Netanyahu’s triple escapism

Binyamin Netanyahu is determined to show the rest of the world that, Arab spring or no Arab spring, Israel can and will defend its citizens. The language of Israeli politicians, the brutal efficiency of this bombing campaign and the asymmetrical death count all mimic Israeli campaigns past. But the political dynamics surrounding this campaign could not be more different. The US president – rather than spending his time in the situation room – is flying around Asia. The Egyptian president, rather than sealing the border, sent his prime minister to Gaza in a display of solidarity (and other regional leaders are acting in a similar way).

When I was travelling in Israel and the Palestinian territories last year, several Israeli officials talked in the sanitised language of international diplomacy about how Israel has moved from making peace to “managing conflict”. Now I know what they meant: building a wall to pen in potential terrorists, while launching periodic attacks to disrupt the military operations of Hamas and Hezbollah (one official referred to these repeated attempts to defang Hamas as “cutting the grass”). Every nation is entitled to defend itself, but the problem with these repeat military operations is that they create a growing pool of anti-Israeli resentment in the neighbourhood and sap the Israeli state of legitimacy internationally. Israel under Netanyahu is indulging in a form of triple escapism – security, geopolitical and economic –which takes the country ever further away from engaging with the Palestinians directly.

Given the doublespeak of successive leaders of the Palestinians, the Israeli government’s questioning of the bona fides of the Palestinian leadership is more than justified. It is unlikely, however, that other former terrorist organisations such as the IRA would have been willing to engage in a peace process with these kinds of preconditions. Yet the bigger problem is the idea is that somehow Israel can get security first, and only after that deal with the unresolved political issues that are the cause of insecurity and resistance.

The second dimension of Israeli escapism is geopolitical. The elite are concerned about the effects of the Arab uprisings but they tend to dismiss the solidarity of new leaders for the Palestinians as rhetoric that will not come to anything.

Yet some of the more colourful intelligence analysts and members of the Knesset talked to me about how the map of the Middle East could be rewritten as a result of the Arab uprisings. The artificial states constructed by the west after the First World War might now collapse and be replaced by entities drawn around tribal lines. For them, it seems like an extraordinary idea to fixate on a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders at precisely the moment when the borders and governance of all states in the region are up for grabs. This misses the point that, whatever borders are settled for other states, the Palestinians will demand their rights as citizens.

The start-up nation

The third dimension of Israel’s escapism is economic. The governing elite have created a new founding myth for a time of consumerism: the “start-up nation”. (This country of less than eight million people – in a state of war since it was founded, and with no natural resources – apparently has produced more start-up companies than Japan, China, India, Korea, Canada, or the UK.) And for the left, which is keen to attack the government, it is economics rather than the peace process which takes centre stage.

The left claims that the economic reforms that have driven growth have led this aggressively egalitarian country to become very unequal, with rising prices and cuts in services increasingly hitting the middle classes. Many more Israelis are focused on house prices and the cost of staple foods such as cottage cheese. To the extent that last year’s “tentifada” protesters worry about the settlers; they resent them, as much because of the subsidies they receive at the expense of middle classes as because of their role in preventing a peace settlement.

The paradox is that Israel has retreated from the world at a moment when the long-term prospects for the country’s survival have never been so insecure. The current operation is euphemistically called “Pillar of Defence”, but ironically it comes at a time when each of the four real pillars of the country’s legitimacy and security are being eroded: the memory of the Holocaust, its status as the only democracy in the Middle East, nuclear and conventional military superiority, and US protection.

The nightmare scenario for Israelis would be to be out-victimed by the Palestinians, out-democratised by the Arabs, outgunned by the Iranians, and outside America’s main focus of interest as that shifts from the Middle East to the Pacific.

Mark Leonard is director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. This article is published in association with Reuters

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?

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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.

For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.

IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.

Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.

Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.

Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.

The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.

His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.

He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.

I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.