Jonathan Tobin, editor-in-chief of the Jewish News Syndicate (JNS), spoke to participants in a Middle East Forum webinar, "Understanding Israel's Deep Changes" (video), on March 20.
Americans tend to think of Israel as "divided down the middle ... between supporters of an Oslo process, the peace process, and two-state solution and opponents on the right," said Tobin. That was once true, but it "hasn't been that way for a very long time." The Second Intifada (2000-2005) "blew up the idea that land for peace could work" in the eyes of most Israelis. "Anyone who didn't get that message had it further confirmed in 2005 when Ariel Sharon withdrew every soldier, settler and settlement from Gaza and instead of getting an incubator for peace, got a terrorist state." Since then there has been a "consensus that stretches from the moderate left through the center to the right, which realizes there is no Palestinian peace partner of any kind."
Consequently, the peace process has long ceased to be the major issue of political contestation in Israel. The Blue and White political alliance challenging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the last three elections "ran not as an opponent of Netanyahu's policies on the peace process, but as agreeing with them." Its leader, former IDF general Benny Gantz, vowed to annex the Jordan Valley, promised not to give up settlements, and endorsed the Trump plan.
Despite this, "many American politicians act like the last 20 years of history didn't happen," said Tobin. "[T]hey think that the only solution is to withdraw from settlements, [that] the only solution is to give up Israel's strategic assets, to repeat Sharon's Gaza experiment in the West bank, which most Israelis think would not be just merely ill-advised, but really insane." Democrats, in particular, embrace this fallacy.
If former Vice President Joe Biden wins the White House, "he's going to reinstitute President Obama's policies," according to Tobin. "All the Obama and Clinton alumni who failed time and again will be back at the State Department and the National Security Council, trying again." Those who want a "more sensible" U.S. policy need to listen to the Israeli people:
Listen to the consensus of the Israeli voters. They know something that many Americans haven't noticed about the lack of a peace process, the lack of a peace partner. We should listen, have some humility, have some understanding of the real consensus that exists within Israel.
Asked about Blue and White's approach to Iran and its nuclear ambitions, Tobin explained that there is very little daylight there either. All of Blue and White's top leaders opposed President Obama's nuclear deal with Iran. "They're all looking for the United States to continue to stay strong, increase sanctions, hold Iran accountable. There is a consensus on Iran as well as the Palestinians."
Asked about the "future of Palestinian politics" after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Tobin emphasized that there is a "Palestinian consensus in favor of continuing this empty, foolish, century-long war against Zionism, which has led nowhere," and "there isn't anybody within Palestinian politics who's been able to present an alternative to that dead end kind of thinking." The most popular person to replace Abbas, he noted, is "sitting in an Israeli jail for murdering people during the Second Intifada," a reference to Marwan Barghouti.
"Palestinian political culture is going to have to change."
According to Tobin, "Palestinian political culture is going to have to change" if there is to be any hope of a lasting peace settlement. By refusing to accept a state of their own in exchange for recognizing Israel's legitimacy, the Palestinians "have made themselves irrelevant, not just to Israelis, who don't trust them anymore [and] aren't willing to take any chances, but [also] with the rest of the Arab world, which has grown tired of their intransigence." The Palestinians "have cut themselves out of history and if they're going to get back into it, they're going to have to change," he added. "There's no sign, however, that they're willing to do that yet. And that's a tragedy for them, for Israel, and for the Middle East in general."
As for Israel, "the smart money says Netanyahu stays as prime minister for now," said Tobin. Blue and White doesn't have the votes to form its own government, and new elections aren't tenable amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Netanyahu has "been doing very able job leading the country" in the face of this crisis, he added. He's "a natural commander in chief war leader and that's strengthened his hands in these negotiations."