Israeli politicians face a clear and present danger. It is not Iran’s nuclear program. Nor is it the risk that Egypt’s instability or the civil war in Syria will spill over into an Arab-Israeli conflagration. Rather, it is U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s forthcoming peace plan.
This plan will not contain major surprises. It will probably be a juxtaposition of previous plans, such as the Clinton parameters or the Bush road map. Israelis know what the plan contains and what will be required of Israel if it accepts the plan.
The threat contained in the plan is threefold. First, this is a committed secretary of state serving under a second-term president focused on his legacy. This administration, perceived to be unsupportive of Israel, is not burdened by electoral considerations. For Israeli politicians, however, electoral considerations are a permanent concern. The shakiness of the governing coalition, which binds extreme right-wing parties with more moderate centrist parties, poses a constant threat to the survival of the Israeli government.
Second, Kerry’s plan comes amid growing international criticism of Israel. Israel has faced criticism in the past. What is different today is that it is accompanied by an emerging trend of divestments and sanctions. This is a new and frightening prospect because it threatens Israeli economic and academic institutions and high-tech companies.
If this trend continues, it might pull Israel’s middle class out of its apathy. Israel has weathered the global recession of recent years largely due to its financial and high-tech sectors. While the rising cost of living and economic inequality have resulted in social protests, macroeconomic indicators have been extremely positive. The threat of a recession due to boycotts and divestments is a huge concern.
The professional middle class can be a decisive electoral force. If it supports a certain political party, it could well tip the balance in an election. The newly formed Yesh Atid party won second place in the last election, largely on a domestic economic platform. It did not have a clear foreign and security policy agenda. Its decision to join a Likud-led coalition gave life to the current government. However, if it leaves, Israel will likely go to an early election – and there is a good chance that, if recession hits, the party will emerge as the big winner.
Third, Israeli politicians who have opposed territorial concessions in the past have always had a Palestinian ally. Their most convincing claim has been Palestinian refusal to sign offers presented to them. The argument that “there is no Palestinian partner for peace” has been a common tool in Israel’s public-relations toolbox. Palestinian violence against Israelis has given this claim a convincing ring even while Israel, through its aggressive settlement policy and human-rights violations, has reduced the chance of Palestinian accommodation.
Now, the relative calm in the occupied territories and a moderate Palestine Liberation Organization leadership make this claim sound empty and manipulative. Mahmoud Abbas is the most moderate Palestinian leader the Israelis have faced. His recent statements suggest that Palestinians are willing to compromise in ways they were unwilling or unable to in the past.
Not surprisingly, the Israelis have raised the bar by requiring that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The Israelis are also concerned that Palestinians will turn to a new, nonviolent resistance strategy. If this were met by Israeli violence, it would cause steep erosion in international support for Israel’s policies – erosion that may well be accompanied by sanctions.
Recent statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggest he is increasingly aware of the fundamental dilemma that Israel is bound to face: If it holds on to the occupied territories, it will be forced to choose between being a Jewish but non-democratic state and being a democratic state but seeing Jews become a minority. It is unclear whether this dilemma is a pressing concern for the government, but that Netanyahu brought it up is significant.
Can Israel respond positively to Kerry’s plan? The Israelis will wait for the Palestinian response before they commit. If the Palestinians accept the plan (probably with reservations), it will be difficult for the Israeli government to reject it outright. This could result in a shakeup of the government. The extreme right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party would likely leave the coalition. However, the government could survive by aligning with the Labor Party or the Shas religious party, or both.
The Israelis are still hoping that the Palestinians will reject some of the key elements of the plan, making it easier for them to do the same. The idea is to accept the plan in principle, but bury it in practice. The litmus test for the Obama administration is to prevent that from happening.
Zeev Maoz is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Davis. This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).