Israel, open and opaque

Dr. Dana Allin

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This article was co-authored by Dr. Dana Allin and Dr. Steven Simon

In The Italians, a book of Cold War vintage, Luigi Barzini offered a comparison: “In Moscow nothing is known yet everything is clear. In Rome everything is public, there are no secrets, everybody talks, things are at times flamboyantly enacted, yet one understands nothing.” Barzini’s paradox came to mind after our longish trip last month to Israel, conducting a broad range of interviews. Israel is a country that has created considerable wealth in recent years, but it also has deep social and economic problems. And its government has agreed to a renewed peace process that, if successful, would entail the redrawing of de facto borders and the resettlement of a large part of its population – a population of dedicated settlers that would be almost certain to resist, possibly violently.

And yet, it was the death of an ultra-orthodox rabbi that, on the first Monday of our visit, brought some three-quarters of a million people onto the streets of Jerusalem. (The rabbi in question, for what it’s worth, spiritual head of the ultra-orthodox Shas party and at one-time Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi, had in the past ruled that trading land for peace was permitted if it would save lives.) Those throngs of mourners should inspire caution in anyone purporting to understand what is going on in Israel.

Still, there were some consistent signals. Firstly, no one with whom we spoke believes that the peace process that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry resurrected, in the face of much skepticism, will yield a final status agreement. Most thought the parties agreed to this process because, a) they had no graceful way of saying no to Secretary Kerry, and b) each side believes that it can squirm out of any commitments it might slide into. Put simply, the risk of success is not considered dangerously high.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that any final status agreement will have to accommodate stiff Israeli security requirements, including Israel Defense Forces (IDF) deployments along the River Jordan, and military access to Palestinian air space. This, said a Palestinian we met in Ramallah – speaking more in wry and weary sorrow than in anger – was not an arrangement that Palestinians would be inclined to accept. “The public would not consider this the end of occupation,” he said. A hawkish retired Israeli general tended to agree. “Robust and negotiable,” – that is, robust enough to satisfy Israel’s own concept of minimum security, but also negotiable to Palestinians – “is almost an empty box.”


Of course, if Israel’s leaders decided that an agreement for substantial withdrawal from the West Bank was in the country’s interests, they could no doubt instruct the security establishment to be more flexible in its requirements. But, until that point, and without political cover, it is hard to see the security establishment proposing or endorsing much flexibility in negotiations.

On the broader question of building an Israeli political constellation for major territorial concessions, there was varied speculation. Certainly the current coalition does not look like a promising vehicle for such concessions. Some said, however, that Netanyahu had a ready path to create such support by reshuffling the coalition – among other things, bringing the once moribund but somewhat recovered Labour Party back into government.

Israelis with whom we spoke do worry about the country’s future isolation in the absence of a viable solution that would end its occupation regime over Palestinians. The breakdown of talks, the return of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to the United Nations in new appeals for international recognition, the increasing willingness of European countries to entertain such appeals, and even question marks about America’s long-term attitudes – these and related scenarios were fretted about as the price of Israeli intransigence or Israel’s misunderstood predicament, depending on any given interlocutor’s particular perspective. But the concern was palpable – even those Israelis who dismiss their critics’ motives as part of a “delegitimization campaign” seemed worried.

In general, we tapped into currents of opinion that followed the familiar currents of the U.S. and European debate about what, precisely, Israel’s long-term intentions really are. The price of endless occupation may seem high, yet one member of the Israeli security elite – who is hardly a dogmatic leftist dove – argued that a kind of settlers’ lobby has achieved something like hegemony in much of Israel’s state and society, and is satisfied to pay the price of growing isolation for the “creeping annexation” of the West Bank. This was just one view; it was shared by some and rejected by others. In general, it seemed astonishing that, after Benjamin Netanyahu had been prime minister for three years in the 1990s, and again for nearly five years since 2009, with peace-process issues prominently in play for most of that time, we did not meet a single Israeli who could confidently tell us what he or she thought Netanyahu’s ultimate intentions were. They did not even agree on why it is that they do not know.

This article was first published on the IISS blog on Nov. 1, 2013.


Dr. Steven Simon is the Executive Director of IISS–U.S. and Corresponding Director of IISS–Middle East. He was Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa at the U.S. National Security Council from May 2011 to December 2012. Dr. Dana H. Allin has been Editor since 1998 of Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, with chief responsibility for the bi-monthly journal’s content and style. An accomplished scholar and writer on diverse themes, he is the author or co-author of five books, and was a principal drafter of a sixth, the 1997 report of The International Commission on the Balkans.

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