological balance of power in favor of Israel became superior to the point of absurdity.

The situation today could not be any more different. Israel is little concerned with international opinion, and influences American politics more than it is influenced by it. In a stark departure from political tradition, Israel responded to recent diplomatic gains by the Palestinian Authority in the UN , not through an attempts at reconciliation, but by approving expanded constructed in a Jewish neighborhood east of East Jerusalem, in a place that under no future peace settlement could possibly remain in Israel; a blatant show of antagonism toward its allies. Senior members of the Israeli government have vowed to continue building in Jerusalem despite international condemnation. A recent op-ed in the Israeli daily, Yediot Ahronot, typical of the attitude of a growing number of Israelis, claims that greater antagonism, not less, is the only appropriate response to these international developments. This decision, extremely popular in Israel and almost guaranteed to be an electoral winner for the right-wing coalition, was condemned 14-1 by the UN Security Council. The lone dissenter: the United States.

As long as the United States is willing to take unilateral action to shield Israel, the international system can exert little influence over its domestic politics. For the first time in its history, Israel is diplomatically isolated, even from its allies. Israeli politicians blame a sea-change in European ideologies such as a shift to the left and the resurgence of anti-Semitism. However there is little hard evidence for either of these claims; in fact developments in Europe suggest the opposite. More has changed in Israel than in Europe over the past 20 years. But as long as the United States guarantees its security and will not hold Israeli leaders accountable for their actions, there appears little incentive for Israel to change its behavior. Israeli politics has become a race to the bottom in terms of international politics, where populist leaders compete to see who can be more antagonistic towards the international community over such issues. Recent polls show that this phenomenon is not narrowly political but enjoys broad domestic support. Over the course of this past week, a right-wing politician of a splinter party was rebuked by Prime Minister Netanyahu for asserting in the media that he would refuse orders by the Israeli High Court to evacuate illegal settlements, even to the point where he would confront the army. This censure had a surprising effect. Opinion polls demonstrated that this conflict increased public support for the intransigent right at the expense of Netanyahu. Populism is a winning electoral strategy, and many Israeli politicians seem to sense it. On the other hand, non-elected Israeli officials, notably members of the Supreme Court and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, shielded from the pressures of electoral incentive, have resisted this rightward shift and have been rewarded by accusations of betrayal and threats of physical violence and have received calls to be removed from Israeli politics and even sent to Gaza ‘where they belong.’ The independent judiciary is under attack precisely because it is independent. Socially, the frequency of violence against minority groups such as Arabs (see here and here as well) and African refugees has increased, as have threats against aid and rights groups working in their communities. And since there is strong evidence that there will be no adverse effects from the international system, thanks largely to the United States, there is no pressure for Israeli politicians to act against it. As a Democratic polity, the ultimate sanction is electoral defeat, but the electorate seems just as eager as the politicians.

Anti-ballistic missile systems during the Cold War: Implications of the Iron Dome

To paraphrase Stephen Krasner (Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy), international politics operates according to a logic of consequences instead of a logic of appropriateness (however, see an excellent rebuttal here). The key is not culture or norms but material incentives, both among elected officials and the voting public; responsibility attains when there are political incentives to be responsible. Populism attains when these incentives disappear. The emergence of the Iron Dome system, a remarkable little toy that detects unguided Palestinian rockets and intercepts them in transit, has furthered Israel’s sense of security. While this is “good” in terms of increasing the security of Israeli citizens from attacks by Palestinians, it has further increased the value of maintaining the political status quo, meaning that Israel now has one less incentive to engage meaningfully in a peace process with Palestinians. Israel claims they do not have a partner for peace, however from a material point of view, Israeli superiority in both security and material possessions means that any compromise with the Palestinians will leave them materially worse off. The Palestinians, on the other hand, have no incentive to maintain the status quo (Hamas might for political reasons, but this is a subject for another blog post). As Israeli political intransigence increases, stemming from a greater sense of physical security, violence may be the only way out of the Palestinian Authority’s quagmire. This is not violence for its own sake, but instrumental violence in order to signal to Israel that negotiation is always preferable to an inequitable status quo. Only if Israel’s interests are threatened will they be induced to negotiate; what is the point of making a compromise that only benefits one side?

Both the Soviet Union and the United States faced a similar decision, under drastically more dangerous circumstances. If Israelis think flying gas-tubes with no warheads are a threat, could they possibly imagine living under the threat of nuclear war? (They may soon have to) Both superpowers during the Cold War had to grapple with the question of whether to pursue an iron-dome-like system to protect their cities from their adversary’s nuclear arsenal. And in the end, both countries agreed to forego this potential protection; they worried that such a system would, in the long run, provide less protection not more, emboldening political leaders to pursue more risky behaviors out of a false sense of security. Both sets of leaders believed that leaving themselves vulnerable to a first strike while maintaining a second strike capability would moderate both parties and help avoid nuclear war. The threat of mutual destruction helped maintain stability between the two states, and as the weapons became more and more destructive, it induced both to pursue greater cooperation (Gaddis, The Long Peace).

In times of vulnerability, Israel too has recognized the need to occasionally pursue conflict resolution by means other than violence. Their misperception of external threats in the early 1970s, manifested in a joint US-Israeli rejection of Egyptian President Sadat’s early peace overtures, led to war in 1973. The abrupt realization that Israel was not invulnerable from a surprise attack from its neighbors led to a more dovish policy, greater cooperation with Egypt, and a peace agreement in 1979, even though a leftist government was replaced by a rightist. Today, Israel is less vulnerable to Palestinian violence than ever before, and they know it. In the West Bank, their military grip is as strong as ever, and despite their claims to the contrary, they have a Palestinian client that is pursuing their security interests in Mahmud Abbas who long ago achieved step one of George Bush’s Roadmap for Peace, a move still unreciprocated by Israel. In Gaza, continual fire from ineffectual rockets has not yet posed a severe threat against Israeli cities, and with the activation of the Iron Dome this year, the threat is even less significant. With Palestinians seemingly incapable of credibly threatening to inflict political costs, what is the incentive for Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians or moderate its rhetoric and policies? And granting the Palestinians sovereignty is a huge concession, morally desirable or not. Too, as a democracy, the people have put little pressure on their government to make these concessions and have rewarded belligerence at the polls.

As Israel feels its sense of security increase, it has responded with aggression instead of diplomacy. This has also included a greater assertion of what Israel calls its “legitimate rights” (such as building in Jerusalem and the West Bank) over the ineffectual protests of external actors. The only way to convince Israel to return to the negotiating table is to create a situation whereby the Palestinians can credibly threaten to respond to Israeli aggression and political intransigence with action that raises the physical and political costs of occupation (This is why the Intifada failed so spectacularly – instead of raising political costs for Israeli occupation, it created a “rally round the flag” effect domestically and gained widespread international sympathy and support – for a lesson on successful violent liberation struggle, the Palestinians could take a lesson from the Israel’s own history).

Conclusions: Structure not Personality

What explains the rise of a nationalistic, populist Israeli right and their overwhelming electoral success? Certainly cultural explanations do not suffice; they simply cannot explain the timing or the manifestation. Furthermore, there has been a surprising continuity of political culture in Israel from Ben Gurion to Bibi, and the historical record shows that peace and liberalism are not synonymous. David Ben Gurion, himself a socialist, was a shrewd and incredibly capable politician who led Israel during its formative years and forged Israel’s democratic system by sheer strength of will. But the man was far from liberal, and even further from democratic; Ben Gurion was a tyrant in his own right, from his antagonism of the British during the late 1930s and early 1940s to his eventual turn to political violence against the British occupation to drive them out of Palestine and even a decision to launch a violent campaign against his Jewish political rivals, the right-wing Revisionists, in the mid-1940s (codenamed “Hunting Season”, this entailed the kidnapping, torture, and murder of members of the right wing paramilitary, the Irgun – it was only the restraint by the right that prevented civil war and the collapse of the Jewish establishment in Palestine). Despite this attitude, Ben Gurion realized both the necessity of maintaining the friendship of at least one of the superpowers as well as the support of the international community, and he understood the necessity of diplomacy and moderation in a period of insecurity. External threats convinced Ben Gurion of the need for broad domestic coalitions, political compromise, and the importance of international support. There was no place for populist politics in Ben Gurion’s Israel, which lived out its years as a social democracy. Menachem Begin, a major founder of the Israeli ideological right and the first rightest prime minister, was also the first to sign a peace treaty with an Arab state. Prime Minister Netanyahu shares many characteristics with his predecessors, however he has pursued a radically different political path. But Bibi is not the source of the problem; he is merely its manifestation, the outcome of the existing structure of political incentives.

Instead, the rise of the Israeli populist right and the collapse of support for the peace process can be explained by two interrelated characteristics of the international environment. First, an uncritical and unwavering support for Israel by the world’s hegemon, the United States, which has shielded Israel from the international consequences of its actions. Second, the unprecedented sense of security (both perceived and real) enjoyed by Israel, made even more apparent by the successful launch of the Iron Dome anti-rocket system. Neither of these elements has anything to do with culture or values, but instead with the nature of the international system. Israel moderation will come only when a basic game-theoretic condition has been fulfilled: when negotiation and compromise allow Israel to attain a profitable deviation from the status quo. This will not be accomplished by giving Israel a “better deal,” since no deal that can be offered at the moment would leave Israel better off than it is now. Instead it must be accomplished by convincing Israel that the status quo is no longer desirable. This will be accomplished through two paths. First, when Israel once again is induced to pursue a genuine self-help (instead of “help yourself” under cover of a perpetual US veto in the UN). Second, when the Palestinians can credibly threaten to act against Israel in ways that raises the physical and *political* costs of maintaining the status-quo. Give Israel the correct incentives and it will respond in kind. Just look at Turkey for evidence: despite a recently rocky relationship stemming from the killing of Turkish political activists trying to break the Gaza blockade by Israeli soldiers last year, the current threat posed by Syria has induced the Turkish government to resume security cooperation with Israel through NATO. But this, of course, is a story for another day.

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2 thoughts on “The Rise of the Israeli Right: An International Politics Explanation

  1. Pingback: Wednesday Morning Linkage » Duck of Minerva

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