PAST ISRAELI prime ministers from the right (Ariel Sharon) and left (Ehud Barak) have offered broad strategies for dealing with the country’s Palestinian problem. Benjamin Netanyahu, notably, has not. Through his two separate tenures as Israel’s premier, over a total of eight years, he’s been at best a follower, not a leader, on the most fundamental question facing Israel’s future. He tentatively endorsed a two-state solution, in the face of international clamor, but then repeatedly expressed his skepticism. In a press conference this month declaring his unyielding response to rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, he expressed almost a sense of pride in seeing his concerns about the peace process vindicated. “I think the Israeli people understand now what I always say: that there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan,” he said in Hebrew, according to a translation published in the Times of Israel.
Netanyahu’s apparent lack of commitment to any endgame — to any strategy except retaliation against Palestinian provocations in the short term — has been a missing piece of the decision-making equation as Israel has calibrated its response to a series of attacks that would challenge any leader: the horrific murder of three Israeli teenagers, and then, after Israeli extremists killed a Palestinian youth, a plethora of rocket attacks by Hamas militants launched from the Hamas-led Gaza Strip. In ordering airstrikes and invading Gaza in order to destroy missile launch sites and tunnels that have been used by terrorists to attack Israel, Netanyahu set in motion forces that have led to the deaths of more than 550 Gazans, many of them civilians. To many other nations, the invasion appears disproportionate to the provocation, and hatred of Israel will take far deeper root among the relatives and friends of the dead Palestinians. Israel’s immediate gains risk exacerbating the long-term problem.
Israel understandably believes that the bloodshed is justified by the need to free Israeli civilians from the constant threat of rocket attacks and that, by placing its rocket launch sites in civilian areas, Hamas deserves blame for any and all civilian deaths. Indeed, there are many signs that a failing Hamas leadership welcomes a confrontation with Israel to cover up for its ruinous financial situation and sagging popularity among Palestinians. In that sense, Netanyahu may be giving Hamas exactly what it wants.
While a forceful retaliation by Israel was probably inevitable, the extent of the military action has set back prospects for peace over the long term. That’s not just bad for Palestinians, but for Israelis as well. If a two-state solution is terminally flawed, as Netanyahu has suggested but not explicitly said, then Israel’s identity as a Jewish democracy is doomed. It must either resign itself to permanent occupation, thereby relinquishing its status as a democracy, or give equal rights to the Palestinians within its borders, thereby jeopardizing its Jewish majority. That’s the bind that so many Israeli leaders have sought to avoid by trying to lay the groundwork for a two-state solution. Netanyahu’s unusually candid remarks at his recent press conference reveal just how critical he is of this formula. But his skepticism, even if grounded in bitter experience, doesn’t address the underlying conundrum.
Many Israeli leaders, along with the Obama administration, want Netanyahu to accept an Egyptian-negotiated cease-fire if Hamas agrees to go along. Once a cease-fire is achieved, both Palestinian and Israeli leaders have a responsibility to address the root causes of the violence and find ways to bring an end to this destructive cycle. Netanyahu is certainly right that turmoil and extremism in the Middle East today threaten Israel’s security. But in the longer term, the biggest threat to Israel is the one that Netanyahu refuses to address. Hopefully, as the dust clears, more Israelis will realize that, in deeply challenging times and in the face of incredibly difficult provocations, they’ve suffered for having a leader who’s been unable to reconcile his tactical military victories with a larger vision for securing Israel’s future.