Israel's incoming rightwing government is blind to the country's deteriorating status in the western world.
Binyamin Netanyahu will soon present a narrow, right-wing government to the Israeli Knesset. It is worth pondering a commonality between him and this government's second main force, Avigdor Lieberman. Both have a clearly defined world view. At its core is the belief that the Middle Eastern conflict is in essence the expression of a clash of civilisation between the Judeo-Christian west and Islam. Netanyahu has written books about this, and Lieberman has said it time and again. Neither of them sees the solution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as something that is of any value if detached from the geopolitical configuration as they see it.
How do they envisage the solution? Netanyahu has argued for years that true peace for Israel will be possible only when the Middle East is composed of liberal democracies. Before that, he believes, Israel will have to continue managing the conflict rather than resolving it. For the time being, he argues for something he calls "economic peace", in which Palestinians should be helped to develop economically without achieving sovereignty.
Lieberman's position is more complex than his image as an extreme right-winger implies: he explicitly endorses the two-state solution, but demands a land swap with the Palestinian Authority that would lead to a substantial proportion of Israel's Arab population becoming part of Palestine. He sees this as a necessity because he considers Israeli Arabs to be a long-term security problem. Lieberman, who is likely to be named foreign minister, wants Israel to become part of NATO to cement its status as part of the west.
Netanyahu and Lieberman are deeply influenced by the views of the founder of the right-wing revisionist stream (the Likud's forerunner), Zeev Jabotinsky. Jabotinsky argued that Arabs will never accept Israel as long as they see a chance to defeat it, and that Israel needs to convince the Arab world that it is there to stay through its military might. He called this the "Iron Wall" conception. The question is at what point Israel comes to the conclusion that the Arab world has indeed accepted Israel's existence.
In fact, all of Israeli politics is influenced by the Iron Wall thesis. It is responsible for the most amazing facet of Israel's policy since 2002. For decades, Israel yearned for acceptance by the Arab world. And yet no Israeli leader has deemed the Arab League peace initiative even worthy of serious consideration. It is as if Jabotinsky's warning that Arabs will never accept Israel is deeply ingrained in the Israeli psyche. As a result, most Israelis don't even know the exact content of the Arab League's proposal, and are surprised when told about it.
Netanyahu and Lieberman's adherence to the Iron Wall paradigm leads them to make one big mistake. Their assumption that Israel is part of the west, no matter what it does, is based on a relatively unsophisticated version of the "clash of civilisations" model. The problem is that Israel's modus operandi in the last years, including the second Lebanon war and the Gaza operation, has made the west, particularly Europe, very uncomfortable with it. Israel is seen by many as having moved beyond the bounds of what is acceptable to the western world.
This myopia about the impact of Israel's action on its place in the world is, unfortunately, not limited to Netanyahu and Lieberman. After all, the outgoing government, headed by Kadima and the Labor party, was responsible for the Gaza operation.
So what will the future bring? Netanyahu will have difficulty facing the US's demand for constructive action in the Middle East process, as his government's platform will not include any reference to the two-state solution. The most likely scenario is that the right-wing government will fall apart – Netanyahu will have to choose between his coalition and a head-on clash with the west, particularly with the Obama administration.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the Israeli electorate will take this as an indication that Israel is maneuvering itself onto the wrong side of history. I am shocked by how few Israelis see how outrageously disproportionate and cruel the Gaza operation has been. Israel, a flourishing – even if flawed – democracy, seems to be locked into a mental Iron Wall. As a result it has lost touch with its moral sensibilities and seems to have no clue about its deteriorating status in the western world.