No idea where they are going

Two-time Israeli Ambassador to the United States Zalman Shoval stopped by CSIS yesterday for his more or less annual talk about how things are going in the Middle East. I stopped in hoping to hear a compelling version of Bibi Netanyahu’s view of the world, one that makes more strategic sense than his tactically elegant maneuvers, which have left Israel isolated and ever more reliant on military force.

I didn’t get what I was looking for. Shoval sees little reason for Israel to do anything it isn’t already doing, and no reason to pursue anything like a strategic end-state.

No one in Israel thinks the recent settlement activity is really an issue. Israel has demonstrated that it is prepared to dismantle settlements that need to be dismantled if there is a peace agreement. The most recent brouhaha over building plans concerns land adjacent to another settlement in South Jerusalem, not East Jerusalem. Israel has always made it clear it will build what is necessary to protect Jerusalem and prevent it from being cut off.

Bibi supports a two-state solution, but much of his Likud party and most of his coalition are opposed. The right wants to keep the West Bank and ignore the demographic problem.

The Palestinians haven’t changed their views at all since 1967. They do not want a successful negotiation because that would mean giving up the right of return. President Abbas, like Arafat, is not prepared to accept that. He is old and has no obvious successor. He wants to hang on longer. He will pursue meaningless international recognition rather than reach an accommodation.

The region is a mess. But Iran is still a bigger threat than the Islamic State, which has not yet focused on Israel. President Sissi is a better partner for Israel than even former President Mubarak. Israel achieved its main military objectives in the Gaza war, which in practice the United States supported. The Sunni Arab states did not object loudly. Israel could have reoccupied Gaza but decided not to do so.  Hamas is beginning to rebuild the “attack” tunnels that stretch into Israel, which is prepared to proceed with civilian reconstruction before de-militarization.

The relationship between Israel and the United States is still strong, even if some of the anti-Obama remarks by Israeli leaders are regrettable. The security ties have never been stronger. Israel is aware that younger American Jews are less attached to the Jewish state than their parents, but this is a problem that can be managed. The idea of rapprochement between Israel and Sunni Arab states is exaggerated. They have an interest in fighting the Islamic State and countering Iran, but little else in common. The original Saudi Arabian peace plan has some merit, but not the Arab League version. Egypt might be willing to help with a peace agreement by providing land to the Palestinians in Sinai.

The Americans of varying political persuasions I talked to after this presentation walked out shaking their heads. This is an Israel nominally obsessed with its own survival but indifferent to the real threat of Palestinian anger and frustration on its border, the annoyance of its American allies, and the consternation of the international community. Constrained by its burgeoning right wing, it offers little or nothing to the Palestinians and blames them for not seizing the opportunity. Then it takes what it wants, feigning surprise when that deepens the enmity.

The Israelis think they can muddle through, without any idea where they are going.

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