Why is Israel behaving irrationally and what can be done?

In my most recent trip to Israel, I observed just how dysfunctional the current Israeli government is

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

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I have argued in a previous piece that Hamas rockets serve no strategic and military purpose. But the Israeli leadership, in my view, has just as much of an interest in promoting conflict by responding violently to such provocations. In my most recent trip to Israel, I observed just how dysfunctional the current Israeli government is, and this goes a long way in explaining why picking fights with Hamas is such a tempting proposition.

There is, at least in the West, a serious misapprehension about where power lies in the Israeli state. Most would assume that the buck stops with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That is how executive power is normally concentrated in the West, for example in the Office of President in the United States or France.

Netanyahu is currently at the head of a very wide and fragile coalition that is pulling in opposite directions at every turn

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

But Netanyahu is currently at the head of a very wide and fragile coalition that is pulling in opposite directions at every turn. This has reduced the PM to the role of team manager, trying to keep his cabinet together, rather than a political executive. This has absolutely crippled his capacity to take just about any decisive political action.

The do nothing PM?

He has been dubbed the “do nothing PM” and his strategy seems to simply be to stay in office and not make any decisions on any issue. For example, I have learnt how Netanyahu was completely out of the loop on the settlement building announcements on Kerry’s trip which torpedoed any remnants of the peace process. He seems to be hanging on to power by a thread, and is almost completely at the mercy of events as they unfold around him.

I also learnt that by far the majority of people even at the highest level wanted a peace settlement with the Palestinians. But because of Netanyahu’s hawkish beliefs, political weakness and the inability of the cabinet to take positive political action, the entire political process seems to have been successfully hijacked by the European immigrant settlers who are organized, driven and can push for their demands with impunity and with little push back from the government. The Settlers outmaneuvered the government politically at every turn, with the end result being that escalation in Gaza is just about the only thing that can keep the government together and allow Netanyahu to claim some sort of authority. Belligerence against “terrorists” is the only way for him to look powerful and seem as though he is in control.

And Netanyahu, who never wanted a viable peace plan on the table, seems keen to make the most of this opportunity. He has systematically used any pretext to avoid coming to the negotiation table with the Palestinians. Earlier this year, he was complaining that he could not negotiate with the PLO and Abbas because they did not speak for all Palestinians. Later, when the PLO and Hamas joined in a unity government, bringing unified leadership to the Palestinian territories, Netanyahu complained that he could not negotiate with a government aligned with those he views as terrorists – i.e. Hamas. This is despite the fact that Hamas was forced to change its charter, and accept the existence of the state of Israel.

Dynamics of domestic politics in Israel

So, the dynamics of domestic politics in Israel are tragically such that only an escalation against Hamas in Gaza can give the leadership of the country a common purpose. This conflict serves them as much as it does the leadership of Hamas. But the good news is that when it comes to the Israeli leadership, we in the international community do actually have means to realign their incentives and discourage further conflict.

Global protests and bad press have very little effect on Israeli politics. It seems that some Israelis have a siege mentality and feel that any criticism of Israel is at least partly driven by masked anti-Semitism. But I have found that most Israelis that I have spoken to were very concerned about the inroads made recently by the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Particularly, Divestment, which is biggest concern. Israel is partly dependent on inward Foreign Direct Investment, and much of its economic success owes to high tech industries that require both large inbound capital and direct communication with global markets and foreign partners.

The reason this is taken so seriously now is because the EU, one of Israel’s main trading partners, last year published guidelines that none of the funds it directs in bilateral projects towards Israel can go beyond the green line. And the EU has already banned imports of poultry and eggs from the settlements. In the wake of all this, private companies are starting to make similar moves. A Dutch pension fund, PGGM, has said it will divest from Israel’s biggest banks. Other funds are considering doing the same. These concrete steps, as small as they are so far, sent a very strong signal, and Israelis are taking notice.

The Settlers may not be moved by such threats, but everyone else will be. This is the one screw that Western leaders can tighten to force the Israeli leadership to face down the demands of their own extremist elements, and push for peace in the interest of civilians all around the region.


Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Lecturer in International Security at the University of Chicago. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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