Israel’s Siege Mentality and the Faltering Peace Process

by Jacob Abadi

For those hoping for a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, recent developments in the Israeli domestic scene seem to leave some room for optimism. Coming after a major diplomatic setback to Israel, the parliamentary elections in January saw unexpected success for left-of-center parties such as Yesh Atid and the Labor Party, which won fifty-nine out of 120 seats. This newly invigorated opposition will likely pressure the government to resume the peace process. However, right-wing parties, including Likud, the Jewish Home, and Yisrael Beiteinu, still emerged the winners, and the decision by Tzipi Livni, head of the centrist Kadima Party, to join the Likud coalition will weaken the opposition.

Although it is tempting to hope that the results of the recent elections will usher in a new period in the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, Israel’s siege mentality, particularly embedded in the right wing, will likely continue to prevent a meaningful dialogue. Reluctance to resume the peace process has much to do not only with the fact that Israel has sacrificed human lives and made major investments in the territories it has occupied since 1967, but also with the Israeli conviction that the country is besieged by a hostile world.

This siege mentality has only intensified as a result of the eight-day conflict in November 2012, caused by the Palestinian missile bombardment of Israel’s major cities, and the subsequent Israeli raid on Gaza. While Palestinians regarded the conflict as a victory, Netanyahu reacted by expanding the settlements in the disputed territories. Tension has further intensified following the Palestinian achievement of Permanent Observer status at the UN later that month. The tension mounted to such an extent that even the recent statement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas that he would accept a settlement that did not allow him to return to Safad, his city of origin, did not bring the Israelis to the negotiating table.

The fact that Israel is surrounded by Arab states that for many years refused to recognize the Jewish state intensifies its siege mentality. One ought to bear in mind that most Israeli adults in their 40s were born after the Six-Day War in 1967. Asking them to consider withdrawing to the pre-1967 borders is akin to asking the generation born after 1948 to withdraw to the borders of 1947, a truncated and indefensible geographical entity determined by the UN Partition Plan that no party, right- or left-wing, was willing to accept.

In addition to the surrounding Arab states, the existence of a large Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as the Arab-Israeli citizens residing in the state of Israel since its establishment in 1948, contribute to the siege mentality. Estimated at about twenty percent of the population of Israel, the latter constitute a major threat to the democratic system and to the Jewish majority, which the founding fathers of the state regarded as a sine qua non of Israel’s existence. To overcome this mentality, Israel has built a large arsenal of the most sophisticated weapons imaginable. Less orthodox suggestions to reduce the number of Palestinians in the country have included the transfer of Palestinians to neighboring Arab countries in return for monetary rewards, a scheme of the Israeli intelligence community in the early years of the state’s existence.

The siege mentality has long affected even left-wing parties and politicians. For example, the scheme to surround the Arab states through an alliance with Turkey, Iran, and Ethiopia was the brainchild of Labor Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, who sought the assistance of U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower to turn it into a reality. This siege mentality also manifested itself in Ben Gurion’s attempt to escape isolation by reaching out to non-Muslim entities in the Middle East and by establishing diplomatic relations with the countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Despite his famous dictum that “it matters not what the Gentiles say, but what the Jews do,” and contrary to similar statements often made by Israelis, anti-Israel measures adopted by the UN are relevant and do matter.

The sale of weapons to numerous countries throughout the world, the construction of a protective wall, and the investment in a robust missile defense shield are but a few of the products of Israel’s siege mentality, which has long been rooted in Israeli society, particularly among the right wing. Although the recent elections showed unexpected gains for left-of-center parties less affected by the siege mentality, there is little hope for a breakthrough in the Israel-Palestinian dialogue in the foreseeable future.

About the Author

Dr. Jacob Abadi is a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic history at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado. He obtained his B.A. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and his M.A. and Ph.D from New York University. Dr. Abadi’s writings include Israel’s Leadership: From Utopia to Crisis and Israel’s Quest for Acceptance and Recognition in Asia: Garrison State Diplomacy.

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