THE BEACH — So I’m going to break a promise to myself because of the enormity of the Gaza flotilla raid. This Andrew Exum post does a great job of framing several important currents in Israel and the U.S.-Israeli relationship. I want to try to connect them.
First is a point about strategy. Since the collapse of Camp David in 2000, the thrust of Israeli strategy — in its effect; I want to be agnostic on its intention, even at the risk of presuming too much coherence — has been to provide security for Israel outside of any negotiated settlement, either with the Palestinians or with their neighbors. That’s placed military options at the center of national decision-making and placed regional and international diplomacy at the periphery.
Run down the line of post-Camp David Israel policymaking: Operation Cast Lead Defensive Shield. The wall. Unilateral disengagement from Gaza and the beginnings of the Gaza blockade. A disproportionate response to Hezbollah provocations that became the re-invasion of Lebanon. Encouraging Fatah (with the U.S.) to take control of Gaza from Hamas, only to see Hamas easily beat Fatah and consolidate its control. The intensified blockade. A wait-and-see attitude toward the Annapolis process. Operation Cast Lead. The flotilla raid.
You can argue for the merits of this-or-that response in isolation. And I would argue that you can’t expect a nation to emerge from the wreckage of Camp David — notice I am not making an argument about culpability for that wreckage, so spare the emails/comments — without seeking an alternative to a negotiated peace, at least for awhile. War typically follows the breakdown of peace and the loss of hope. But taken altogether, we have what amounts to an Israeli Lost Decade, which is a Regional Lost Decade. The wages of overemphasizing military action and underemphasizing bilateral, regional and international diplomacy are that Israel has never been able to consolidate any of its tactical gains and emerge from conflict in a stronger diplomatic position against any of its adversaries. For instance: the most effective tactical development was the construction of the Wall, which functionally ended the early-2000s wave of West Bank-borne terrorism inside Israel. But it cost Israel international and regional goodwill at a time when it could use any; and Israel didn’t even parlay it into a diplomatic chip for negotiating away, because there is functionally no peace process.
The effect of all of this is a two-fold, mutually-reinforcing downward spiral. First, despite being the regional superpower, the inability for Israel to consolidate any of its tactical gains has made Israelis feel less secure at a time when terrorism inside Israel has a reduced impact compared to five and ten years ago. That helps explain why disproportionality is becoming such a feature of Israeli military action, on display in Lebanon, Gaza and now in international waters. Add to that the development and spread of distributed media and social media during this period and the strategic effects are magnified.
The second effect gets into something Ex writes here:
I have often wondered if the nature of Israel’s coalition politics forces its government to make short-sighted politically expedient decisions that are not thought out from within a strategic context.
Understatement of the year. My forthcoming piece for The National gets into this at great length (out tomorrow!), so I won’t preempt that here, but the past ten years have seen a maturation of Israeli right-wing currents that magnify and seek to entrench the trends of the Lost Decade: security operations without diplomatic consolidation; a preference for unilateral action; an active hostility for diplomacy and international opinion. Add to that some uniquely Israeli issues — the growing intersection of increased religiosity channeled into a brutish political agenda (the Jewish form of what conservative Jews man when they say “Islamism”); the disruption of absorbing a wave of immigration; a genuinely frightening Iranian leadership — and you have in Netanyahu the one political leader who read George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy and thought, You know what, this might work. Add to that the resilience and durability of the Israeli economy, particularly its ability to attract foreign investment amidst the crisis, and you can at least see why those rightward trends think they have the breathing room, economically, to give the Bush Doctrine a go.
Neither Sharon nor Olmert operated within the political context that Netanyahu does. Both of them tried to subvert it by creating Kadima, which is now the only political party that speaks of the loss of Jewish democracy as an existential threat to Israel. (Poor Tzipi Livni did that in the lower level of the hotel that hosted AIPAC’s annual conference this year, like she was in a church basement or something.) But in a world where Yisrael Beiteinu has one more Knesset seat than the state-founding Labor Party, strategy is likely to accelerate along the trends outlined above.
What does this mean for Israeli strategy? It means that diplomacy becomes a matter of cobbling together coalitions of the few who support you, rather than persuading fence-sitters and skeptics that backing you is in their interest. And that can occur within national boundaries. Sharon figured, correctly, he could get away with a militarized approach to the Palestinians as long as he hugged the U.S. extremely closely. But Netanyahu fucks with the only international guarantor of Israeli security, obstructing the Obama administration’s agenda when realists understand it to be objectively in Israel’s interest, and even snubbing liberal American Jewish groups, in favor of cultivating evangelicals within the Republican coalition. You know how some American security analysts urge the U.S. to adopt a strategy for picking and empowering favored tribes in Afghanistan? Well, Netanyahu’s got a tribal strategy for America.
What Netanyahu doesn’t get is that the U.S. is a global hegemon. In a realist sense, we can afford to make the mistakes the Bush Doctrine guaranteed we’d make and still emerge with much of our geopolitical influence and power intact. That doesn’t work for a country that isn’t a superpower. Israel’s military is almost entirely dependent on the United States. Israel might try to diversify its geopolitical sponsorship situation, as Netanyahu appears to be exploring by hugging Medvedev, but Israel simply doesn’t have the ability to influence Russian or Chinese or Whoever’s decisionmaking to the degree that it can influence America’s. And the broader fact is that Israel cannot contemplate a geostrategic situation without a big international benefactor anyway. That makes the impact of the consequences of an adapted Bush Doctrine far more acute.
But the broader point is that the political vectors compelling Israel down a path of inadequate and dangerous national strategy are intensifying. Those are the wages of a democracy, and particularly a democracy with a weird parliamentary system that rewards factionalism. It also means — however banal this may sound — that ultimately a change in strategy must come from a resurgent realist/liberal political coalition within Israel. And that coalition is presently in eclipse.