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.
This article contains two false statements or assumptions.
1) “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.”
Wrong. Demanding citizenship does not require it to be granted. I can’t think of a single example in history where a people hostile to another people have the right to demand the enemy people grant them citizenship and it was granted. Any citizenship requirement would include loyalty. Can you name a single democracy that allowed a hostile people in mass numbers to become citizens?
Also, why is Israel the party that has to accept a Palestinian state. Why can’t a fellow Arab state, i.e., Jordan be obligated to do so. Jordan is already a Palestinian Arab state.
Another possibility would be Gaza plus large chunks of the Sinai.
The rule of history is the strong nation usually imposes the terms of the peace, not the loser nations.
2) “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.”
Wrong. Israel has and will always have the ability to impose its will if it has the will to do so. There are many solutions which don’t involve a West Bank Muslim Arab state. While there is no strong support for any of them in the Arab world, that could change in that decade or two the author mentions. OR the Palestinians could launch the most violent “intifada” of all and give Israel the justification for solving the problem itself, the same way it is solved every where else in the world and throughout all of history…the loser is expelled or killed in large numbers. The Arabs know and understand this better than most.
The best solution will be a peaceful one but either way, there is no foreseeable scenario for a Muslim Arab sovereign state in the West Bank nor is Israel ever going to agree that it should become a Muslim Arab dominated state (which of course would not be a democracy).
Maybe in 100 years when Islam undergoes its own reformation and enlightenment there might be a different discussion.
Who is Israel making a deal with? The Palestinians were offered half of Jerusalem and turned it down. Hamas is never going to make peace. It’s a terrorist state. You act as though Israel has an alternative. If Israel froze settlements forever, the anti Israel forces would come up with another reason to hate Israel.
Indeed, the utter beauty of the strategy of Arafat and his acolytes:
“Making peace” is—at the end of the day—always, but always, Israel’s responsibility.
(And if—if, heh!!—Israel FAILS to “make peace”, well then…. ah, but we tried to help her, we tried so hard to persuade her—in spite of her foolish intransigence, her short-sighted bunker mentality, her blinkered arrogance; we warned her time and time again…. and again and then again….but she would not listen. She refused to hear. Yes, we told her what would happen…. Our hands are clean: she brought her misfortune upon herself…. Had she only listened to us….)
Yes, an absolutely masterful, strategy.
Which will continue until Israel is destroyed.
Israel lacks a partner for peace. Both Arafat and Abbas have rejected multiple reasonable offers and incite unrest/ violence. Nevertheless, your point of calm before the storm is well taken. I think it is unlikely many can imagine what this so called storm will bring. I expect it will be a combination of the Second Intifada, Hamas’ Rockets and coordinated Hezbollah attacks, all sponsored by Iran.
Preparing for the worst case scenario is a good recommendation. In my opinion, Israel has done enough mowing of the grass with these groups. A comprehensive solution that is not pretty for the Arabs is what should be next. Wiping out these sub-state actors will need to be quick and decisive, otherwise the region will become entangled.
I just hope there is still distractions in the Levant to keep other players in the Middle East off balanced. Supporting Kurdish independence and coordinating a regional strategy with the Kurds and others should be part of Israel’s approach.
The question is not if such a storm will hit, but when. Months or years away is the question. Thank you.