Israeli Election Coverage Part IV: Security and Foreign Policy

The Israeli government has called for a general election to take place on April 9, 2019. Accordingly, I’ve decided to continue my series on Israeli politics. It is available as a video below, but if you can’t watch or would prefer not to, a summary has been provided further down. Additionally, feel free to discuss or ask questions in the comments, being mindful of site rules regarding hate speech, threats, or personal attacks.

Note: this issue is necessarily highly contentious and some may feel that the perspective I have provided is biased. However, the views I describe are not necessarily intended as my own or that of The Avocado. My foremost intention is to examine how the debate over security and foreign policy is informed from the Israeli point of view and how it impacts the political landscape within Israel itself.

The Israel Defense Forces: an Overview

The Israel Defense Forces comprise the Army, Navy, and Air Force of the State of Israel. Unlike in most western militaries, the IDF is a unitary entity with no distinct branches, a single general staff, and zero overlap between its various directorates, commands, and divisions. The IDF is a predominantly conscript army. Most Israeli citizens– men and women alike– serve for 2-3 years. Men who serve must remain on file as reservists until age 45. Most non-Jewish citizens are exempt from the draft, but many can and do volunteer. Ultra-Orthodox Jews similarly get out (as previously discussed), and others may defer their service to civilian roles such as ambulance drivers or veterinarians.

Most active IDF personnel do not serve in combat roles, which are more selective and increasingly reliant on career soldiers– though this has become controversial for fear that it may breed a political culture of negligent militarism in the vein of the United States.

A Brief History

At the end of the Israeli War of Independence1, most of what had been the former British Mandate of Palestine had become the State of Israel. The remainder was divided between two of Israel’s enemies in the conflict: the West Bank, comprising most of the Judean Mountains and the lower Jordan Valley, was occupied and later annexed by Jordan, and the Gaza Strip was occupied by Egypt2

During the War of Independence, Israel had gained control of some predominantly-Arab regions, but also lost control of some Jewish enclaves within the West Bank: most crucially East Jerusalem with its historic Old City, a collection of villages to the south called Gush Etzion, and the Latrun Salient, which cut off the main road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. These setbacks were strategic as well as symbolic, with the size and shape of the West Bank proving troublesome for the young nation. Just north of Tel Aviv (the largest city), a nine-mile corridor was all that connected the north and center of Israel, with locals subject to frequent border raids by guerillas known as Fedayeen.

In 1967, Israel’s neighbors attempted to coordinate an attack that would eliminate the Jewish state once and for all. But Israel, with a superior intel network and more efficient military organization, pre-empted this attack, instead handily defeating Egypt, Syria, and Jordan in what became known as the Six-Day War. In the course of the fighting, Israel had gained control over all of the former British Mandate of Palestine, as well as Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Syria’s Golan Heights.

While the Sinai and Golan were to be used as bargaining chips in future peace agreements, the Gaza Strip and West Bank were viewed at the time as rightfully belonging to Israel, resulting in the authorization of new Jewish settlements in these conquered territories. But the government quickly realized that annexing these territories would result in a Jewish-minority state. Instead, Labor Minister Yigal Allon proposed that only the most strategically and historically important areas be annexed while the rest be returned to Jordan and Egypt as part of a comprehensive peace treaty.

Jordan had wanted to make peace with Israel as early as 1951, but the ruling Hashemite Dynasty faced overwhelming political pressure not to do so. In 1970, a civil war broke out between Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization, ending the West Bank’s future viability as an integral part of Jordan. And in 1978, following the devastating Yom Kippur War, Egypt renounced its claim to the Gaza Strip in order to become the first Arab state to make peace with Israel.

Thus the status of the remaining territories entered a holding pattern: while East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights were annexed, the remainder of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were not, yet Jewish settlements continued to grow within them and require ever-greater military protection. The conflict therein transitioned to an insurgency, culminating in the First Intifada of 1988-93.

While leading the effort to suppress the Intifada, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin campaigned politically to end the conflict once and for all. As head of the IDF during the Six-Day War, Rabin had once heralded the “liberation” of the territories, but like many others quickly came to view the occupation as an obstacle to peace and democracy. Elected to the Premiership in 1992, he began negotiating with the PLO, and in the resulting Oslo Accords, Israel agreed to cede gradually more territory to the control of a new autonomous government known as the Palestinian Authority.

This agreement incidentally resulted in Rabin’s assassination by a far-right Jewish terrorist. It also angered Hamas, the radical religious wing of the Palestinian camp, which called for the elimination of Israel altogether, leading to a Second Intifada in the early 2000s. Nevertheless, from 1995 to 2007, more and more territory was ceded to the Palestinian Authority until it comprised most of the Palestinian population (outside East Jerusalem, about which more further down).

In response to the Second Intifada, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip and from the northern portion of the West Bank, as well as the construction of a concrete barrier separating the largest Jewish settlements from populated areas under PA jurisdiction. Though more withdrawals were planned, Sharon was incapacitated by a stroke. His successor, Ehud Olmert, was quickly mired in corruption scandals, and in 2007, Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from the PA, halting the peace process entirely to this day.

The West Bank

Under the Oslo Accords, control of the West Bank is divided into three distinct jurisdictions:

  • Area A is the exclusive jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority and is off-limits to Israeli citizens, with some exceptions like journalists and aid workers.
  • Area B is also ruled by the PA, but security is operated jointly with the IDF. Together, Areas A and B comprise 40% of the West Bank by landmass, but almost all of its non-Jewish population; the exception being Arab East Jerusalemites, who can opt to become Israeli citizens but usually don’t.
  • Area C is under direct control of the IDF and home to over 400,000 Israeli settlers living under martial law.

78% of these settlers live west of the security barrier, the majority of which directly border Israel proper and would likely become part of Israel in any future peace treaty. Most of Area C’s land is found in the Jordan Valley, where the IDF maintains radar stations to monitor potential air attacks from the east. As of 2015, only 3% of settlers live here– with the majority therein actually supporting the Peace Camp3 in the most recent elections.

Between the wall and the Jordan Valley are the remaining 18% of settlers. For the Palestinians, these settlements are the greatest obstacle to freedom of movement, as they divide Areas A and B into a collection of enclaves separated by IDF checkpoints. For the IDF, these settlements are the biggest obstacle to security, as they make easy targets for would-be assailants; and as many religious settlers are openly hostile to the Army itself, soldiers are often tasked with protecting Palestinian civilians and themselves from attacks by settlers, as well as protecting the settlers.

For Israel as a whole, the greatest concern over relinquishing control of the West Bank is strategic: most of the land sits on mountains overlooking Israel’s largest population centers. If a future Palestinian state crumbles, it could become a base of operations for more militant factions or a puppet for more advanced enemies like Iran. In such a scenario, the lack of strategic depth at Israel’s populous center could threaten the territorial integrity of the country, and the loss of the Jordan Valley’s radar stations could leave the nation blind to an imminent bombardment from the east. Nevertheless, the position of the IDF general staff is significantly at odds with that of the Netanyahu government.

The Gaza Strip

Israel has no remaining desire to incorporate any part of the Gaza Strip into its own sovereign territory. Because of Hamas’ control over the region, the PA does not consider itself to be unified, which is another obstacle to peace negotiations. To prevent the import of weapons and other war materiel, Israel has blockaded the coastline around the Strip. This is generally regarded as a humanitarian crisis, with constant shortages of food and electricity, which Hamas has deflected into violent demonstrations against Israel, such as rocket attacks. Over the past decade, this has resulted in a number of bloody, inconclusive conflicts. This in turn has discouraged Israel from withdrawing more settlements from the West Bank for fear of a similar hostile takeover there.

Earlier in this decade, Hamas began making overtures toward recognizing the PA, but these efforts have since been voided by assassinations of PA officials in Gaza and escalating violence in the form of incendiary balloons and kites to burn Israeli fields across the border. A ceasefire was reached in 2018, but the IDF is now terrified that the Trump Administration’s wholesale cutoff of Palestinian aid will incite a Third Intifada. So thanks for that.

This is one area in which opposition parties have been able to attack the Prime Minister, though the efficacy of this strategy is not reflected in recent opinion polls.

Long-Term Solutions

A majority of Israelis, Palestinians, and international organizations favor the Two-State Solution, in which Israel would exist side-by-side with an independent Palestinian state. Most international groups favor a process of land-swaps, in which Israel would be able to incorporate many of its settlements in exchange for ceding some of its own land to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Most Israelis would prefer to give up less land and maintain the radar stations on the Jordan River. Overall, the two-state solution is the stated goal of all center and left-wing parties.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party used to support a two-state solution, but in the last election joined most of its coalition partners to support a State-Plus Solution, in which Israel would annex the West Bank with the PA as a subordinate autonomous entity.

These are not the only proposals however. Several former IDF officers have proposed a New State Solution, in which a large section of the Sinai Peninsula would be purchased from Egypt and made part of a Palestinian state in exchange for Israel’s annexation of border settlements. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin supports a One-State Solution, in which Israel and the Palestinian Authority become a single state with equal citizenship. Yet others support the Three-State Solution, in which most the territories are returned to Jordan and Egypt (who do not want it back).

The North

Israel’s security challenges along its northern borders present the greatest threat to the country at large. Lebanon and Syria have remained in an official state of war with Israel since 1948. Both countries contain the sources of most of Israel’s precious water supply, and tensions have remained high with occasional air skirmishes.

Hezbollah, the Lebanese government, and Syria comprise a sphere of influence for Iran. Formerly a friend of Israel, Iran became the Jewish state’s most visible and vocal enemy following the 1979 Revolution. Concurrently, Israel has heavily supported Kurdish military forces in Syria and Iraq. Kurdistan is widely seen as “Israel’s Israel:” our most enthusiastic supporter in the region, and our most trusted partner against expansion by Iran as well as an increasingly antagonistic Turkey. Needless to say, President Trump’s announcement of US military advisors’ withdrawal from the Kurdish region has sent shockwaves through the Israeli political sphere.

In most of the western world, military and foreign policy are not a major political concern except in times of war or international crisis. But Israel has a lot of enemies, most of them within driving distance, and there’s very little separating “the troops” from ordinary citizens– IDF personnel do not receive special treatment on trains or airplanes, do not receive a “thank you for your service,”4 and there is no GI bill. They are us, which makes defense policy all the more prescient.

Nevertheless, one should not buy into headline-driven stereotypes that we are living in a warzone. If anything, political debate in 2019 is shaping up to be uniquely unaffected by concerns regarding defense or foreign policy. Tune in next time as I examine the pivotal issue of this election: the Prime Minister himself.