From Netanyahu to Netanyahu
Since Netanyahu's first term as prime minister (1996-1999), which followed Rabin's assassination, Israel has submerged into stagnation. No government has lasted long enough to achieve a genuine reconciliation with the Palestinians or with Israel's surrounding neighbors. No government since then has been courageous and humble at the same time, nor has managed to address the Palestinians' deep concerns and feelings of humiliation, while effectively conveying Israel's anxieties and existential fears.
What characterizes these years is one step forward, two steps back: Ehud Barak unilaterally withdrew the IDF's forces from Southern Lebanon in the year 2000. Nevertheless, only six years later, the IDF re-engaged in Lebanon, fighting a war against Hezbollah's military branch while destroying large parts of Beirut. Shortly after the war, Hezbollah managed to fully rearm itself. In the summer of 2005, Ariel Sharon led Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. After a long period of rockets launched into Israel, the IDF returned to Gaza, in December 2008, and engaged in another war-like operation. In addition to that, numerous military operations took place from Netanyahu to Netanyahu -- Operation Defensive Shield, Operation Determined Path, and Operation Days of Penitence, to name a few. Consequently, peace has not prevailed, mutual understanding has regressed, diplomatic efforts were few, and opportunities were missed.
Has Israel lost its motivation for peace?
Interestingly enough, although the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has worsened, other aspects of Israeli life have improved. The standard of living is much higher today than 10 years ago, while Israel's GDP almost doubled. Israel has probably the world's highest inflows of investments per capita. Israel's pride is in Warren Buffet's $4 billion investment in an Israeli company -- his first ever acquisition outside of the United States. In 2007 Israel registered almost 2,300,000 tourists -- a similar number to that recorded during Rabin's period and the highest number since 2000. This is probably related to the fact that the number of bomb attacks and consequently the number of casualties have been dramatically reduced in recent years.
Moreover, the IDF is becoming more and more sophisticated. Although the Second War in Lebanon was considered a failure, the operation in Gaza has reminded the region and the international community of Israel's sophisticated military and intelligence capabilities. But the effect of the military goes beyond operations. The IDF has an unprecedented impact on Israel's business and economic scene. Many high-tech and biotech companies stem from military technologies, some of which are traded on NASDAQ or are being acquired by American and European companies. Finally, there was little opposition in the international community to the growth of the settlements and to Israel's war-like operations. Especially during the Bush administration, there was no significant pressure on Israel to proceed with the peace process.
The relative economic progress and the silence before the next storm should not overshadow the true virtues of peace in the region. One virtue is the end of bloodshed and hatred, and striving to bring closer Isaiah's prophecy that "nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war" (Isaiah 2:4). Second, an Israeli-Palestinian peace solution can increase the prospects of democratization in the region, as well as lead to thriving economic and trade ties. Third, peace in the region will decrease Iran's pretextual reasons to threaten to destroy Israel -- a call that has the effect of terrifying the Israeli leadership. Fourth, part of the military budget could be channeled to education, health, development and homeland security -- to the benefit of all people. Fifth, being a peaceful (rather than an aggressive) regional actor not only aligns with Israel's Jewish religious philosophy, but would also increase external support for its policies, amongst the Jewish communities around the world, as well as amongst Israel's crucial international allies.
Netanyahu's Fear vs. Obama's HOPE
There is a void in Israel's leadership today. There is lack of hope, lack of vision, lack of empathy and respect, and lack of a constructive plan. Netanyahu's government is incapable of reaching an agreement on its own. His right-wing government lacks the drive and the passion to seek for peace. Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority are in a vicious circle of a blame-game, hatred, and killing. Israel's new leadership is dominated by fear of Iran's prospective nuclear weapons and of non-state actors' accessibility to Pakistan's nuclear weapons. The Palestinian Authority is too divided to agree upon a coherent policy towards Israel and lacks the necessary leadership and unity.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority are at the point that if an external partner does not step in -- one who will actively pursue a negotiated two-state resolution, as well as a comprehensive regional peace -- little will be done on its own. Both parties are in great need of American and international intervention in order to put former or new agreements into practice.
Where Israel and the Palestinian Authority failed, the United States must succeed. This is a unique moment for both parties to renew the dialogue. Both Israelis and Palestinians need a new wave of hope to revive the peace process that started in the early 1990s and was assassinated on November 4, 1995. President Obama is a leader that conveys hope for his country and to the international community. Israeli President Shimon Peres in his speech to AIPAC in the beginning of May, referred to his leadership as "[a] tsunami of hope [that] is rolling across the globe, its center is right here in America. Six months ago you elected a new president of the United States. President Barack Obama assumed his duties in a period of deep crises in the world. I am convinced he has the capacity to turn the crises into opportunity. May I say to President Obama -- you are young enough to offer hope to the world and great enough to bring it to life." By using soft power means and a multilateral approach, Obama has begun to re-establish America's lost reputation. The new American government has substituted fear for pragmatism by offering to re-define relationships with its allies and foes, and reaching out as far as Iran.
Netanyahu stems from a different school of thought -- a school that believes that the state of nature is a state of war, trust is non-existent, and skepticism is the name of the game. If Netanyahu's fear is not restrained or addressed by President Obama, the conflict in the region will expand and lead to an unrestrained arms race. This can create a dangerous dynamic of escalation and increase Iran's determination to acquire nuclear weapons or accelerate the process, as explicated by Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman in their Study on a Possible Israeli Strike on Iran's Nuclear Development Facilities.
Netanyahu, during his visit to Washington, will condition progress with the Palestinians on a more vigorous American approach to Iran. This contradicts Obama's foreign policy approach, which so far has gained significant support nationally and internationally. Obama has a crucial role in shepherding the parties and bringing them back to the table of negotiations, which would lead to an intelligent process and resolution. Better sooner than later.