LOADING

Type to search

Interviews

Natan Sachs on Israel’s Elections, Anti-Solutionism, the Trump Peace Plan and 2020

Dr. Sachs is the director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy. His work focuses on Israeli foreign policy, domestic politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and U.S.-Israeli relations. His upcoming book, “End Game: Does Israel Have A Plan?”, focuses on Israeli grand strategy and its domestic origins, and is set to be released in 2020. Dr. Sachs has taught on the Arab-Israeli conflict at Georgetown University’s Department of Government and their Security Studies Program. He was previously a Fulbright fellow in Indonesia, where his research included an empirical study of the behavioral effects of Islamic and national identities, and subsequently a Hewlett fellow at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. Dr. Sachs earned a bachelor’s degree in the Amirim Excellence program at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a master’s and doctorate in political science from Stanford University.

We thank Dr. Sachs once again for taking the time to speak with The Politic. 

The Politic: After April’s general elections in Israel, you wrote “If Israel holds elections in the year 2029, you might do well to bet on the right-wing Likud Party,” and you’ve also noted that the party has won 10 of the 14 elections held since 1977. What factors explain the electoral dominance of the Likud and the Israeli right in recent decades?

Dr. Sachs: It’s a good question. I would say it’s a combination of two or three different factors. The first is the demographic change that underpinned the rise of the Likud in the late 1970s, and to a degree remains even today, although less so: a shift of power from what can be called the “old elite” of Israeli politics, which was based on the Ashkenazi Jewish population—most Jews of European descent—towards the higher representation of Mizrahi Jews—Jews who came from the Muslim world. Some termed [Mizrahi Jews] “second Israel” to capture a sense among many of them that they were underrepresented in the halls of power and in Israeli society at large. The right-wing Likud and especially its leader at the time, [Menachem] Begin, managed to tap into this sentiment well and became a voice for this so-called “second Israel,” demanding better representation not only on the symbolic side but also economically and socially. And to a certain degree the Likud delivered on that, so that still remains a very strong base for the Likud. I want to caveat that: it’s not that all Mizrahi Jews vote for the right wing, not remotely. Mizrahi and Ashkenazi are very broad categories; they vote in very mixed ways in both populations, and the populations are mixing rapidly. But still, there is a correlation, and that remains a very strong base—in particular in what is sometimes called “the periphery.” It’s hard to think of a country as small as Israel as having a periphery, but it does and that remains a base for the Likud. That’s a very hard nut for the left to crack; it has tried many times and so far only with limited success. 

A second important change is also demographic, and that is the rise of populations that tend to be right-wing, especially Orthodox Jews and Ultra-Orthodox Jews, in terms of numbers. That’s sometimes exaggerated because many people leave religion in Israel. [This] population has very large families—for example, very large Ultra-Orthodox families—but then many of them over time become less religious. Still, demographically speaking, these populations are growing. And the populations that are more represented on the left are growing much more slowly, including Muslim Israelis. The 20 percent of Israelis who are Arabic-speaking—most of them are Muslim—used to have a very high growth rate, and that’s been moderating over time, in particular as their socioeconomic conditions have improved. Put together, this has been a fundamental demographic advantage for the right wing. That’s strengthened even further by immigration. In the 1990s a very large wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union came to Israel. In the beginning, it wasn’t completely clear who they would favor politically, but it’s been very clear in the past couple of decades that they are disproportionately on the right wing, in part because of [a reaction to] the socialist legacy of the Soviet Union. And in that regard, that’s been a huge boon to the right wing. To many degrees, that sort of sealed the deal. 

But then finally, the last point is an ideological point, which is that the left wing, after ‘67, basically ran on a position of compromise with the Arab states around Israel and, eventually, with the Palestinians. The experiment of the Oslo Process, between Oslo [in 1993] and the Second Intifada in 2000, seems to many Israelis as a test of that doctrine, and is overwhelmingly seen as a failure, whether that’s a correct reading or not. The Second Intifada destroyed the left wing in many respects in Israel. Today the very word “left-wing” [“hasmol” in Hebrew] is a bad term, and many people, even if they are technically on the left of the center, consider themselves “centrists” and not left-wing. The left is perceived as a naïve point of view, one that failed. And the trauma of the Second Intifada, which was a very bloody, very difficult period, really seared in the minds of Israelis who were in favor of the Oslo Process that they were wrong to trust [Yasser] Arafat, in particular, and that they were wrong to trust in this attempt at accommodation with the PLO. In that regard, the warnings of the right wing, and of Netanyahu specifically, seemed to come true. So that hurt the left wing dramatically and convinced many Israelis of the phrase “there is no partner,” in the sense that among the Palestinians there is no real partner for peace [in common Israeli perception], and therefore that the doctrine of the left wing has failed. 

Having failed in his attempts to form a coalition government and pass legislation that would grant him immunity from the corruption indictments that he will likely face, what is on Benjamin Netanyahu’s agenda heading into the repeat elections in September?

It’s a hard sell for him because he ran to continue what he was doing. So, to a certain degree, he’s repeating the same message. And a core of that message is that, as he put it then, he’s in “a league of his own.” He’s arguing that no one else in Israel can compete with him in terms of his ability to deal with the world and with world leaders, and pointing to what many Israelis feel, whether they’re right or wrong, has been a successful tenure as prime minister. He’s running on his record but especially on the idea that no one else can match him in his ability to deal with the world, with Donald Trump, with Vladimir Putin, with Narendra Modi, with everyone else. 

The main problem for him is twofold. First, he also said during that campaign that he was not interested in trying to change legislation to keep him out of prison for corruption, and that was patently false. It became obviously false after the elections when he did exactly that: he tried to form a coalition where a very central part of the agenda was to keep him out of prison. So that’s a hard sell now. A problem is that a central, very important part of the right wing, Avigdor Lieberman’s party [Yisrael Beiteinu], refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition. So he now needs a much bigger margin of victory to form a right wing coalition without Liberman. Part of his new campaign has been to attack Lieberman, to try to steal votes from Lieberman and to counter Lieberman’s claim that Netanyahu represents a coalition that is very religious, that relies on the extremely religious and therefore will pass religious legislation. So, for example, after some of his right-wing partners spoke exactly of these kinds of things, in particular hostility towards LGBT rights, he appointed an openly gay man [Amir Ohana] as Minister of Justice. But his right-wing partners are not cooperating, and they still are advocating for some very extreme things, so that’s not going to be easy for him at all. 

I would like to shift the discussion now from electoral politics to strategic issues. Your upcoming book, titled “End Game: Does Israel Have a Plan?”, will explore and critique what you have termed the Israeli center-right’s “anti-solutionist” approach to the conflict with the Palestinians. Could you briefly elaborate on this term and how it elucidates Israel’s long-term strategy?

Sure. I wrote about it in a Foreign Affairs article in 2015, called “Why Israel Waits: Anti-Solutionism as a Strategy”. Basically, what I argued there is that, if you think of the way many—especially Americans but others too—approach Israeli foreign policy, there’s this puzzle: what on earth do the Israelis want in the long term? What is it that Netanyahu wants? What solution does offer for the conflict (or the standoff with Iran)? And the Israeli reply, to my mind, is often to flip it on its head and say, in essence—of course I’m paraphrasing: “You naïve Americans, you think there’s a solution to everything. You think that every problem can simply be solved with good will, some enterprise and industrious spirit. You simply don’t understand the world. You maybe understand the Midwest but not the Middle East.” So, when Netanyahu speaks of this—and others, not just him—they don’t promise some beautiful solution. There’s no secret plan that they’re not telling the Americans but whispering to Israelis: “Here’s how we are going to give you peace, here’s how we are going to solve the fundamental problems.” What he’s saying to Israelis is that there probably is no solution to many of these things, and we will have to continue to fight, for decades perhaps, but this is the way the world is. And he will say—Naftali Bennett, for example, uses this analogy—if you think of medical terms, sometimes people have chronic problems. They could try to operate a thousand times, and they would probably cause themselves a lot of damage. Instead, what they should do is focus on managing the problem and dealing with things that you cannot change in a realistic way that would not cause more harm. Of course, the analogue here is the Oslo Process, which they think was a naïve attempt to solve a problem that is fundamentally unsolvable and therefore caused more damage than simply managing the conflict. 

Now, I critique this approach. I don’t think it’s the right approach for Israel, but I don’t think it’s as absurd as it sometimes sounds or sometimes seems from abroad. There is a logic here. It’s a conservative logic. It’s a logic that says that the things you cannot change, you sometimes simply have to learn to live with. That is a rational approach. There are several problems with the approach, of course, and especially with how it’s implemented by Netanyahu. And what he’s implementing is not really a conservative approach, it’s partly an excuse for what he’s doing.  

In light of this analysis, do you foresee Netanyahu’s promise to begin the annexation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank being realized in the near future? If so, how would such a move alter the diplomatic calculus?

If he started to annex parts of the settlements, it would be a departure, to a certain degree, from this conflict management approach. It would be quite a bold move, something that’s not characteristic of Netanyahu. But it is possibly in the cards because some of his right-wing partners are demanding this, and he will need them, in particular to secure his own personal freedom. The effect would be—it depends, of course, what the details are, the devil’s usually in the details—if it’s a very limited annexation, the effect may be relatively limited. But still fundamentally this is a major step, because the Israeli approach to the West Bank for years now—for over fifty years—has been to say that the Israeli military control of the West Bank is a temporary affair. Israel claims this territory of course, but that’s subject to international negotiations, and when these negotiations are concluded, military rule would end and there would be civilian rule of one kind or another. Otherwise, if this is not a temporary situation, then military control there is no longer a legitimate international position. You can have, obviously, military occupation—the United States had military occupation of Japan after the Second World War, it was a temporary affair, and Japan retrieved its independence. If Israel is not in a temporary position, then its military control over the Palestinians becomes fundamentally discredited. Many would say that that would simply reflect reality—since it has already been fifty years, it’s not very temporary anyway—but from a symbolic position and from the Israeli policy outlook, it is very meaningful. 

In the event of a more expansive annexation, how do you think Israel would navigate the strategic trilemma that you have also discussed before, having to choose between remaining a democracy with equal voting rights for all of its citizens, retaining a Jewish majority and gaining control of all of the Palestinian territories? Which two of these objectives do you think the current center-right consensus would be shifted towards?

I think that’s a good question, and I think that the short answer is that they don’t think they have to choose. That’s sort of the anti-solutionist kind of thing as to “Which solution do you choose? Which two of the three [democracy, the land, and a Jewish majority] you prefer?” I think many of them fundamentally don’t think they have to choose because they don’t think a solution is possible. They don’t think it’s the end of the story. They think it’s an ongoing story and simply a conflict that has to be managed. So, to a degree, I think they are wrong, but they think they can have all three. 

But if push comes to shove, it very much depends who. Some on the right wing, on the very far right wing, would give up on the democratic side and say we need to control the whole territory and we need to retain Jewish control, therefore not necessarily give full citizenship to everyone. But there are many on the center-right, on the more moderate right, who care very much about democracy and would not agree to that. They would not agree to the idea of second-class citizenship or lack of citizenship permanently. But they’re not forced to choose, so it’s very easy for them to object to it in theory when they are postponing, perhaps indefinitely, this moment of choice. That’s part of the whole anti-solutionist strategy that they never choose. In theory, if you ask them “Which do you choose,” they’d say democracy. But in practice they’re choosing the status quo, and the status quo is not static. It’s moving towards, increasingly, a one-state reality where Palestinians cannot vote. 

The recent demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem has also sparked some intense criticism from the international community. While you have touched upon the wide range of views Israelis hold about the future of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, would you say a similar diversity of opinion exists with regards to East Jerusalem? Or is there perhaps more consensus on Israel’s official position?

Jerusalem is quite different. You’re right, there’s much more consensus there. It’s different in two regards at least. One is that simply if you ask people about what the end state is, there is a far wider group of Israelis who would say “Jerusalem should be united under Israeli control, period.” But still, there’s a sizeable group of Israelis, and in the context of a peace treaty, perhaps even a majority, who would support a division of Jerusalem of some kind or another. Perhaps. But it is far less clear than in the context of the West Bank. On the West Bank, most Israelis would agree to far-reaching compromise in the context of peace, in Jerusalem it’s much harder. 

Secondly, the question is what exactly is East Jerusalem. For many Israelis it would be far easier to give up on many of the Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, but not the Jewish neighborhoods. Most Israelis don’t know Jerusalem that well. Jerusalemites of course do, I’m a Jerusalemite, but many Israelis from Tel Aviv or the Tel Aviv area don’t know Jerusalem that well. When they’re talking about Jerusalem they’re mostly thinking about the Old City. That’s true also of many Arabs and Muslims outside the Arab world, they’re thinking mostly of the Old City, where the major political problem is. 

The demolitions in East Jerusalem are interesting because they are technically not in East Jerusalem. They are in areas that are technically outside the city, in the Areas A and B that the Palestinian Authority controls [under the Oslo II Accord]. And in that sense, it’s a very rare case where Israel demolished houses in areas that are actually, technically, under Palestinian control. But they are west of the [West Bank] barrier. So physically speaking, today, they are grouped with Jerusalem, although, technically, on the map they are not. So, it’s a very complex case in that regard. 

Legally, there’s also a significant difference. In the West Bank, Areas A and B are under varying degrees of Palestinian control; Area C is under complete Israeli control. But the Israeli control in all of these cases is through the military, and in theory, temporary. East Jerusalem is different. Israel expanded the boundaries of municipal West Jerusalem to include Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem and then a whole bunch of other territory around it. And so, under Israeli law, [East Jerusalem] is part of Israel; it is part of the city of Jerusalem. So, Israel treats the area and its residents very differently than it does in Area C or any other part of the West Bank. For example, the residents of East Jerusalem are permanent residents of Israel and can vote in Jerusalem municipal elections, although they choose not to, by and large. In theory some of them can apply for Israeli citizenship, although they do not. It’s a very different reality. It’s one where Israel does not claim temporary status. It claims that this is permanent, and indeed, extends Israeli civilian law. If you want to build a house in East Jerusalem, you do not do it through the military authority; you go through the civilian authority. It can be hard to get, but that’s how you do it. 

Our final two questions will be focusing more on the United States. I think it’s fair to say that the economic peace plan unveiled by the Trump administration hasn’t exactly been met with unbridled enthusiasm. What is your evaluation of what has been announced so far, and what are your expectations for the as-yet-unreleased political aspect of the peace plan?

You’re right, it was received with, at best, mixed reactions. First, I’d say, to give them some credit, a lot of what’s in the plan and the economic side of things is, in theory, positive. They are proposing a very long list of projects and initiatives and a huge amount of money behind it, that, if it happened, would be very positive. And they did get buy-in from their main partners in the Gulf, the Saudis and the Emiratis, and in that regard, it could be good. 

The chances of that being implemented are very low, extremely low, for two reasons. First is it depends almost completely on the political side, and they have not yet published that, so we don’t know what the details are. But there they would have a very difficult task of finding a political solution that would satisfy both sides and allow for the economic steps to push forward. Fundamentally, you see, the economic development of the Palestinian territories—it’s not just about injecting capital or finding the right kind of project. It’s about allowing Palestinians comprehensive planning authority, freedom of movement in the West Bank between Areas A and B—there are currently over a hundred enclaves of Areas A and B that pass through Israeli-controlled Area C—not to mention the Gaza Strip, which is blockaded. So, the ability to develop economically this kind of territory is extremely limited because of the political reality. You have to solve at least some of the political questions and, in particular, the freedom of movement, zoning, export and import, if you want to have economic development. All of that, of course, is lacking from the economic side of things, it depends on the political. 

Second is that they went through this whole process of building this vision, but at the same time they took a whole host of unilateral steps that the US had every right to do—as they keep saying—but that alienated the Palestinians dramatically. So, for example, they moved the embassy to Jerusalem. Again, that’s a legitimate thing for the Americans to do, it’s the American embassy. They also happened to be correct, I think, that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. But they did it in a way that was completely divorced from the peace process, instead of being a “carrot” for the Israelis in the peace process, in the context of some concession, in the context of some compromise with the Palestinians. Instead of making clear to the Palestinians why their aspirations in East Jerusalem would still be valid after this move, it was completely divorced from those considerations and seen by the Palestinians, therefore, as taking Jerusalem off the table. And Jerusalem is one of the absolute core issues of the final status negotiations, so if you take that off the table, there is very little to discuss. As a result, the Palestinians have not officially spoken to the Americans about the peace process since December 2017. Some of [the Trump peace plan] was done before December 2017, but everything since has been without official contact, at least, with the Palestinians; I imagine there was unofficial contact. That is, to put it very mildly, not a good way to negotiate between two partners, if one of the partners is not even speaking to you. The irony is that, for the Americans now, to negotiate with the Palestinians, it would be easier to have the Israelis moderate between the Americans and the Palestinians than vice versa. And that’s not a healthy position for a negotiator to be in. 

Several Democratic presidential contenders like Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg have come out in opposition to Israel’s military occupation. Do you think a Democratic victory in 2020 would radically alter the United States’ current approach to the issue, or do you think it’s more realistic to expect a moderate shift?

I think it depends very much on which Democrat. Obviously all of the people you have mentioned have very serious criticism of some of Israeli policy, especially the settlement policy in the West Bank. But there’s a huge difference between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders, does view, I think, the Israeli occupation as the source of the problem, whereas Joe Biden views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—including the occupation—as the source of the problem and would like to solve both the occupation and the conflict, probably in the same effort. Bernie Sanders, not necessarily. That’s a very big difference. So, if Bernie Sanders were president, I think you could expect quite a radical change in American foreign policy. With Joe Biden it would be more moderate, though it would still be very different from the Trump administration. The Trump administration has been almost unequivocally on Israel’s side in almost every issue, and a Biden administration, I think, would be very different. It would still be very pro-Israeli, in part because the American public is extremely pro-Israeli, and that’s not just true of Evangelical Republicans, that’s true of the American public at large. But it would be much more circumspect about specific aspects of Israeli policy, particularly the settlements and, for example, demolitions in Areas A and B. So those kinds of things that hinder, in the view, I imagine, of a Biden administration, the possibility of reaching a viable two-state solution. Joe Biden is obviously a very strong supporter of Israel; he has been for decades. That’s not necessarily the case with Bernie Sanders, although he states clearly that he supports Israel’s right to exist—which is not much of a concession, saying that a country has a right to exist. But it is a very different position than Joe Biden. It’s more of an open question with Warren or Buttigieg; they have much less of a track record on foreign policy. I think Warren would be quite different from Bernie Sanders, I’m guessing she would be somewhere in between Sanders and Biden, I don’t know. And Buttigieg, I guess, would also be somewhere in between, although I don’t know precisely.