Allow me to put this in business terms. Israel's business strategy is no longer working. As the good folks at Research In Motion (RIM) have discovered, no matter how powerful and dominating a market participant you used to be, you can very rapidly see your market share decline and your once highly popular project become a legacy device for those of us too lazy to learn how to use a touch screen.
But whereas RIM could exit the market and I would just feel sad, Israel "exiting the market" is a bit more catastrophic -- at least from my perspective. Unfortunately, developing a new business plan for Israel creates a lot of challenges. There is also the problem of previously failed relaunches. After all, the current situation is as much a result of the 1993 Oslo relaunch as it is of any subsequent developments, and this has made people understandably skeptical of strategies that look like previously failed relaunch attempts. We'll add the challenge of a total leadership vacuum/utter failure of national consensus since Sharon stroked out in 2005, and the fact that anti-terror measures have been reasonably effective and the economy reasonably productive (especially when compared to 2002-04). As a result, Israel has pretty much adopted a "deer in the headlights" approach to a shifting global environment coupled by an aggressive reorganization/successful relaunch of the PA.
Unfortunately for Israel, most of the factors eroding its previous advantages are out of its control. Happily, new trends are emerging that also present opportunities. I discuss these trends and opportunities, as well as the risks, below.
Lest folks be disappointed, I am not going to propose "a solution." That's actually part of my point, as shall be described below. Nothing is ever settled. That is the nature of the world. I raise this because it is often the case that people frame this as "how do we have a comprehensive peace in the Middle East" or, for those so inclined, "how do we finally solve the 'Palestinian problem'/'Settler problem.'" There really isn't a good solution to this, which is one reason why Israel has settled on a deer in the headlights strategy (if one can call that a strategy) of reacting to crisis moments and generally trying to maintain the status quo between crisis. After all, the status quo at the moment (between crisis) is quite bearable from an Israeli perspective. By contrast "a permanent solution," whether in the form of a comprehensive peace agreement that produces a Middle Eastern version of the EU (which was what Rabin and Peres articulated as the goal of Oslo), or the miraculous "transfer" of several million armed Palestinians (and Israeli Arabs for good measure in some plans) to a larger, well-armed neighboring Arab country that does not want them (Jordan) is simply not gonna happen.
This usually prompts Peres and the Shalom Achshav crowd (official slogan: "Of course everybody thinks like we do and shares are modern Western values!") to opine that Oslo (or the Roadmap or some other functional equivalent) is pretty much the Only Option and therefore, despite all evidence that this strategy is as much a total bust as "transfer," Israel ought to go back and try again.
The sad truth is that the only Israeli leader who ever had an alternate strategy was Sharon. The spoken part of the Sharon strategy was to pull back to defensible borders defined by Israel without regard to the Palestinians, then tell the Palestinians that was what they got and fuck them for failing to negotiate. The unspoken part of the strategy was to savagely undermine the Palestinians in the same way that British and French colonialists did when they pulled out of their colonial possessions in Africa and Asia. That was part of the "defensible borders" idea. Whatever one may say of the morality of the plan, it was at least practical in the sense that Israel had the actual capacity to carry it out. This was why Sharon managed to achieve what no other Israeli leader was able to achieve since it became clear Oslo was a failed strategy: national consensus. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), Sharon stroked out and the strategy fell apart.
Since then, Israel's policy is pretty much "maintain the status quo." Its strategy for implementing this policy is to effectively refuse to negotiate with Palestinians. Fortunately for Israel, the Palestinians were extremely effective at giving Israel lots of ammunition for this strategy. It started with Yasir Araft being a corrupt dueschbag who created a structure of 'government' in the PA designed to fail. After his death, the PA promptly engaged in a civil war which split them into the Gaza piece run by Hamas (regarded by Israel, the U.S. and most Western countries as a terrorist organization, but generally not corrupt and actually interested in creating a functioning government) and the West Bank headed by Fatah (corrupt old geezers for the most part, but no longer officially terrorists and therefore recognized by the west). The Palestinian People, for the most part, replicated the split between the Israelis, with one faction proposing its own idea of "transfer" (in this case, transferring several million armed Jews to their 'homeland' in Europe, the U.S., or somewhere into the Mediterranean), the faction that believed that only Oslo/Roadmap/SameShitDifferentTag negotiations with the same party could work, and a large portion that wished God would stop crapping all over them (since, unlike in Israel, the status quo sucked).
Unfortunately for Israel, several key factors that made its "don't actually negotiate with the Palestinians" are trending the wrong direction. The post-Cast Lead/Gaza War status quo (which was similar to the post-Lebanon War status quo) was based on a world where the U.S. was the dominant power and most world governments were distracted by economic crisis. It was also a world in which the Palestinians had managed to isolate themselves fairly thoroughly, divided themselves into hostile quasi-governments, and basically give every appearance of a dysfunctional failed state no rational government would touch with a ten foot pole.
But things have changed. First, the U.S. is no longer the dominant player it used to be. Yes, it's still the biggest army, the biggest economy, and has the most overweight people, yadda, yadda, yada. But the general international feeling is that the U.S. is yesterday's news. The talk of Asia (at least from what I can gather in English) is all about 'how to with a post in a post-American world.' As America's influence wanes, it's ability to support Israel and mitigate the actions of other countries wanes.
Worse, countries that previously didn't matter much in the world economy that now matter a great deal are all about flexing their muscle and showing up the U.S. Sure, countries like Turkey and Brazil always voted against Israel in the U.N. with everyone else but the U.S. But that was just the U.N. Now these countries (as well as Russia, China, Indonesia, and a growing number of other "emerging economies") have real clout, and they are eager to show it. What better way to show power than to stick it to Israel? It shows up the U.S., but not in a way that costs anything.
Now add to this that the Palestinians are running a reverse-Sharon. Whereas previous Palestinian governments did not have any real interest in being a country, the current Fatah government is pretty much run by Salam Fayad. Like Sharon, Fayad abandoned the idea of trying to work with a partner with no interest or incentive to work with you while simultaneously abandoning the insane idea of military victory -- at least in the short term. Instead, Fayad adopted the strategy of building a functioning de facto independent state and then getting it recognized (with borders defined by the PA) by everyone else. So far, this is going fairly well. The IMF and World Bank recently reported that Fatah actually has a functioning financial system and are not just a bunch of corrupt thugs. Goods and services are flowing in the West Bank, and security in the non-Hamas actually acts professional and interested in stopping terrorists attacks -- at least for now.
The basic principle of Fayadism is "first get a country. All the other stuff can wait." This allows Fayad to avoid the concessions Israel wants that are still non-starters with the bulk of the Palestinian people, e.g., giving up on the so-called "right of return" (the idea that Palestinians descended from people who were living inside what would be left of the State of Israel in 1948 are entitled to go back to the same homes, although presumably they will keep the updated plumbing). Mind you, Israel wants this (and other) concessions because "right of return" is basically "death to the State of Israel." It's irreconcilable conflicts like this one that generally make any "comprehensive peace agreement" impossible. Which is why the only pragmatic approaches in the last 20 years -- Sharon's and Fayad's -- pretty much ignore them and go for unilateralism.
Israel, of course, is absolutely adamant against a PA declaration of independence with borders defined unilaterally by the PA. And so is the U.S. however, because of the factors listed above, their resistance is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Suppose Fayad declares a state, now under united Fatah/Hamas government (with a sufficient patina to separate the Hamas "civilian" government from its "military" wing), and it is recognized by a substantial number of significant economies? The sad truth is that China could make up U.S. aid to Egypt and Jordan with chump change, possibly joined by Brazil, Iran, Turkey and a couple of others. China understands the value of undermining U.S. hegemony with cash, and no one expects the U.S. to be in a position to bid against China on foreign aid.
Finally, we have the "Arab spring." No surprise, the first thing the new Egyptian government is doing is showing the U.S. "you are so not the boss of me!" Brokering the deal with Hamas and opening more normal relations across the Gaza crossing (especially with a more 'legitimate' government) are extremely popular with the Egyptian people. And while Jordan still has the same government, King Abdullah is certainly feeling the pressure. So if the PA declares a state, and it gets recognition from the U.N., the Arab League, and major players like the BRIC group, there is no way that King Abdullah can realistically say no to recognizing them and establishing normal trade relations no matter how much the U.S. may lean on them.
So things look fairly bleak for Israel's "just say no" crowd. OTOH, Oslo-style negotiation is just as useless as it ever was, even more so. Fayad cannot make the necessary concessions on refugees and Jerusalem (reaction against the Fatah government when Al Jazeera reported that they had offered such concessions in 2008 makes that abundantly clear). Nor can Fayad be seen as rejecting Hamas for Israel, even if he wanted to do so. But more to the point, why should he? At this point, there is nothing to be gained by the PA and much potentially to lose by entering into Oslo-style negotiation where Israel can delay. First get a state, THEN negotiate final settlement of borders as a state, while developing commercial ties through the now open and recognized borders with Egypt on the Gaza side and Jordan on the West Bank side.
Hence the time for a new strategy. As I mentioned above, this new strategy is not about "comprehensive peace" or anything so grand. It boils down to "seek to maximize advantage and limit damage." There are still lots of cards Israel can play if it stops playing by 2008 rules and recognizes the potentially opportunities in the changed environment.
But first, let's clear out some of the standard "resistance to change" stuff.
How do you make peace with people who want to kill you and refuse to recognize your right to exist? Israelis seem to think this is a new problem. It does not help that the standard answer back is either the pious hope that somehow it will all work out once Israel stops being such a meany and the Palestinians get what they want (Shalom Achshav, J Street) or that Palestinians are right, Israel doesn't deserve to exist, so fuck you (pretty much everyone else). In point of fact, however, this problem comes up among others from time to time. The old Soviet Union and the U.S. is perhaps the most famous example. The Soviet Union was absolutely committed to the destruction of the West. Right now in the world, we have a number of countries that refuse to recognize each other and, either now or previously, were just as sincere about wiping the other guys off the face of the planet. China and Taiwan, North and South Korea, Ethiopia and Eritrea, all are in various states of denying each others legitimacy and wanting to smash the other like a putrid little bug.
What historically works is that the time is not quite right. In the Cold War, the Soviet Union was never able to gain sufficient advantage to totally take out the U.S. Hence the Cold War. China would gobble back Taiwan in a minute if they thought they could get away with it. But even though they have plenty of military muscle, and the U.S. is overstrained militarily, it is still too risky, so they don't.
Which brings us back to the problem of defining "peace." As with so many things, I've increasingly come to the conclusion that the messiness of the world yields rather imperfect results. If by "peace" you mean a state of normalized relations where it is possible for people in both countries to get on with their lives and avoid spending an obscene percentage of GDP on weapons, you can get that. If by "peace" you mean something like what the U.S. has with Canada and Mexico, then forget it. But S. Korea has done pretty well since the cease fire that ended the Korean War. Taiwan has done pretty well without even the benefit of a formal cease fire.
But They Are Religious Fanatics Who Don't Care About Their Own Lives. People usually point to the use of suicide bombers as evidence of this. But the number of people standing in line waiting to be suicide bombers is relatively small compared to the population as a whole. Sure, the people may celebrate the culture of martyrdom, proudly enshrine memorabilia from their relatives who blew themselves up, dress their children up like little suicide bombers, etc. But the overwhelming majority of the people would, given, a choice, prefer to be alive on the day of triumph over the Evil Zionist Entity rather than smiling down from Heaven.
As I religious fanatic myself, I am not troubled by the contradiction of being totally prepared to die to Sanctify the Name while actually preferring to be alive. Human beings are complicated creatures, often able to hold utterly contradictory thoughts and feelings simultaneously. It is also the case that religious fanatics take the long view. Why throw your life away today when you are unlikely to succeed when you can wait for a better chance? Victory is inevitable for the righteous, history is on our side, and it would be a betrayal of the cause to throw good money after bad when you can bide your time and wait for another chance.
Consider, for example, what Hezzbollah did during Operation Cast Lead in 2008.
"But Hezbollah did nothing during Operation Cast Lead in 2008."
Yes, which is the point. Hezbollah, which "won" the Lebanon War in 2006 by demonstrating an ability to inflict significant damage to the Israeli military, did nothing to aid Hamas in 2008. Why? did they suddenly hate Israel less? No. Did they magically become less religious zealots? Not noticeably. So why didn't they repeat their 2006 performance in 2008, especially when they "won" the last time.
Ans: Because it wasn't worth it. While I am not exactly privy to how Hezbollah evaluated the cost/benefit analysis, the fact is that Hezbollah has things it cares about more than it cares about freeing Palestine and driving the Crusader Kingdom back to Europe. In Hezbollah's case, they actually are interested in maintaining a functioning government in Lebanon and developing it economically. Israel inflicted massive economic damage on Lebanon. And while they took shit for that from the world community and the J Street crowd, it was the smart move from a game theoretic perspective. Israel demonstrated in 2006 that they would absolutely inflict significant cost on Lebanese society as a whole -- something Hezbollah cares about for a variety of reasons. So the potential cost to Hezbollah was high. OTOH, 2006 also demonstrated that Israel could (and would) fight a war on two fronts and that Hezbollah's actions did absolutely nothing to benefit the people of Gaza.
So confronted with potentially high cost for potentially little gain, Hezbollah made the rational decision: Sit this one out. It was not necessary to win the hearts and minds of the Lebanese people or Hezbollah. It was not necessary to make peace. It was only necessary to persuade them it was not worth it.
And that is how you make peace with people who hate you, want to kill, and don;t acknowledge your right to exist. You make it not worth it for them to do so. Ideally, as with the U.S. nuclear build up with the Soviet Union, simply the threat is sufficient and no one has to get hurt. Nor is violence necessarily effective, or necessary. the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam did not, in fact, tumble the rest of South East Asia (and the world) like dominoes. Nor did the U.S. win in Iraq by "shock and awe." Figuring out the proper level of deterrence and incentive is tricky, and guessing wrong can have profoundly bad consequences. But, to be blunt, it's not like you can opt not to play.
And yes, Hamas makes the same calculations. that's what the occasional Hudna offer is all about. 'Lets stop killing each other for awhile so we can rest up and come back and kill each other later when I have a clear advantage." Israel usually rejects these out of hand, which I suppose made sense when Israel clearly had the upper hand. The usual justification is that hudna isn't really peace and is offered only to gain advantage. To which I can only say duh! That's rather the whole point of a cease fire. the question is not if your opponent is sincere -- he just friggin' told you this was just a cease fire for purposes of resting up to rearm and prepare -- the question is whether it likewise offers advantages to your side. One possible advantage is ensuring that the other side never feels so secure in its position that it starts up again. And while that risks losing an existing advantage, it also creates possibilities for something much more extended. China and Taiwan have been in a state of hudna for about 60 years now.
So what are the trends that Israel can ride? Well, here are a few.
It's Not All About you. The good news for Israel is that a lot of the politics around the Palestinians and recognition of the PA is not, actually, about Israel. In the 1970s, it was an extension of the Cold War. These days, it is a much more complicated dance of multinationalism. But the upshot here is that most of the folks dancing around the Palestinians also want a bunch of other things totally unrelated to the Palestinians.
In particular, one should recall that a lot of the focus of the energy of the Arab Spring is about young Arabs wanting to build a better life for themselves. Sure, the average Egyptian thirty something totally supports the Palestinian cause. But, like the Lebanese in 2008, it doesn't mean they are prepared to die for it. And, as the Palestinians get closer to their goal of realizing an actual state, economic development, etc., the average Egyptian or Tunisian is going to care a lot less -- especially if the economic prospects for the average Palestinian are perceived by these Arabs as being better than their own (regardless of whether that is, in fact, true).
Think of support by the Arab world for the Palestinian cause as being rather like support for the end of segregation by Northern liberals in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s. Yes, Liberals were horrified by the cruelty and degradation of African Americans. But over time, enthusiasm waned -- especially when things like school busing began to force folks up North to recognize their own pattern of de facto segregation. Once the blatant de jure aspects of segregation were outlawed, the attitude began to shift from "equality for everyone" to "how much more do these people want?"
Palestinians don't have a good answer to the Jewish refugee problem. So how is Palestine going to remove the 100K+ settlers in 'their' newly declared country and compensate displaced persons for property? Palestinians don't actually have a better answer for that than Israelis have. The usual answer from Palestinians are about as practical as the answers Israelis have been giving since 1967. And whether or not Palestinians respect human/Jewish life, feel totally justified because these are evil occupiers on 'their' land, etc., etc., the cost of trying to remove armed settlers on the high ground is still way too high.
Fortunately for Palestinians, they've never had to worry about answering this problem. But if they plan to declare a unilateral state, this is a detail that needs to be resolved.
Israel has a lot to offer. During the 1990s, Israel began to develop new trade arrangements with previously hostile enemies. Those died in 2000 with the Second Intifida and subsequent repression of same. But Israel is a potentially valuable trading partner in a multilateral world where it is no longer tied as tightly to the United States.
None of these is a sure thing. It can all lead to instability. Israel could get swept into the sea if it bets wrong, and the subsequent hand-wringing by shocked Western liberals will not be much comfort. And at any time in the Cold War, a wrong set of moves could have triggered total destruction. OTOH, none of these call for Israel to go all Oslo and embrace a Palestinian State either. What Israel does need, however, is an actual plan that recognizes that the decline of the United States creates an uncomfortable new set of realities. Like Asia adjusting to America's new "zombie consumers," Israel needs to figure out how to develop a business plan for the Post-American World.