The Magazine

Waltzing Among the Rockets

War, dining out, a high stakes election: Israeli life is back to normal.

Feb 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 21 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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On the life and death questions of national security there is relatively little disagreement among citizens, at least among the large swath of Likud, Kadima, and Labor voters who form the expanded center of Israeli politics. They share an anger at the Palestinians not merely because of Hamas's attacks on southern Israel--approximately 7,000 rockets and missiles have been indiscriminately launched at civilian targets since Israel withdrew from Gaza in the summer of 2005--but because of the failure year after year of the Palestinian people to choose peace, to concentrate on developing their own social, political, and economic institutions instead of supporting Hamas's quest to destroy Israel. And so this broad center has concluded that Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza must find a way, neighbors though they be, to live separate lives.

All three candidates for prime minister hinted at this convergence in addresses to the ninth annual Herzliya Conference on National Security, held here February 2-4. But the candidates' distinctive emphases were also on display.

On Monday, Livni insisted on the need to end Hamas's rule in Gaza, but stressed that it is incumbent on Israel to devise a peace plan now to end the conflict with the Palestinians or have one imposed on it.

On Tuesday, Barak underscored the achievements of the Gaza operation, Israel's determination to respond just as forcefully to further rockets from Gaza, and the need to find a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians within the context of a regional initiative that includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan.

And on Wednesday, Netanyahu, declaring his intention if elected to form a broad national unity government, identified Iran as the chief threat to Israel's national security, called for economic and infrastructure development in the West Bank as a prerequisite to achieving a political agreement with Palestinians, warned that Israel was yet to feel the worst shocks of the worldwide economic crisis, and promised to focus on improving Israeli education.

The major difference between the candidates went unaddressed at Herzliya. It concerns the future of Israeli settlements, the towns and cities built and populated by Israel in the territories it gained control over in 1967 in the Six Day War. While he almost certainly would not build new settlements, Netanyahu remains unlikely, without pressure from the United States, to freeze the natural growth of existing settlements. In contrast, both Livni and Barak would probably impose a freeze on all new building beyond the Green Line. Livni and Barak recognize, however, along with Netanyahu, that the settlements are far from the fundamental obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.

Indeed, the journalists, political analysts, and current and former national security officials to whom I spoke were in striking agreement that Livni and Barak as well as Netanyahu all see that the fundamental obstacle to progress in resolving the conflict with the Palestinians is Iran. Indeed, the case for Iran's centrality is convincing.

Whether the goal is to craft principles for a political agreement between Israel and the Palestinians or to build Palestinian social, economic, and political institutions from the ground up, no substantial progress can be made until Hamas, in Gaza and the West Bank, is destroyed. This is because no political agreement worth the paper it is written on, and no economic development that stands a chance of improving the lives of substantial numbers of Palestinians, is possible while Israel maintains roadblocks throughout the West Bank and its army and internal security service conduct daily operations to ferret out and eliminate Hamas terrorist cells. Yet so long as Iran pumps money and weapons into Hamas's hands, Israel will have no choice but to maintain the roadblocks and continue daily military operations beyond the Green Line.

In addition, so long as Iran funds Hezbollah in Lebanon and maintains Syria as a puppet of its Islamic Revolution, Israel must be ready to defend itself on several fronts. And so long as Iran's Islamic extremist leaders pursue nuclear weapons--which by most accounts they could have within a year--Israel must contemplate dramatic military measures vital to its national security that, even in the best case, would massively destabilize the international order.