Award-winning author of 12 books, including Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn, Dr. Daniel Gordis is one of the world’s leading experts on Israel, foreign affairs, and American-Jewish relations. He is the Senior Vice President and Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College, and has been published in magazines and newspapers including The New York Times, The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, Azure, and Commentary and Foreign Affairs.
Dr. Gordis joined us on June 1st for an installment on our Digital Speaker series, where he discussed how three consecutive elections and COVID-19 combined to have profound impacts on Israel and its politics, including increased Arab influence, Israeli responses to the U.S. peace plan, and a unique new government.
Q: How have Israel and the U.S. handled COVID differently?
A: Israel handled it well. However, with a population of 9 million (about the size of New Jersey), the geographical and population size differences between the U.S. and Israel make them entirely non-analogous cases. It’s impossible to compare the two.
When thinking about the way the situation got handled in Israel, one has to keep in mind who was at the helm, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has a background in the Israeli special forces and has a worst-case scenario outlook. There were several days where people weren’t allowed to leave their houses. People got fined for walking outside without a mask. Israel also entirely shut its borders.
Another aspect one has to take into consideration is the way Israel operates. Israelis are very disciplined when it comes to survival because they have had to be throughout their history. When the government tells the people to do something to survive, they do it. They listen to the government. In a crisis, Israelis know how to follow the rules quickly and precisely.
Q: What made Israel able to form a government after three national elections? How did COVID play a role?
A: Everyone agrees Netanyahu is highly competent with a brilliantly strategic mind. Many also feel he has been in power for so long that he has become corrupt. The split in public opinion is whether his corruption outweighs his competence or vice versa.
COVID played a role in Israel’s ability to form a unity government. Israelis weren’t allowed outside their homes; how could they have a fourth election when they weren’t allowed outside? Gantz (Netanyahu’s chief rival) caved from an altruistic sense of duty during this time and agreed to a unity government with Netanyahu, something he had pledged never to do.
The annexation of certain portions of the West Bank could prove to be very divisive, especially between Israel and the European Union.
Q: Why has Arab voter turnout seen a substantial uptick in the most recent round of elections? Arabs comprise about 20% of the Israeli population but have historically seen meager voter turnout.
A: Most of the Arabs in Israel are in Israel originally because they couldn’t get out in time during the Nakba in 1948. Never intending to be in the State of Israel, they weren’t thrilled about the new, primarily Jewish state, and didn’t participate. Jewish suspicion of Arab Israelis has decreased in recent years. A large percent of Israeli healthcare workers are Arab, so Jews have a more respectable view of them. Arabs initially weren’t used to a democratic system of voting and had low levels of education. They’ve become more familiar with democracy and have increased their educational levels.
The Joint List is a compilation of three Israeli Arab political parties ranging in viewpoint from tolerant of a Zionist state to vehemently opposed to it. They have joined together to increase their potential for influence within the Knesset.
In Israel, typically, one’s “buddies for life” are made during your time of mandatory service within the military. These people later go on to be useful business connections and within society at large. Arabs aren’t drafted into the armed forces, so they miss out on that whole social dynamic.
Palestinians are literally cousins of Israeli Arabs, so it is contentious when Israel conducts military action against the West Bank or Gaza. Israeli Arabs have been hesitant to appear too involved in Israeli politics. Jews want Israeli Arabs to denounce terrorist activities, and they won’t. Arabs want de facto equality in addition to equality in law (which they already have).
Q: How do Israelis feel about President Trump’s Middle East (Israeli/Palestinian) Peace Plan?
A: Polling shows more than half of Israelis don’t support it, and two-thirds don’t think it’ll happen. The Israeli Left is opposed to annexation but recognizes the reality that Israeli settlements aren’t going to be leaving. The Israeli far-Right doesn’t support the Peace Plan either because the Plan allows for a Palestinian State, which they oppose altogether. The center and left of the Israeli Right are the ones that are generally supportive of the Plan.
The general feeling that Israelis have is that Joe Biden is not the future of the Democratic party, and they’re fearful of the future Democratic party because it is not particularly friendly towards the nation of Israel.
Q: Is the amount of money the U.S. is prepared to give the Palestinians if they accept the Peace Plan a sticking point?
There is not a lot of criticism of the Peace Plan in terms of economic stimulus for the Palestinians. That part of the Plan appears to be viewed as acceptable by the Palestinians.
Israelis don’t like the White House talking about pulling troops out of the Middle East (especially Syria) because the U.S. military presence there helps ensure security for Israel. Israelis also don’t think President Trump has done a perfect job with COVID or racial tensions in the U.S., but he has generally had broad support by most of the Israeli people. He is perceived by most as very pro-Israel after moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and formally recognizing Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights.
One thing many Americans tend to be unaware of is that the primary foreign policy threat most Israelis are concerned with now is Iran, not the Palestinians. Iran recently attempted to cyber-attack Israel trying to raise chlorine levels to dangerous levels in Israel’s water. Had the cyber-attack been successful, it likely would have led to war.
Palestinians are unlikely to negotiate in good faith. Israel claims it doesn’t cave to violence; however, the First Intifada brought about the Oslo Accords, and the Second Intifada brought about Israel completely pulling out of the Gaza Strip. Palestinians can see that violence works, so they’re unlikely to change tactics while violence appears to be an effective negotiating tactic.
Arab states in the greater region are recognizing Israel isn’t going away. Hopefully, very soon, Palestinians will too. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was smart after the Palestinians condemned the U.S. Peace Plan; Pompeo asked Palestinians, “Ok, what’s your plan? What’s your idea?” The Palestinians had no reply. Once the Palestinians seriously put policy they would agree to forward, then that’ll be a massive success because then it’s only a matter of degree to finding an agreement. Once there is a framework, both sides can work to negotiate an understanding.
Understanding the history of Israel is vital to understanding current events. If you’re interested in learning more of Israel’s recent history, order Dr. Gordis’ book, Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn.