Go-it-alone outlook now shapes Israel’s security policy


JERUSALEM — The traditional Passover retelling of Exodus was barely underway in 2002 when Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer got a note with news of the latest in a string of Palestinian suicide attacks that had terrorized Israel for two years.

He dashed to an emergency meeting of military commanders, all dressed in civilian clothes because they’d left their own Seder dinner tables upon hearing that 30 Israelis had been killed in the attack on the Park Hotel.

After an all-night session, they made a decision that would change the face of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Ben-Eliezer persuaded Israel’s Cabinet to reoccupy the entire West Bank, even though it meant brushing aside the 1993 Oslo agreements that gave Palestinians control over many cities and their own security force.

Ten years later, many see that move as the start of a strategic shift that put Israel on a go-it-alone course that continues to shape its security policy, whether dealing with Palestinian statehood or responding to Iran’s purported nuclear arms program.

With the military operation in 2002, Israel took a step away from the internationally brokered peace deals that dominated the 1990s and the idea that its security could be achieved through compromise with Palestinians.

The doctrine that evolved in its place has relied instead on military strength and a willingness to take unilateral measures, even though Palestinians say the approach is threatening to kill any hope for a two-state solution and could backfire on Israel in a region where “Arab Spring” uprising memories are fresh.

Soon after the reoccupation of the West Bank came the construction of a massive separation barrier, ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice, which cut off Palestinians from Israel. Next was the withdrawal from the restive Gaza Strip, which Israel initiated on its own terms outside the formal peace process.

To many Israelis, this get-tough campaign is working and they see no reason to change it. Suicide attacks have stopped. Palestinian leaders are weaker and more moderate than before. International isolation is seen as manageable and Palestinian statehood is no longer at the top of the global agenda.

“Ten years ago, the actions taken by Israel changed the nature and the history of the behavior of the people in the West Bank,” said Ben-Eliezer, now a Labor Party lawmaker. “We showed that nothing is taboo when it comes to our security. We will cross every line. We will go in and we will hit. It’s a strategy that has kept until today and the results are clear: Quietness until now.”

Some see the success Israel believes it has enjoyed with the Palestinian issues as spreading to other areas of its foreign policy, giving it the confidence to resist the Obama administration’s pressure to freeze settlements, rejecting attempts to mend ties with onetime ally Turkey and openly threatening to launch a military strike against Iran, which many believe is working to join Israel to become the second nuclear power in the region.

Palestinians characterize Israelis as intransigent and arrogant, and worry about an increasingly vocal right-wing faction that advocates “managing” the conflict rather than resolving it.

“The Israelis abandoned the peace process a long time ago,” said Nabil Shaath, a top advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He said the change began with the collapse of the 2000 Camp David talks, when Israelis realized the gaps with Palestinians were still wide.

“They decided that Palestinian expectations were too high and had to be brought down,” Shaath said. “That meant a more diligent, militant Israeli government to put down the Palestinians’ aspirations.”

But he called the approach shortsighted.

“Israelis are intoxicated with power now,” Shaath said. “It makes you feel you don’t have to give up anything. You can have it all. Settlements. De-Arabization of Jerusalem. Control over movement from Gaza to the West Bank. They think they’ve won and can just walk over us.”

But he predicted that Israel’s overconfidence would eventually backfire, particularly with Palestinians. He noted that similar misguided thinking once led Arab rulers in the region to believe that they would never be toppled by their people as they have been in the Arab Spring.

“There will come a time when Israel will not be able to control it,” he said.

Israeli Deputy Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon, who served as the army’s chief of staff during much of the second intifada, said Palestinians have no one to blame but themselves because they unleashed a campaign of suicide attacks inside Israel.

“It was a turning point, for me personally and the country,” Yaalon said. “It was an awakening. We thought, ‘Enough is enough.’ We had to operate unilaterally because we didn’t have a partner. And we still don’t.”

He credited the strategy over the last 10 years with strengthening the confidence of the Israeli public and putting the government in a stronger bargaining position.

“We know now that Israel has a military capability to defeat terror, and that legacy lives on in the Israeli spirit,” he said. “We have nothing to apologize for, because we tried very hard to reach peace through territorial compromise.”

Yet some warn that Israel’s dominance could boomerang on the country at the negotiating table.

“Negotiations between asymmetrical sides are more difficult because the weaker side has greater difficulty making concessions,” said researcher Shlomo Brom of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “The weaker party fears any concession will lead down a slippery slope, and is very apprehensive of public opinion. Concessions require strength. The other side’s weakness should not make us happy.”

Ben-Eliezer, a former Labor Party leader, said he believes Israel’s get-tough approach was justified in the beginning but that it should have been part of a carrot-and-stick approach, also offering Palestinians a genuine peace deal.

In recent years, he said, Israel’s right-wing parties have failed to do enough to convince Palestinians that Israel is serious about their statehood bid.

“In the long run, this is going to work against us,” he said. “So far Palestinians have kept quiet, but one day they will awake and the explosion will happen. People don’t accept [being] under military rule for 50 years. Maybe the explosion will bring about negotiations. But then negotiations will occur under pressure, and that is what I don’t want to see happen.”

Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report.