In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Dov Waxman, the Stotsky professor of Jewish historical and cultural studies at Northeastern University.
More than seven decades after the outbreak of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there seems to be no solution forthcoming to one of the world’s most intractable disputes. While failure to achieve a fair settlement represents one of the main sources of chaos in the Middle East, years of intervention by international organizations and mediation by various countries have failed to reconcile the warring parties.
A major concern among world leaders, international observers and scholars who study the region is that violence has become the accepted status quo for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Peace negotiations are difficult, and so the preference on both sides is to maintain belligerence and invest in getting the upper hand over the opponent, often with devastating results.
In 1993, the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) came to an agreement on a plan to implement a two-state solution as part of the Oslo Accords signed in Washington, DC. The two-state solution has been a popular answer to the Israeli-Palestinian question in the eyes of the international community. However, the likelihood of the actualization of this approach appears to be unlikely given years of fighting and protracted violence that followed the signing of the accords.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged successful in the recent elections and pledged to annex large areas of the West Bank — a move that will expectedly increase tensions in the region. A recent poll found that 42% of Israelis are in favor of annexation of the West Bank, with just 28% opposing annexation.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Dov Waxman, a renowned Middle East expert and the Stotsky professor of Jewish historical and cultural studies at Northeastern University, about the latest developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel’s latest election and the state of its democracy.
The text has been lightly edited for clarity.
Kourosh Ziabari: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged days before the Israeli election that he will annex large areas of the West Bank, including the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, if he wins the vote. He also said he would prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state by controlling the entire area. Do you think he will go ahead with the annexation plan, or was the pledge mostly a cosmetic gesture to appeal to his nationalist base in the election? Will the international community resist him, given that the settlements are considered illegal under international law?
Dov Waxman: Prime Minister Netanyahu’s pledge to officially annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank was undoubtedly a last-minute bid to persuade rightwing Israelis, especially settlers, to vote for his Likud Party rather than its right-wing rivals, and it apparently worked. Previously, Netanyahu opposed legislative efforts to apply Israeli sovereignty over West Bank settlements — although some recent laws were passed which effectively did this. Given Netanyahu’s prior opposition to annexing West Bank settlements, one might dismiss his pre-election pledge as empty rhetoric, but I think this would be mistaken.
Now that he’s on record supporting a partial annexation of West Bank territory — albeit a relatively small amount of land — it will be harder for Netanyahu to resist future attempts to annex the settlements, especially when members of his own party or governing coalition partners make them, which they will surely do. In fact, in order to form a new government and stay out of jail, Netanyahu may have no choice but consent to the annexation of at least some settlements in the West Bank.
There are currently reports in the Israeli media that the small, far-right Union of Right-Wing Parties, which won five parliament seats in the recent election, is demanding that Netanyahu commit to annexing all Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a precondition to joining his government, and that in exchange the party would support legislation granting Netanyahu immunity from criminal prosecution over the various corruption charges he faces. Even without such a deal, Netanyahu knows that if he forms a narrow right-wing coalition government — as he is likely to do — he will have to do something to satisfy the annexationist desires of those on the Israeli right, including the vast majority of Likud members.
Annexing all or part of the West Bank was once a pipe dream of those on the far right of the Israeli political spectrum. Now it has become more mainstream and looks increasingly likely. This is partly because Israeli hopes for a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians have collapsed, so a major argument against annexation — namely that it would make a two-state solution harder to achieve — has lost its force in Israeli politics. It is also because the unswerving support that the Trump administration has given Israel, and especially President [Donald] Trump’s recent recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, has emboldened the pro-annexation camp and led them to believe that Israel could annex West Bank land with American acquiescence, if not outright support.
I still believe that American mediation is essential for brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that could lead to a two-state solution. If the United States has lost its ability to perform this crucial role, then, sadly, a two-state solution is even less likely.
It’s probably true that the Trump administration would not object if Netanyahu’s next government annexed parts of the West Bank. Most of the international community, however, would certainly loudly condemn this. But what measures would the international community actually take to penalize Israel? I doubt the international community would do much other than criticize, which Israel is by now accustomed to, and dismissive of. If Israel annexes some West Bank settlements — initially just the largest ones that are close to the Green Line — and does not incur any significant diplomatic or economic cost, then it will be encouraged to undertake further annexations. Thus, Israeli annexation of much of the West Bank will probably happen in a gradual, piecemeal fashion, unless the international community can prevent it.
Ziabari: In a recent article, you argued that the Palestinian issue has not been a major factor in the recent Israeli election as opposed to previous elections. Can you briefly elaborate on the reasons? Is it realistic to say that the majority of Israelis have given up their hopes for a lasting peace with Palestine?
Waxman: I think there were three major reasons why the Palestinian issue barely featured in the recent Israeli election campaign. First, more than anything else, the election was a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership. Both Netanyahu and his rivals made this election about him, not about issues or policies. Second, the Blue and White coalition that posed the greatest electoral challenge to the ruling Likud Party did not present Israelis with a clear alternative to the Likud’s approach to the conflict with the Palestinians. The Blue and White list, headed by the former Israeli army chief Benny Gantz, supports Israel’s continued control over the West Bank — at least for the foreseeable future — and Israel’s blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
Although Gantz’s Blue and White coalition is, in fact, more centrist than Netanyahu’s Likud Party on the Palestinian issue, Blue and White downplayed this difference in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to attract right-wing voters.
Third, the scant attention given to the Palestinian issue in the recent election reflects the fact that the issue no longer animates Israeli politics like it once did. Most Israelis have grown tired of it, and they no longer believe that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible in the foreseeable future. The failure of the peace process, along with the failure — from an Israeli perspective — of Israel’s “disengagement” from Gaza, has convinced most Israelis that neither a negotiated peace agreement with the Palestinians nor a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank is possible in the near term.
Hence, Israelis have stopped arguing about whether Israel should withdraw from the West Bank. They also don’t think that Israel can do much with regards to Gaza as long as Hamas controls it — just maintain its blockade and periodically wage war against Hamas in order to weaken and deter it. This popular consensus has reduced the salience of the Palestinian issue in Israeli politics and allowed Israelis to focus on other things, like official corruption or the high cost of living.
Ziabari: A two-state solution is apparently the most popular way to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the eyes of the international community. Do you think hopes for this ideal have been dashed with President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel?
Waxman: Hope for a two-state solution has been diminishing for some time now, since well before Trump came into office. While President [Barack] Obama was an eloquent advocate of a two-state solution — in stark contrast to Trump — he failed to bring this about, largely due to Netanyahu’s intransigence and President [Mahmoud] Abbas’s indecision. The collapse of the US-sponsored peace process during Obama’s term in office, and the growth of Israeli settlements deep inside the West Bank, have dashed many people’s hopes for a two-state solution, irrespective of Trump’s reckless and politically self-serving decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there.
Trump’s reversal of longstanding US policy regarding Jerusalem has only made matters worse. Although he has not taken the issue of Jerusalem’s future status “off the table,” as he likes to claim, he has made this issue even harder to resolve than it already was, because Israelis will probably be less inclined to compromise over the future of Jerusalem now that Israel’s most important ally appears to officially support Israel’s continued rule over all of Jerusalem, including the eastern half of the city that Palestinians want to be their future capital. In reality, Trump’s declaration doesn’t rule out the possibility that Jerusalem could be divided or even shared.
The most damaging consequence of the Trump administration’s decision to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem has been on US-Palestinian relations. The Palestinian Authority and the PLO have been boycotting the Trump administration ever since, and the Palestinian public has become very hostile to Trump. Now that the United States can no longer engage with Israel and the Palestinians, it can’t serve as a mediator between the two sides in the manner it once did, although it was never an impartial mediator. I still believe that American mediation is essential for brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that could lead to a two-state solution. If the United States has lost its ability to perform this crucial role, then, sadly, a two-state solution is even less likely.
Ziabari: What’s your take on President Donald Trump’s decision to cut off US funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)? It’s believed that countless Palestinians will be hurt, the Palestinian Authority faces the risk of collapse and hardliners in the region will be empowered as a result of this divestment. What are your thoughts?
Waxman: President Trump’s decision to stop US funding for UNWRA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, is another wrong-headed decision he has made concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is one of a number of punitive actions his administration has taken against the Palestinians — it has also closed the PLO’s office in Washington DC, slashed US aid to the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, and stopped funding Israeli-Palestinian coexistence programs involving Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
These punitive actions seem designed to pressure the Palestinian leadership, particularly President Abbas, to accept the “deal of the century” that President Trump wants to make between Israel and the Palestinians. Trump seems to believe that the best way to achieve this deal is by applying financial pressure on the Palestinians, and offering them economic incentives. This approach might be effective in real-estate deals, but it’s deeply misguided as an approach to conflict resolution. The Palestinian leadership is unlikely to capitulate. In fact, it has responded with defiance, which is hardly surprising given the Palestinians’ long history of stubborn resistance to Israeli pressure and coercion.
Even if the Palestinians were susceptible to American pressure, the decision to stop funding UNWRA doesn’t actually accomplish this because other countries have increased their funding for UNWRA to make up for the loss of US funding. All it really does, therefore, is alienate Palestinians, isolate the US internationally, and potentially empower Hamas, because needy Palestinian refugees in the Gaza Strip may have to rely on local welfare providers that are affiliated with Hamas.
Ziabari: Israel is recognized by the United States and its allies as the only democracy in the Middle East. However, the Israeli government discriminates against Arab Israelis, evidenced by the Jewish nation state bill that will give Jews special status under the law. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made many attempts to divert media attention from corruption charges against him and is accused of undermining the authority of the police and the judiciary. Do you agree that the Israeli democracy is in decline?
Waxman: Israel has never been a truly liberal democracy that treats all citizens equally regardless of their nationality, ethnicity or religion. Instead, it has been an “ethnic democracy,” serving Jews first and foremost. Historically, Israel has become more liberal over time — within the Green Line, as freedom of expression has been expanded, and state control over the economy and the media has been reduced. But in recent years, particularly since the formation of the last government in 2015, there has been an erosion of the liberal elements of Israeli democracy, although the institutions of Israeli democracy remain intact, and Israel still has a free press and a vibrant civil society.
There are many warning signs, therefore, that Israel is in danger of becoming an illiberal democracy. But at least this danger to Israeli democracy has not gone unnoticed in Israel. A growing chorus of voices, including Israel’s President Ruby Rivlin, has been sounding the alarm, and many Israelis recognize this danger.
The nation-state law is just the latest — and potentially the most significant — illiberal law that has been enacted in recent years; other examples include the Nakba law, the [anti-] boycott law and the NGO law. There have also been attempts to limit the power and independence of the supreme court, which has long been a bastion of liberalism and a defender of the rights of Israel’s Arab citizens. Netanyahu’s response to the multiple corruption investigations against him has also threatened the rule of law because he has repeatedly attacked its guardians in Israel — the attorney general’s office, state prosecutors, even the police — in an effort to persuade Israelis that he is being unfairly persecuted; a similar tactic to President Trump’s attacks against the FBI and the Justice Department.
There are many warning signs, therefore, that Israel is in danger of becoming an illiberal democracy. But at least this danger to Israeli democracy has not gone unnoticed in Israel. A growing chorus of voices, including Israel’s President Ruby Rivlin, has been sounding the alarm, and many Israelis recognize this danger. In a survey conducted by the non-partisan think tank, the Israel Democracy Institute, in 2018, 45% of Israelis agreed that Israel’s democracy is in “serious danger.” For this reason, I’m confident that Israeli democracy is resilient and not in terminal decline. Israel is one of many countries around the world in which liberal democracy is currently under attack by right-wing populism, but it’s premature, and alarmist, to conclude that democracy in Israel, or elsewhere, is doomed.
Ziabari: On March 25, the United States recognized the Golan Heights as part of Israel through a presidential proclamation. Many world countries, including Israel’s European allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE rejected and criticized the move. What are the implications of this recognition? Does the decision change anything in the status of the Golan in practice?
Waxman: President Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights — announced during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent visit to the White House — was a political gift to Netanyahu aimed at helping him win re-election. But I doubt it was a significant factor in Netanyahu’s victory. Although the proclamation represents a major change in US policy, it doesn’t change the international legal status of the Golan Heights. Legally, it is still occupied territory, and will no doubt continue to be regarded as such by the rest of the international community.
But while the international community will still consider the Golan Heights to be Syrian territory, Israel is under no pressure to end its occupation there, unlike the Palestinian-populated West Bank. It is widely accepted that Israel has a legitimate security concern about withdrawing from this strategic plateau, especially given the likelihood of continued violence and instability in Syria. The Assad regime in Syria also has very few friends around the world because of its brutal conduct during the civil war. It doesn’t have the ability to challenge Israel’s control of the Golan Heights either diplomatically or militarily. In this respect, the change in US policy vis-à-vis the Golan was completely unnecessary, since there was no pressure on Israel to give up the Golan Heights. In fact, Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights received no international attention, whereas it now does, due to Trump’s proclamation.
Although Trump’s proclamation doesn’t change the status of the Golan Heights, it does have two serious implications. First, it undermines the post-World War II international norm that forbids states from acquiring territory by force — a norm that is expressed in the UN’s founding charter. Now Russia can rightfully accuse the United States of having a double standard when American policymakers criticize Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Second, it emboldens those on the Israeli right — including members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party — to push forward with their plans to annex parts of the West Bank. The concern that unilaterally annexing West Bank territory would jeopardize American support for Israel was one of the reasons why Netanyahu has been able to largely resist efforts by his right-wing colleagues to apply Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank. Trump’s proclamation on the Golan Heights appears to have alleviated this concern, and encouraged Israeli advocates of annexation to believe that, with Trump in the White House, it is now the right time for Israel to annex parts of the West Bank.
Moreover, they may want to act quickly before Trump leaves office. Thus, by recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan, Trump may have, perhaps inadvertently, paved the way for Israeli sovereignty over at least part of the West Bank.
Ziabari: US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar has been repeatedly accused by Donald Trump of being anti-Semitic and anti-Israel. Is the US president deliberately sowing discord within the Democratic Party on the issue of Israel? Do you think he is able to sway the Jewish voters to re-elect him in 2020 by vilifying the Democratic politicians and accusing them of being biased against the Jews?
Waxman: Many Jews have been offended by some of Rep. Ilhan Omar’s statements and tweets because they have evoked, perhaps unwittingly, traditional anti-Semitic tropes and accusations, like the charge of dual loyalty. However, I think that President Trump’s repeated accusation that Democrats are anti-Israel and even anti-Jewish is a cynical attempt to lure some Jewish voters — particularly in swing states such as Florida — and Jewish donors away from the Democratic Party. Republicans in general have been trying to do this for some time by emphasizing their pro-Israel credentials and accusing Democrats of being anti-Israel or at least insufficiently committed to Israel’s security.
These efforts have consistently failed, election after election. The reason is simple: The voting behavior of the vast majority of American Jews is not determined by which party they think is more pro-Israel. Israel is not what’s on their minds in the voting booth. For most American Jewish voters, like American voters in general, it’s domestic issues like the economy and health care. President Trump is especially unpopular among American Jews. He received just a quarter of the American Jewish vote in the 2016 presidential election — less than the previous Republican candidate Mitt Romney won in the 2012 election. Since then, American Jews have overwhelmingly disapproved of President Trump’s performance in office — more than Americans in general — and a majority of American Jews also disapproves of Trump’s handling of US-Israel relations.
So there’s no reason to believe that Trump will be any more successful in attracting American Jewish support than he was in the last election. The only group of American Jews who can be expected to vote for Trump in large numbers are Orthodox American Jews, [who are] about 10% of the American Jewish community, and whose social and political views are closer to those of Evangelical Christians than they are to that of the majority of more secular, liberal American Jews.