As Hurricane Harvey continues its path of destruction across the southeastern United States, there are some lessons for Israel in the storm’s aftermath. While Harvey is an epic natural disaster, the takeaways for Israel have nothing to do with storms, acts of God, climate change, or how to deal with unprecedented destruction. The damage from Harvey and the immense work it will take to set things back to normal should instead provide a set of lessons for Israel’s leaders on managing the outcome of a different type of disaster coming Israel’s way that, unlike Harvey, can be planned for in a far more adequate way.
One of the constant themes espoused by Prime Minister Netanyahu and those on the right of center of the Israeli spectrum is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be solved, but instead must be managed. In this line of thinking, Israel should not try to solve the conflict because conditions do not allow it; rather it is better off biding its time and riding out the current situation, hoping that conditions will change. This may make sense when dealing with a hurricane such as Harvey, when you are truly at nature’s mercy with no power to affect the underlying environment. It makes less sense in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where problems can be prevented because Israel has the power to actually shape the conditions.
Netanyahu’s declaration this week that Israel will never again evacuate a settlement, and will in fact deepen its roots in the West Bank, is a good example of why this is so. Assume for a moment that Netanyahu’s assumption is correct and that conditions right now do not in any way allow for a permanent peace with the Palestinians. Even if that is true, Israel has to constantly deal with the fallout of increasing settlement in the West Bank in a variety of ways, from rising security costs to global reputational costs to the threat of future severe economic costs. Expanding Israel’s presence in the West Bank, as Netanyahu is vowing to do, creates a larger problem to manage down the road, whereas there is a simple way right now to prevent a larger problem by at the minimum freezing things in place. Unlike a hurricane, the conditions creating the headaches for Israel are not going to change of their own accord and provide a period of calm that can be used for clean up.
Harvey also shows what happens when you discount the worst-case scenario and assume that what is now is what will always be. The sheer magnitude of the storm took state and city officials by surprise, and exposed potential flaws in their decision making that relied on assumptions that were smashed once the rain actually started falling. The debate over whether Houston should have been evacuated prior to the storm is a good example of how this plays out; the decision to have people stay put was perfectly defensible when it was made, but officials may have decided differently had they seriously considered the possibility of unprecedented rainfall rather than focusing on the lack of a forecasted storm surge.
Netanyahu’s attitude toward the two-state solution – to the extent that he has one that can be ascertained with any certainty – is that the status quo should be maintained indefinitely, and that if Israel ever needs to shift course, it will be able to do so. The problem with this strategy is that it discounts the worst-case scenario in which Palestinians abandon Palestinian nationalism and two states, and move to a strategy of demanding Israeli citizenship. At that point, Israel is stuck, since there is no two-state solution without a party willing to accept a Palestinian state, and that is the point at which Israel truly has to choose between democracy and its Jewish character. Yet the government’s decisions evince no recognition that this scenario is even a possibility, and assume that because Palestinians want their own state now, it will always be so. Given how disastrous it will be for Israel if this assumption breaks down, it is alarmingly negligent to promote policies that not only do not take this into account but actually hasten the breakdown itself.
Finally and relatedly, it is always better to manage any outcome when it is under your limited capacity to shape than when the situation is completely out of your hands to control. Houston officials had years to upgrade the drainage grid and work out comprehensive flood procedures, tasks that should have only become more urgent considering that this is the fourth “500-year flood” in Houston since 2009. When Harvey was first forecasted, officials were able to use the time before the storm hit to stockpile emergency supplies, line up facilities to be used as shelters, and coordinate emergency first responders. But once Harvey arrived, Houston was only able to cope with the effects to the extent that it had made preparations ahead of time. Once the rain started falling, everything was out of the city’s control and it had to deal with whatever came its way.
Israel is facing a scary forecast. At some point in the next decade or two, the demographics will shift and there will be more Arabs than Jews under Israel’s control between the river and the sea (something that would have already happened absent Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza). At some point, it is highly likely that Palestinians as a matter of national consensus will shift from campaigning for independence to campaigning for full Israeli political and civil rights. Once either of these two things happens, the situation is completely out of Israel’s hands to control and its destiny will be foisted upon it by others rather than shaped of its own accord. Israel can still manage the outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a way that favors it for now. It has the upper hand with the Palestinians, borders that are more secure than they have been in decades, a friendly – if not outright pliable – administration in Washington, constrained organized mass terrorism, and it is at the apex of its economic and military might. This is the time to create the conclusion that it wants from a position of strength when it is able to shape the outcome to a maximal degree. But this is the period before the storm. Once it hits, Israel will be no better off than a flooded city at the mercy of a hurricane, powerless to do much about it.