By Ian Black
Israeli generals, ministers and ex-Mossad chiefs were milling around at this week’s Herzliya conference talking national security at a time of unprecedented turmoil across the Middle East. Binyamin Netanyahu, now prime minister for the fourth time, deployed his signature phase about living in a “tough neighbourhood.” But a cursory glance around the Arab world left even the hyperbole-prone Netanyahu, on that point at least, sounding like a master of understatement.
Israel’s strategic position has never been so good, argued one senior official – thanks to the diversions and divisions of the wars in Syria and Iraq, the jihadis of the Islamic State, collapse in Libya and conflict in Yemen. It has benefited too from the Egyptian military’s crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood and the squeeze on Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Jordan has come though the Arab spring unreformed and maintains discreet but intimate security links with the Jewish state.
Opposition by the Gulf states to the impending Iranian nuclear deal has added to this sense of comfort. Last week a senior Israeli and a senior Saudi even shared a platform in Washington to articulate their anxieties about the Islamic Republic. Israel has been hawkish – Netanyahu attracting ridicule for the cartoon bomb he displayed at the UN; Arab critics have been more discreet. But both condemn Iranian backing for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthi rebels in Yemen and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Both are alarmed by Iran’s role in Iraq and are seeking compensation from Washington for Barack Obama’s tilt to Tehran. Israel never believed it would benefit from democratic change in the Arab world. In the age of rampaging sectarianism in the region, it stands with the Sunni autocracies.
In military terms, Israel looks unassailable. Moshe Yaalon, the defence minister, said that Syria no longer posed a conventional threat – its chemical weapons arsenal neutralised after the 2013 attacks near Damascus. Hezbollah’s arsenal remains a danger – but the assessment is that it is too committed to Bashar al-Assad to risk another full-scale war with Israel. Still, a wargame at Herzliya featured Hezbollah launching a rocket salvo and Israel inflict massive destruction on Lebanon, and suffer hundreds of casualties at home in just a few days.
Herzliya is Israel’s annual strategic talkfest. In 2004 Ariel Sharon used it to announce unilateral “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip and a few small West Bank outposts, holding out the prospect of future withdrawals. Sharon’s illness, continuing settlement activity and Palestinian divisions blocked any progress since. Now, a year after Operation Protective Edge left 2,200 dead in Gaza. (Israelis have got into the habit of calling it “Hamastan”) - the same catastrophic scenario could easily be replayed.Ministers and officials ranged far and wide across the region but mentioned the conflict in Israel’s backyard almost as an afterthought. Yaalon was pleased that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has its own parliament “so they don’t vote for the Knesset” and praised its cooperation on security. But he did not expect a peace agreement “in his lifetime.” (He is 65 and looks in robust health.) Netanyahu won a brief ripple of applause for declaring that he supported a two-state solution (after saying he did not on the eve of the March election). But he then went on to list all the reasons there is not going to be one. Ehud Barak, the former Labour prime minister, warned of being on a “slippery slope” towards a one-state solution. That means occupation past the half-century anniversary of the 1967 war.
Netanyahu called on Mahmud Abbas to resume peace talks and complained that the Palestinian president had asked only for a freeze on settlements – as if that was deeply unreasonable rather than the issue at the very heart of his concerns. Abbas is vilified for trying to use international law and institutions to pressure Israel as an alternative to being locked into an endless “peace process” that never delivers and erodes his increasingly threadbare credibility. Ron Prosor, Israel’s UN ambassador, accused the Palestinians of “diplomatic terrorism” - a novel concept even for a seasoned practitioner of hasbara (Hebrew for PR/propaganda).
If Netanyahu is prepared to make nice, however unconvincingly, his Likud colleagues are not: Tzipi Hotobely, his deputy as foreign minister, ruled out any concessions in “Judea and Samaria” and painted the landmark 1993 Oslo agreement between Israel and the PLO as an historic error. Increased Jewish immigration, she suggested, was the best way to deal with those pesky Palestinians.
But the issue that really grabs Israelis across the political spectrum is the international movement for boycott, disinvestment and sanctions (BDS), now gathering momentum in Europe and the US. That was discussed in a Herzliya session entitled “Israel: Scapegoat or Culprit?” Demonisation and de-legitimisation were described as a strategic threat greater than Hezbollah missiles or Syrian tanks.
Netanyahu’s line is that Israel is under attack “because of who we are” by a coalition of anti-semites, jihadis, leftists and the credulous who are applying the lessons of the campaign against apartheid in South Africa. Cooler conference heads suggested it is largely about “what we do” - especially maintaining the occupation and continuing Jewish settlement while blaming the Palestinians for not negotiating.
Netanyahu’s improbable romance with the Saudis has led to talk of Israel finally responding to the 2002 Arab peace initiative. That offers the glittering prize of recognition by all Arab states in return for a just peace with the Palestinians. Yet the combination of regional mayhem and the most right-wing government in Israel’s history suggest it is not going to happen any time soon.
Unlike the prime minister and his team, Labour Party and other centrist politicians queued up in Herzliya to urge a return to the idea of two states for two peoples – and not just to “manage” the deadly but unequal conflict between them. Heading off international pressure on Israel, observed Shlomo Avineri, a wise thinker and former foreign ministry official, needs far more than more effective hasbara.