fb-pixelThe unintended consequences of Israel’s vote - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
opinion | Alan Berger

The unintended consequences of Israel’s vote

Israeli workers counted ballots cast by soldiers and civil servants living overseas on Wednesday. REUTERS

Criticizing the expressed will of the electorate in a democracy is generally regarded as bad form, and anyone who laments this week’s Israeli vote to return Benjamin Netanyahu to power as prime minister in a hard-right government is certain to hear an orchestrated chorus of complaints. But he who dares adopt the prophetic voice must be prepared to tolerate a little heckling.

My critique is not moralistic. It’s hardly even political. My anxiety derives from a principle that appears to govern the geopolitics of the greater Middle East. Call it the rule of unintended consequences.

We could start almost anywhere in the region’s tortured recent history. But for the sake of coherence, let’s begin with Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982. The declared purpose was to rout the PLO, which had established something like its own state within Lebanon. The Shiites of southern Lebanon, who felt oppressed by the PLO interlopers, welcomed the Israeli invaders as liberators, tossing flowers on their tanks.

Then arrogant Israeli policy makers made the fateful mistake of staying too long. Much too long. Instead of leaving after a few weeks, they occupied southern Lebanon for 18 years. The ultimate outcome was to make bitter enemies of people who started out as Israel’s best friends in the region. Israel’s extended occupation of southern Lebanon gave Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini a welcome rationale for the creation of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia and political party that sold itself as leader of an armed resistance against Israel but is now fighting in Syria, under Iran’s guidance, to preserve the regime of Bashar al Assad.


In the Israeli defense ministry, in 1986, I asked Uri Lubrani, the official in charge of Israeli operations in Lebanon, why Israeli soldiers were still occupying the south of Lebanon. The PLO was long gone and, rather than being showered with flowers, Israeli tanks were being blown up by improvised explosive devices.


Lubrani’s truculent answer was a foreshadowing of the hardline stance Netanyahu has taken against a negotiated two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians. Security would only come from a stubborn reliance on force, Lubrani insisted then. Allowing Palestinians to have their own state, Netanyahu claims today, would bring about a “Hamastan’’ on the West Bank and Israel’s Ben Gurion airport would come under missile attack from sovereign Palestinian territory.

The renowned Israeli author Amos Oz offered a vision recently of where Netanyahu’s three nos — no real negotiations, no division of the land, no Palestinian state — would ultimately lead. “If two states do not come into existence now and fast, there will be one state,” Oz warned. “If one state comes into existence, it will be an Arab one from the sea to the Jordan River. If an Arab state is established, I do not envy our children and grandchildren.” Although this truly Zionist vision may reflect an excessive fear of the Other, at least Oz the imaginative novelist is willing to envision the oncoming future that Netanyahu the petty politician refuses to contemplate.

Recall that Israel’s security mavens once sponsored a nascent Hamas, with the peculiar idea that an Islamist Palestinian movement propounding piety would be a useful counter to the militant nationalism of Yasser Arafat’s PLO. For Israeli hawks willing to entertain a little self-critical reflection, this comes under the heading of “What were they thinking?’’


That same rubric may one day be applied to those Israeli voters who heeded Netanyahu’s appeals to beat back a wave of Israeli Arab citizens and simple-minded peaceniks who would hand the country over to its various enemies in Tehran, Gaza, Stockholm, and Washington. The great danger to Israelis is that they may get what they voted for.

If Netanyahu at the helm of an ever more reactionary government succeeds at preventing a nuclear deal with Iran and avoiding a two-state peace accord with the Palestinians, Israelis will be confronted with hostility from their European trading partners, an Iran renewing its enrichment activities, Americans coming to view Israel as an ally solely of right-wing Republicans, and a Palestinian population driven by hopelessness to a third violent intifada.

These may not be the outcomes Israeli voters wanted. But the consequences of fateful choices in the Middle East are rarely those intended.

Alan Berger is a retired Globe editorial writer.


Editorial: Netanyahu’s flip-flop over Palestinian statehood shouldn’t deter peace efforts

Michael A. Cohen: US must reconsider relationship with Israel

George Mitchell series on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict