Dear IPF Atid community;

Last time I shared some thoughts with you it was on the eve of our most recent elections. I conveyed a deep concern with the convergence of trends and developments that put at risk that which we value most. As I put it then: “the very future of the Zionist vision of a secure, democratic Israel with a solid Jewish majority, is at stake.” And it was exactly one year ago when your community brought these important conversations to thousands of your peers through IPF Atid’s impressive #OurFutureIsrael campaign. So with undercurrents shifting beneath us, I’m happy to share my insights on this moment with you: 

Our democracy made it, but complacency is dangerous.

With great relief I can state today that it is no longer the case that the Zionist vision of ours is at stake. Now, don’t get me wrong: that dark chapter did expose both the fragility of the democracy we had taken for granted, and the ease with which its leaders might take our country down a dangerous path. Still, the result of those fateful elections pulled us back from falling off the cliff and opened important opportunities.

The current Knesset coalition does not meet the dreams and aspirations of any of its components, nor of those who voted for each of them. It represents serious compromises by all. But the very fact that such a diverse group of parties and politicians–extending almost the entire political spectrum (and the “almost” is just as significant, I’ll get to that in a minute)–proved mature and responsible enough to find common ground, was beyond refreshing. It breathed new life into Israeli democracy.

Quasi-Fascists out. Arab citizens in.

The composition of this coalition is noteworthy in itself.

First, it excludes the most extreme, racist, xenophobic, anti-democratic segments of our society (hence my caveat that the coalition encompasses almost the entire Israeli political spectrum), which, to our shame, made it to the Knesset.

Second, at the other end of the spectrum, for the first time ever, it includes an Arab party. The broad Jewish public support for its inclusion reinforces the conclusion that a prolonged, despicable, racist incitement against a fifth of our citizenry failed to accomplish its objective.

Regarding both though, a word of caution is warranted: the pockets of racists in our midst are not negligible and we do have self-centered cynical politicians who can be expected to play on these dark sentiments. Nonetheless, for now, there is a good reason for guarded optimism.

Can it work? Will it last?

Obviously, it is too early to predict how this coalition will perform. On the one hand, one has to be either naïve or overly optimistic to ignore its internal contradictions. Its cohesiveness is bound to be tested and it’s unclear whether it will survive. On the other hand, there are significant centripetal forces which might extend its longevity. The oft-mentioned fear of a Netanyahu comeback is one of them. Another is the wish of all its members–in the Knesset and even more so in the cabinet–to not risk their newly acquired positions of influence prematurely by yet another election cycle.

In addition, now that these parties are out of the opposition and are holding the reins of power, politicians who until weeks ago saw each other as representing their worst nightmare may discover that neither side of any debate holds a monopoly over patriotism and wisdom. Having different parties at the table representing different segments of society can enrich the discussion and could improve the quality of decisions.

Before you accuse me of being pollyannaish (thanks, Michael Koplow, for introducing me to this term…), let me qualify: this is what I hear from them in private, this is what they convey in public as well, and I am under the impression that–by and large–this is also public perception.

I could now belabor early evidence of change on quite a few domestic fronts, but this is not why we are here together.

So just a final note on how long this will last. Well, here is my grand copout: from months to years…

So what does it all mean for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

The coalition and cabinet parity mechanisms were designed to assure each side of the political divide that the other will not run away with unacceptable initiatives. Should either side opt for a move that exceeds the narrow consensus, it must persuade someone of the other camp to break ranks.

This is particularly relevant to IPF Atid’s primary focus of attention: the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Here, the verdict seems clear: both a historic breakthrough and a devastating annexation are out, certainly for the foreseeable future.

Even the former is not such a bad thing though, as it has long been Israel Policy Forum’s and Commanders for Israel’s Security’s shared conclusion that bringing the parties to the table prematurely is a prescription for failure, and that each failure carries with it a heavy price tag. So if this mutually-ambition-canceling mechanism prevents risky peace initiatives and forecloses the option of legislated annexation, that’s not a bad start.

Moreover, it is the “in-between” of those two proscribed options that holds the most promise. Let me elaborate.

Status quo out. Stability in.

If any of them needed a major nudge, the last crisis provided all our party leaders with evidence that the status quo was an illusion. Moreover, it demonstrated in tragic terms, that insulating the West Bank from Gaza, both of them from Jerusalem, and all three from Israel’s cities was illusory as well. A match lit in Jerusalem ignited all.

With the vivid collapse of the previous status quo strategy, and in the absence of opportunities for major breakthroughs, stability has emerged as the new buzzword. As stability is incompatible with provocations (on the Temple Mount, in Sheikh Jarrah, and elsewhere) but requires steps that reduce tensions, the “in-between” I referred to earlier is where the action is likely to be.

The Biden Factor

There are three ways the U.S.-Israel relationship plays into this:

First, none of the coalition leaders has the confidence–indeed, arrogance–to stand up to the president of the United States. This is certainly true when the president has a solid record of support for Israel; hence Israelis cannot be expected to buy accusations to the contrary. This is even more the case given that this president is not expected to ask Israel to take such historic, divisive steps as to divide Jerusalem or to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue and the other core issues of a permanent deal, certainly not as long as he is busy with an overwhelming domestic and international agenda.

Second, all members of this coalition have pledged and are committed to repair relations with the Democratic Party, and to the extent possible, restore bipartisan support for Israel. None are inclined to replay the one party only policy of their predecessor.

Third, even though the Biden administration has relegated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a lower priority, the last crisis seems to have injected a greater sense of urgency in dealing with it. Consequently, the inclination appears to be to have a fully-staffed, dedicated working level team that is empowered to carry out the mission without involving President Biden or Secretary Blinken in its day-to-day affairs.

Thus far, the message from all three layers of the administration echoes the current central theme in Israeli decision circles: stability.

And when members of our cabinet debate the merits of steps that are conducive to stability, American input can be expected to be seriously considered.

Bottom line

Even before being sworn in as prime minister and certainly since, Naftali Bennett, previously a proponent of settlements and annexation, has moderated his tone. Some attribute this to the Biden factor, others to his ambition to expand his political base, others yet even argue that the more mature Bennett is more sober regarding the contradiction between annexation and a Jewish-democratic Israel than the younger one was.

Be that as it may, in practice he has already made two things clear: first, in making decisions on settlement construction Israel must factor the position of the Biden administration. Second, the lesson of the previous failed policy is a need to embrace a new strategy which he (borrowing from the author Micah Goodman) dubbed “shrinking the conflict.”

It is in translating “stability” and “shrinking the conflict” into concrete steps that the Biden administration can prove critical. And for the administration to come up with realistic yet meaningful steps, all likeminded advocates of an eventual two state-solution are to be called upon to offer these two: ideas and support.

And that is where Israel Policy Forum, Commanders for Israel’s Security, and you (!) come in.

I invite you to respond back with your own ideas on what a realistic reset and work toward a two state vision could look like over the next three years. Let me know what you think.