The Continuity of Ben-Gurion’s Dilemma

By Heberto Limas-Villers

Israel, since its moment of independence, has been fraught with conflict that remains visible to this day. If you are unlucky, like some students were during the 2014 Gaza Conflict, you would see that war by rushing into the bunkers at the sound of the prevailing sirens, hoping you would be safe. But if you took a trip to Israel right now, most likely you would be seeing the signs of a frozen conflict. If you walk across the capital Jerusalem, you can notice the clear presence of the IDF watching for any suspicious people. Move into the West Bank and you can see the settlements dotting the landscape occupied by ultra-Orthodox Jews. Unfortunately, the West Bank is a hard place to enter so you may just see the barrier that divides the West Bank and Israel proper, developed after the second Intifada to prevent further terror to its citizens. You may be a visitor in this country, but staying in this country for a while and you can see the dilemma that is playing in every prime minister’s head which I call Ben-Gurion’s Dilemma : a cold war or an uneasy peace.      

I call this idea Ben-Gurion’s Dilemma as since the first Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, each successive Israeli leader has to make a choice whether to focus on establishing peace or leave the conflict as it is. Peace has been attempted various times in Israel and every time it has ended in failure. There have been significant breakthrough with Egypt and Jordan though the Palestinian Authority, the nominal organization governing the West Bank and Gaza Strip, has no power to support and/or enforce a deal. If Prime minister Netanyahu decided to negotiate, there is a question as to who will be at the other side of the table. Hamas, the radical Islamist faction that controls Gaza, doesn’t even recognize Israel’s right to exist and the faction that does, Fatah, obtained power through illegitimate means.

Furthermore, if the Palestinians in question support a faction that desires peace, there remains many thorny issues from their desire to return to their old homeland, repatriations, the division of Jerusalem, and the Israeli settlements. Assuming both sides can agree on these issues, we are left with a peace that will be lauded by the US and Europe but the question remains whether it will be enforced by both sides. Both sides have their moderates that have a desire to end the conflict but both have their radicals that have no desire to compromise. After the Oslo Accords, the closest we ever came to peace, the Israeli PM was assassinated by a Jewish extremist and the moderates were pressured by the rise of Hamas to maintain power through illegitimate means. If this inability to trust one another wasn’t enough, the Middle East is unlikely to support the peace as the conflict is a scapegoat for the autocrats’ continued support. In short, a path towards peace can yield the end to the war or it could yield nothing.          

Peace is not in the horizon which leads us to the frozen conflict. Much like other regions of the world, frozen conflicts are simply a state of denial from both parties that they are at war. Thomas Friedman, NYT correspondent, wrote in his book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, that when looking at this frozen conflict, few wished to acknowledge it as the conflict has been an elephant in the room. In the last election, only the far-right have talked about the conflict with the rest focusing on the economy and Iran. Occasionally the two sides are reminded of the war as was the case in 2014 but for the most part, both sides in the conflict do not desire to fight. This frozen conflict has led to a certain type of stability as neither side has the political or military strength to wipe the other side out. This frozen conflict can work if both sides understand that a full-scale war will be a zero-sum game and both expect to solve the issue eventually. It is not an ideal solution for those with Wilsonian idealism but in a country where realism is key to survival, it is the default solution.
It is this dilemma, war or peace, that has been passed onto every prime minister since 1948. Once the leader has chosen how to approach the dilemma, it is seldom reversed. That dilemma is not just present with the Israelis and Palestinians but also among the US. As the primary supporter of Israel, it has a significant interest in the region and the country. Some presidents, like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, worked to bring peace though they had limited success each time. Others ignore the conflict focusing on terrorism and Iran’s pursuit of a bomb. Unfortunately, Ben Gurion’s Dilemma appears to be breaking for various reasons. The main reason is that the international community, including the US are tired of the status quo which is only feeding into the radicals’ agenda of anti-Semitism. While Netanyahu may be willing to embrace a frozen conflict, his actions will prevent his successor from having a choice. A continued war against the Arab community is against Israel’s and the US’ long-term interests and eventually, there will be a strong push for Israel to take the risky path towards peace. If Israel desires to be ahead of the curve, it must pursue the path for peace and end Ben-Gurion’s Dilemma once and for all.

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