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War, and Israel’s Quixotic Search For Normalcy

JERUSALEM—With elections three months away, Israelis were looking forward to a campaign driven by domestic issues. There was a craving for an ordinary national debate on issues like cost of living and wage gaps and the relationship between the ultra-Orthodox minority and the mainstream. The rise of the social protest movement, the transformation of the Labor Party’s focus from peace to social change, the growing disaffection among working class Israelis, many of them conservative Likud voters, with the government’s economic policies—it seemed like Israel would finally enjoy a political season like that of any normal country.

But the latest eruption in Gaza has returned Israel to its exceptional reality. Israel’s next national election, like the others in recent memory, will be defined by the big existential questions, by questions of war and peace and territory.

The current round of fighting will likely be resolved, sooner or later, with another fitful ceasefire. Israel hardly wants to be dragged into a protracted ground war in Gaza, with its inevitable horrors and international pressures. Other than restoring deterrence against the rocket launchers, though, Israel has no clear strategic goal. Toppling the Hamas regime is tempting but futile; it would likely be replaced by another variation of radical rule. And so Israel's mission will be to restore relative quiet along the border—until the next time.

But regardless of what happens in Gaza, the illusion of a domestically driven election is over. Perhaps it was naïve to expect that an Israeli election could downplay foreign policy. The Syrian border, which briefly erupted last week for the first time since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, is as unstable as it's been in recent memory. Hezbollah is waiting for the next round in Lebanon. The Egytian-Israeli border has become a terrorist front. And sanctions aren’t slowing Iran’s nuclear program. Not since May 1967, when Arab armies moved toward Israel’s borders, has Israel faced such danger. Some in the Israeli stategic community believe that the more apt analogy is with May 1948, when Israel declared its independence and was immediately invaded by seven Arab armies.

But if the latest fighting has confronted Israelis with the limits of wishful thinking, it has only encouraged the illusions of Israel’s critics. They impatiently acknowledge Israel's right to defend itself against missile attacks on its civilian population, but then insist that the conflict could have been avoided if the government of Benyamin Netanyahu had simply been willing to negotiate peace with Palestinians.

Most Israelis would surely agree that a peace agreement with the Palestinians is far preferable to yet another round of fighting. But few Israelis, whatever their politics, blame Netanyahu for the absence of peace. There is a consensus that peace with the Palestinian national movement—or rather that half of the Palesitnian national movement represented by Mahmoud Abbas, rather than the jihadist Hamas—isn’t possible at this time. Indeed, that is precisely why the left-liberal opposition Labor Party had intended to shift its focus from the non-existent peace process to social issues. (The polls suggested this was a promising pivot: Before the latest fighting, Labor was expected to grow from an embarrassing 8 seats to 20 or more in the 120 seat Knesset.) Whether Labor will be able to focus on domestic issues depends entirely on what now happens in Gaza.

Most Israelis understand, no less than their critics, that the ongoing occupation is a long-term existential threat to the Jewish state. But they also understand that a Palestinian state, created by a national movement that denies Israel’s legitimacy, could become an immediate existential threat, turning Tel Aviv into the next Sderot, the Israeli town bordering Gaza which has endured thousands of rocket attacks over the last decade, making normal life impossible.

The result is a stalemate—not in the political arena, but within the Israeli psyche. For most Israelis, the debate between left and right over the territories has been resolved. The left won the debate over occupation, the right won over peace. Every poll in recent years confirms that, if peace were possible, most Israelis would agree to far-reaching territorial concessions. But those same polls reveal that most Israelis believe that no amount of territorial concessions will win Israel real peace and legitimacy among its neighbors. And so, at least for now, most Israelis want to be doves but feel they are compelled compelled to act as hawks.

Netanyahu’s greatest failure as prime minister was in not extending his ten-month freeze on building in the settlements (just as Obama’s greatest failure in his relationship with Israel was in not embracing Netanyahu’s freeze and demanding that Abbas return to the negotiating table). At a time when Israel is trying to focus world attention on the Iranian bomb and the growing danger on its borders, settlement building is especially self-destructive.

But even if Israel ceases building in the West Bank, that won’t end the need to periodically attack rocket launchers in Gaza. And if, in the lulls between outbursts of violence on the borders, Israelis can manage to debate their domestic problems and attain a measure of normalcy, then that too will be a victory in the country's ongoing war of survival.