FOR ALL ITS TACTICAL BRILLIANCE, ISRAEL HAS ALWAYS STRUGGLED WITH STRATEGIC THINKING.
And Israel has no replacement for its “unbreakable alliance” with the United States. Though its new allies in Africa and Asia are useful trade partners, they cannot offer a reliable Security Council veto, nor the billions in annual military aid that have preserved Israel’s military edge over its neighbors.
For all its tactical brilliance, Israel has always struggled with strategic thinking. It helped nurture Hamas in the late 1980s, for example, because it saw the Islamist group as a useful counterweight to its secular enemies. In doing so, it helped create an intractable foe. Netanyahu likes to boast that his administration “manages the conflict.” Though his long tenure may be coming to an end, as graft investigations swirl, his probable successors will likely take a similar approach—one that could be similarly shortsighted and, in the long run, pose enormous risk for Israel.
WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG, BAD BOYCOTT?
ON A RAINY morning in 2016, hundreds of Israelis packed into a Jerusalem conference hall for a major summit on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, a global campaign to punish Israel for its half-century occupation. The Netanyahu government had spent the previous few years casting it as a sort of existential threat. In 2015, when Gilad Erdan accepted a job as the minister in charge of fighting BDS, he told reporters he did so with “a sense of holy dread.”
One by one, leading Israeli politicians took the stage in Jerusalem to warn of the dire threat posed by boycotts. The president spoke. So did the opposition leader and at least four Cabinet members. (The keynote speaker was Roseanne Barr.) After a few hours of this, it was Moshe Kahlon’s turn, and the center-right economy minister offered a discordant note. He explained that his ministry had set up a hotline to help Israeli businesses harmed by BDS. But it hadn’t received many calls. “I don’t think there’s something that you can specifically call a detrimental effect or some kind of damage” to the economy, he said.
Even if Israel’s strategy is ultimately counterproductive, the day of reckoning seems far off. By one 2014 estimate, BDS shaved just $30 million off Israel’s annual gross domestic product, less than one-hundredth of a percent—52 minutes’ worth of economic activity. Foreign investments in Israel have more than tripled in the decade since the BDS movement began. Exports to the European Union, its largest trading partner, have grown by more than 30 percent. Israel can offer cutting-edge agricultural technology to African states and high-tech opportunities to Asia. Neither of them care much about the occupation or the BDS movement, which they regard as a curiosity, a fad on Western college campuses.
The Palestinians have little to offer their allies. After 50 years of occupation, their aiddependent economy produces almost nothing of value. They would be of little help against the Islamic State militant group, or in the regional cold war with Iran. Western policymakers once promoted the idea that resolving the IsraeliPalestinian conflict would bring peace to the Middle East. No one believes that anymore, not with the entire region in flames. Quite the opposite. Even Arab states, from Egypt to the Gulf, are eager to establish closer ties with Israel, which they see as a useful partner in the fight against both terrorism and Iran. Israeli politicians like to criticize Qatar because the Gulf emirate hosts the leadership of Hamas. Yet the tens of millions of dollars in aid Qatar provides to Gaza have helped to stave off another war— and preserve the status quo. To an unprecedented degree, the Palestinians are alone.
“We’re no longer the main issue,” says Abu Saada, the Gazan political analyst. “We’re not in a good position. We don’t have good cards to play against Israel…and we can only hope that the next generation will bring some new ideas.”
+ WAR BY CANDLELIGHT: A Palestinian boy in Gaza City, where power outages are common. Many young Palestinians have given up on the two-state solution and now see their struggle as a civil rights movement.