The Return of Israeli Moderation?

Not too long after the Israel-Hezbollah war, George Packer wrote an excellent profile of Israeli author David Grossman for the New YorkerGrossman is an Israeli author who, along with several of his liberal cohort, has been engaged in a full-front assault on Israel’s hawkish foreign policy. Packer describes, in detail, how Grossman’s political opinions have evolved, like that of many Israelis, over the past few decades:

[At the time of the Yom Kippur War], his political views were conventional: Israel, surrounded by enemies, was destined to fight an eternal war, and the only imperative was survival. In 1967, the year of his bar mitzvah, Israel won the Six-Day War and occupied Gaza, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights. In “The Yellow Wind,” Grossman wrote of his generation, “The surging energy of our adolescent hormones was coupled with the intoxication gripping the entire country; the conquest, the confident penetration of the enemy’s land, his complete surrender, breaking the taboo of the border, imperiously striding through the narrow streets of cities until now forbidden.” At the beginning of the occupation, Jewish families used to drive through the West Bank and Gaza on weekends, on tours organized by transportation companies like the one where his father worked; they would buy Arab kaffiyehs for next to nothing and wear them triumphantly in the streets of Hebron and Jericho. The Palestinians were crushed, and the Israelis were seduced by what Grossman calls “the temptation of strength, the temptation of arbitrariness.” At thirteen, he felt unambivalent pleasure about Israeli power. As he grew older, though, he became troubled by it; when friends or Army comrades urged him to join an outing to the occupied territories, he refused, saying, “They hate us, they don’t want us there. I cannot be like a thorn in the flesh of someone else.”

Much time have passed since this profile and since Grossman began his campaign. For years, it seemed, to those of us on the outside, that such pleas for moderation fell on deaf ears. While the settlements issue is not resolved, it appears that the Israeli “consensus” on a hardline against Iran is far from unassailable. Israel’s policy is already shifting away from military action. In a recent editorial in the New York Times, Graham Allison and Shai Feldman argue that the change of policy comes as the result of internal divisions within Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, primarily between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Indeed, several prominent Israeli political figures, including President Shimon Peres, have spoken out against unilateral military action. Moreover, as Allison and Feldman point out, the Israeli military establishment has unified in its opposition to military strikes.

Several obstacles remain, however. Most pressing, perhaps, is the possibility of a re-emboldened Netanyahu emerging from the January elections. Possible permutations of center-left coalitions consistently poll lower than Netanyahu’s coalition. In the last elections, in 2009, Netanyahu was able to form a rightist coalition despite receiving the second-most seats in the Knesset, the Israeli legislature. The centrist Kadima party, which received the most votes in 2009, was unable to form a governing coalition. It is unclear whether they will be able to unify various other centrist parties in order to succeed at this task in January. Much hope rests with Ehud Olmert, the former embattled Kadima Prime Minister. However, as Judy Rudoren argues in a Times op-ed, he faces many complicated challenges–some political, some legal, some moral–in his attempt to become prime minister once again. The titular question then can only be answered by a cautiously optimistic “maybe.”

No matter the outcome, these developments emphasize the non-unitary nature of Israeli domestic politics and foreign policy. In many ways, this mirrors a critical analytical hurdle that the field of International Relations faced several decades ago. As a recent “state-of-the-field” review article in the Annual Review of Political Science by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith argues, IR has more or less overcome this crutch. Scholars have made countless important contributions to our understanding of international politics by exploring domestic political developments explicitly.

Perhaps nowhere is this domestic turn in IR more clear than in John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s controversial work on the US Israel lobby. Moreover, this analysis more or less reflects the public view of US foreign policy-making, whether true or not. It is not clear why this understanding has not extended to Israeli politics, which continues to be black- boxed in public discourse. Whatever the result of the next few months’ debate and politicking in Israel, the critical lesson for the rest of us should be not to essentialize Israeli foreign policy positions based upon the hard line it has taken so far.

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