Pragmatism, The Enemy of Peace
In the winter of 2016-17, I left my parents’ home in Jerusalem and hopped on a bus to Hebron, deep in the West Bank. With my American passport in hand and a German national at my side, I managed to bluff my way past the military checkpoints into the Palestinian-controlled side of the city and onwards to Bethlehem with a local guide. Both cities have been off-limits to Israeli citizens for decades, and I was venturing where few Israeli civilians of my generation had ever been. The deeply disturbing visit brought me face to face with the reality on the other side of the walls surrounding my hometown for the first time and galvanized my support for the cause of peace, to which I have held firm ever since.
Looking around at my compatriots, however, I see dim prospects for the future of the conflict. Most Israelis’ sole exposure – if any – to the reality of the military occupation of the West Bank, now in its 55th year, is as the forces of the occupation themselves in Israel’s draft military. Settlers make up only about 5% of the Israeli population, and half of these live in outer suburbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv with scant military presence and minimal contact with the Palestinian population around them. What the conversation surrounding the conflict largely fails to grasp is that to most of the 95% of Israelis living within the Green Line, the Palestinian issue has become a minor security issue and a financial liability rather than an existential threat or a moral quagmire. The history of the previous century teaches us that security politics are about pragmatism, not pathos, the tactic of choice for most pro-Palestinian activism. Moral arguments aside, then, the pragmatic case for peace in the Holy Land is getting weaker by the day.
From Israel’s perspective – the only perspective which I am qualified to discuss – making peace is no easy pill to swallow. The two-state solution, the baseline of any peace plan with a remote chance of mutual agreement, requires meaningful Israeli concessions in the form of ceding control of the West Bank to a Palestinian state, as well as a shift in the status of Jerusalem. The majority of Israel’s population lives on a narrow coastal plain between the Mediterranean coast and the hypothetical border of this state, not quite nine miles wide at its narrowest point near the Palestinian town of Qalqilya. Downtown Tel Aviv, the cultural and economic center of the Jewish state, is only 12 miles from the Green Line, less than the length of Manhattan. This high ground would be ceded to a shaky Palestinian leadership with major grievances against the Israeli state and eviscerated by decades of infighting and the weakening, imprisonment, assassination, and exile of figures perceived as threats.
To Israel, this is a terrifying step-down from the status quo. To be sure, periodic wars in the Gaza Strip, isolated incidents of Palestinian terrorism, and the actual administration of the occupation cost Israel billions of dollars a year. Militarily, IDF combat forces spend the majority of their time policing the West Bank, harming Israel’s war readiness and leaving generation after generation of young Israeli men (and increasingly, women) with deep mental scars. The brutal human cost of the occupation, extensively documented in the international press, is massively detrimental to Israel’s desired image as a tolerant liberal democracy. But to a perennially paranoid country that has persevered and prospered in the face of a series of existential threats, this is not enough of an incentive to make any concessions potentially jeopardizing its security, without even raising the question of evacuating the hundreds of settlements painstakingly built over half a century in a concerted effort to make a Palestinian state untenable. Israel of 2022 is in its best-ever shape, and sees no compelling need to upend the status quo.
Some of this is a product of Israeli economic success. According to data from December 2020, Israeli GDP per capita (in PPP terms) was $38,341, on par with countries like Italy and Japan, and grew faster than the OECD average for years. By every economic measure, the current generation of Israelis is better off than its parents and even many of its Western peers, a feat achieved despite massive military spending, deep hostility from much of the Arab and Muslim world, and a precarious security environment. This has undermined the Palestinian national identity, as Israeli Arabs are much better off than their ethnic brethren on the other side of the separation wall, despite widespread discrimination and government neglect. In the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, tens of thousands of stateless Palestinians jump through unimaginable hoops for the right to work in Israeli construction sites, factories, and farms, where they are paid far more than in their hometowns, but far less than Israelis of any background. This phenomenon has reached such epic proportions that more Palestinians in the West Bank now work in Israel and the settlements (18.5% of the workforce) than in the Palestinian public sector (15.2%), further eroding Palestinian national cohesion (PCBS).
Israel’s robust economic performance allowed it to spend $21.7 billion on defense in 2020 – roughly 140% of the entire GDP of the Palestinian territories – and build a military far superior to any other in the region. The May 2021 Gaza conflict was telling in this respect: when the dust settled, 256 Gazans – including over 100 civilians, according to the UN – had lost their lives, compared with nine Israeli civilians, one soldier, and three foreign workers. For Israelis in the line of fire, the fighting was largely a period of elevated tensions and hunkering down in bomb shelters as the Iron Dome defense system intercepted most of the improvised rockets raining down on towns and cities; for Gazans, it was weeks of not knowing whether their homes would be the next to be leveled by Israeli air strikes occurring night after night with no warning or protection. This clash followed roughly half a dozen major rounds of hostilities which have occurred roughly every two or three years since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2006, each with similarly lopsided casualty figures. With each episode, the possibility of a lasting peace retreats as Israel gets closer to cementing a status quo tolerable to its citizens and Gazans’ hope for a safe and prosperous future gets buried under an additional layer of rubble.
On the international stage, the urgency of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has massively diminished over the past decade. The main event behind this shift was the Arab Spring and the subsequent multinational campaign to defeat ISIS, which made European nations more interested in stemming the tide of refugees arriving at their borders than solving a seemingly intractable conflict further afield and the U.S. appreciate the value of a stable and reliable ally in a region marked by chaos and failed “forever wars”. The shocking brutality of ISIS also pushed Israeli human rights abuses further down the Western and Arab media agenda. Additional credit is due to the destabilization of the unipolar global order, with challenges from an increasingly belligerent China and Russia capturing the attention of Western governments and bringing Israel more firmly into the Western camp of a polarized world.
The signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020 posed the choices of pathos and pragmatism to the governments of the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, who all chose normalization over continued animosity. This brought them into the ranks of the same club as Egypt and Jordan, two of Israel’s worst historical enemies who made similar choices in the previous century. Crucially, the normalization was met with deafening silence from former Israeli foe and Arab leader Saudi Arabia, which has been increasing its covert and overt involvement with Israel, signaling a potential path for future normalization. To the Sunni kingdom, the containment of revisionist Shiite militarism is clearly more pressing than the Palestinian national cause it had once championed, as both Israel and its newfound partners recognize the threat of a radical “axis of resistance” stretching from Tehran to Beirut under the protection of an Iranian nuclear umbrella as deserving of their undivided attention. To Israel, then, the threat of another Arab-Israeli war or diplomatic ostracization of Israel grows more distant with every El Al flight to Dubai and act of Iranian-backed aggression.
The receding threat of isolation can also be attributed to Israel’s own success. Israel of 2022 is a world leader in cybersecurity, cloud computing, pharma, and biotech. With giants such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and Intel employing tens of thousands of Israelis in local R&D centers, and Israeli tech companies being linked to every major technological breakthrough in recent years, the credibility of a crippling boycott to end the occupation is severely undercut. Immoral as its actions may be, a country sending 20 unicorns to the NYSE this past year alone is not at risk of being cut out of the global financial system like apartheid South Africa once was or Iran and North Korea currently are.
The sheer imbalance of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the reduction in its intensity have driven Israelis to believe in the viability of apathetic “conflict management” – a term popularized by former prime minister Netanyahu – as a long-term security strategy. This has replaced the more proactive “conflict resolution,” which requires an honest grappling with difficult questions about the nature of the Zionist project and the actions of the Jewish state. By no means is “conflict management” a desirable or efficient outcome, but as a quasi-democratic state beholden to voters’ interests, the will to make bold moves for peace – last visible at the 1993 Oslo Accords – is growing scarcer with every normalization agreement, tech IPO, and section of separation wall completed. In the four rounds of national elections held in Israel between 2019-21, the Palestinian issue occupied a minor role at best in different parties’ platforms as the political system turned its attention away from making peace and towards more pedestrian issues as corruption, infrastructure, the cost of living, and preservation of the rule of law within Israel’s internationally-recognized borders. Indeed, the current hodgepodge coalition government formed on the sole basis of ousting Netanyahu has vowed not to make any major changes to the status quo during its term, broadcasting Israeli voters’ priorities loud and clear to the world.
To be clear, I am not advocating for stagnation or the status quo, nor have I given up on the cause of peace in Israel-Palestine. My message is merely that peace is not going to come easily to the Holy Land, nor is it going to come soon. The conflict is undoubtedly tragic and in nobody’s interest, but it has also become an asymmetric war of attrition in which one side is losing much more than the other. Pragmatism trumps pathos in security politics, and nobody knows this better than Israel, which has chosen bold action over ideology every time its security has been at risk.
Perhaps a final anecdote can further illustrate the imbalance I have attempted to outline. The day before submitting the draft of this article, I attended a protest against the impending eviction of the Saleh family from their home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah (the eviction eventually took place on Jan 19, 2022). The protests have been occurring weekly for months, and captured the attention of world media in May 2021, in the build-up to the Gaza war. It was my first such protest in nearly five years, but there were many familiar faces from my earlier days as a peace activist. Disappointingly, my Israeli Instagram followers who saw the stories I posted from the protest largely reacted with a combination of apathy and bewilderment, questioning whether I was “bored” or “seeking attention”. To them, the government’s security policy, the violence funded by their taxes, Israel’s international reputation, and the lives of millions of Palestinians are distant and intangible. Focused on studies, careers, and families, they have little attention to devote to the occupation and little willingness to engage in the difficult process of reconciliation with a problematic past and present. So long as peace and pragmatism are viewed as dichotomous, this generation of Israelis will continue to pass up any opportunity to move the conflict past its current tragic stalemate.