Israel’s Surprising Consensus on the Palestinian Issue

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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and ministers attend a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, July 4.



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Israel’s new government is a hybrid—a mixture of left, right and center. While most hybrid governments suffer total paralysis, Israel’s has a good chance of being effective.

In the U.S., there is a rift between liberals and conservatives—a rift reflected in the divide between the Democratic and Republican parties. In most Western countries, the political divide reflects an ideological fissure in society. Israel, however, is an example of a curious political paradox: Political polarization does not reflect a divide within society but rather hides the fact that the ideological fissure in Israeli society has disappeared.

Two issues have traditionally split Israel into ideological camps: the relationship between religion and state, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most Israelis, including ultra-Orthodox, traditionalist and secular Jews, love Judaism and seek a certain connection with their tradition. At the same time, most Israelis dislike the religious establishment and oppose religious coercion. How can this twofold consensus be converted into policy? Most Israelis would agree with the following formulation: more Jewish education, less religious coercion. More knowledge, less power.

But much more important is the invisible consensus that has emerged around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most Israelis do not want to control the lives of the 2.6 million Palestinians living in the West Bank or, as many Israelis call it, Judea and Samaria. At the same time, most Israelis don’t want to withdraw from this territory, for fear of making their country so geographically small as to be indefensible. They agree on a paradox—they don’t want to control the lives of the residents of this territory, nor do they want to withdraw from it—and this paradox might definitely lead to paralysis and stagnation. But it doesn’t have to. In recent years, the Israeli political debate has been undergoing a paradigm shift toward an idea known as “shrinking the conflict,” which might convert this unusual consensus into an effective action plan that will transform reality.

The concept of shrinking the conflict means pursuing any policy that significantly boosts Palestinian self-government without jeopardizing Israeli security. At the heart of shrinking the conflict is an effort to create territorial contiguity between Palestinian autonomous islands in the West Bank, connect this Palestinian autonomy to the wider world, and promote Palestinian economic prosperity and independence. The purpose of this strategy is to transform the West Bank’s fragmented and fragile network of autonomous islands into a contiguous and prosperous polity. Shrinking the conflict would give the Palestinians what they currently lack: a critical mass of self-governance.

Importantly, this would not be in the context of a peace treaty and the Palestinians would not be expected to forgo their claims for a “right of return” or to recognize Israel. This is about shrinking the conflict, not ending it.

Boosting Palestinian autonomy would achieve the seemingly impossible. It would answer the Israeli public’s two contradictory wishes: Israel would exercise much less control over the Palestinians than it does now, but it would not become more threatened by them than it is now. An initiative to shrink the conflict would give expression to Israel’s invisible and unspoken ideological consensus.

Shrinking the conflict wouldn’t bury the dream of a full peace accord. It would do exactly the opposite. After the Palestinians’ self-governing autonomy is stabilized, it might eventually be upgraded into a fully independent state in the context of a peace treaty. But this would not be the only option. It might also become part of a confederation with Israel, or the option of political union with Jordan might return to the table.

A prosperous and autonomous Palestine is essential if a final-status accord is ever to take shape. Shrinking the conflict would open up options.

Israel’s new hybrid government is a government not of grand dreams but of practical steps. Where will these steps lead? Israelis need not agree on the final destination right now. They can simply start moving forward.

Mr. Goodman is author of “Catch 67: The Left the Right and the Legacy of the Six Day War.”

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Appeared in the July 15, 2021, print edition.

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