August 9, 2014 by Darius
Earlier this week, I attended a panel at the Brookings Institution on “The Gaza Crisis: No Way Out? Policy Options and Regional Implications,” featuring three Brookings experts on the Israel-Palestine conflict: Martin Indyk, who recently returned from serving as special US envoy to the latest round of failed negotiations; Khaled Elgindy, a founding board member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association and former advisor to the Palestinian leadership on negotiations with Israel; and Natan Sachs, who specializes in Israeli foreign policy, Israeli domestic politics, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. All three panelists contributed interesting remarks. I will deal mostly with Indyk and Sachs today, because they were more similar in many ways, and share Elgindy’s comments tomorrow.
According to Indyk, US-Israel relations are at their sourest since 1982 and the Sabra and Shatila massacres. That being said, Israel’s standing in the world is very different than it was in 1982. Israel is strong economically and militarily and has built important relationships with countries other than the US. For instance, India came out in support of Israel in the current war with Hamas for the first time. Israel also has important relationships with China and Russia. As a result, Israel feels much more independent of the US. Israel also has new relationships with Arab countries – particularly Egypt and the Sunni monarchies, many of which were Israel’s old enemies – against Hamas. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and even Morocco all prefer Israel to Hamas.
According to Sachs, Israelis see nothing but bad options for Gaza. There are three real options. The first option is for Israel to take over Gaza completely and resume the occupation. That isn’t considered feasible. The second option is to withdraw from Gaza, let Hamas rearm, and hope for the best. This option is even more of a nonstarter for Israelis. That leaves the third option: a continuation of the status quo with its problems.
In 2012, Israeli PM Netanyahu took a lot of domestic criticism from the far right for not going farther to fight Hamas, which was the political birth of Naftali Bennett and his ultra-right Jewish Home party. Likewise, the current debate in Israel is between what Netanyahu is pursuing and an even harder line on Hamas and Gaza.
According to Sachs, though, there is a small shift in Israeli thinking: the Israeli government considers the Palestinian Authority’s security forces to be more reliable than in the past. This means that Israel is willing to entertain the notion of Egypt reopening the Rafah border crossing with Gaza – to be staffed on the Palestinian side not by Hamas but by PA security.
In terms of public opinion, the Israeli public is split down the middle as to whether the latest war is a success or not. There is very strong support for Netanyahu himself. The Israeli public also feels that Israel was dragged into this war and wanted a ceasefire before the conflict really got off the ground.
Sachs mentioned two very strong trends in Israel. The first trend is a feeling that Israel can’t succeed with Gaza: Israel tried occupation, then unilateral withdrawal, then invasion. None produced good results. As a corollary, the Israeli public feels that based on its experience in Gaza, it cannot unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank. The second trend is that the Israeli public has rallied around the flag very dramatically, with even the nominal political opposition closing ranks forcefully with the government over its prosecution of the war.
Indyk also said that the Israeli right wing is trying to preemptively knock down Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas as a potential partner for Israel.
Indyk added that another Israeli takeaway message from the current war is that it will need to keep the IDF and Shin Bet (Israel’s domestic intelligence agency) in the West Bank for a very long time. That means that from an Israeli perspective, no matter what, there will not be an end to the occupation of the West Bank. Indyk felt this could very well mean the end of the two-state solution.
[For Khaled Elgindy’s comments, see https://notwhatyoumightthink.wordpress.com/2014/08/10/thinking-aloud-the-gaza-crisis-no-way-out-part-ii/]