Who runs Israel doesn’t matter

Agonising over the complexion of Israel’s government is a waste of time

By Daniel Finkelstein, April 7, 2009

It seems like an age ago, and I suppose in a way it was another age, but watching President Obama in London last week reminded me of the previous occasion when a new US President visited the city for the first time.

George W Bush was not then quite the villain for the left that he subsequently became. And even though liberals weren’t that fond of him even then, there was a feeling of a new era and some hope attended his visit.

It was just at the end of my period working in politics, and I was invited to accompany William Hague to go and meet the new President. We were joined by Condoleezza Rice and embarked on a discussion of international problems faced by the incoming administration. It wasn’t long before we reached the Middle East. We were keen for the President to become more involved. He said he was minded not to.

He rather felt that President Clinton had exhausted his capital by becoming involved too early in the peace process. His intention was to stay out of it and only intervene at a later stage, when his involvement could be decisive. He gave us the strong impression that he was keen to avoid the sort of foreign entanglements that had dogged his predecessors. Well, things didn’t quite work out like that, did they?

Let me explain why I told you the above story. Last week, the JC provided the results of a Gallup poll. The survey recorded the attitudes of European Jewish leaders to the choice of an Israeli government. The leaders overwhelmingly prefer a more liberal-minded administration in Israel to one that is more hawkish.

I think it is fair to say that Jewish leaders in the diaspora are not universally enthusiastic about the return of Bibi and still less of his coalition partner Mr Lieberman. It certainly makes our lives easier over here if Israelis sound doveish and talk sincerely about peace. It makes us feel more comfortable when we argue that Israel wants an end to the conflict and is willing to compromise. Living over here it is hard to sympathise with rhetoric that often seems harsh, and negotiating positions that seem utterly unreasonable.

So what I am going to say may seem a little bit odd: from the point of view of winning peace, it doesn’t make the slightest difference who makes up the Israeli coalition.

I quite see why everyone thinks it does. One reason is a psychological quirk called the Availability Error. This describes the tendency that we humans have to ascribe more importance to those things that come more easily to mind. A vivid recent example is always better than an abstract argument or things that are out of sight and out of mind.

This is the reason why people who see their grandfather smoke three packs of cigarettes a day at the age of 90 are convinced that smoking does not kill. It also partly explains why Robbie Williams was voted the best composer of the millennium, while Mozart came second.

So a change of government in Israel, which is vivid and present, seems like a much more compelling reason for hope or, alternatively, for despair, than things that are abstract and long-term. I am convinced, for instance, that the age make-up of the population has a huge influence on its desire to be peaceful. The more adults there are in proportion to young men, the less likely it is for a society to turn violent. Yet a report on Palestinian and Israeli birth rates is not the stuff of which headlines are made. It is not available, so its importance is underrated.

A more important reason still why the composition of Israel’s coalition doesn’t really matter to the prospects of peace is the one that George Bush discovered. Whatever his aspirations, events determined his policy and not him.

Wouldn’t it be nice if it truly was critical which government Israelis chose? Then the whole conflict could be over in a few months. All the Israelis would need to do is choose a liberal regime and things would be fine.

Erm, hang on second. Didn’t they already do this already? Haven’t they had liberal governments already? And it didn’t change anything, did it?

The reason is that it is for the Palestinians to choose when they want the conflict to be over. When they decide that they will accept Israel’s existence and cease trying to kill Jews a deal will be done. And the nature of Israel’s government won’t much change the nature of the deal. The voters will demand that they come to terms and they will.

Israeli leaders who start liberal end hawkish. One day, hawkish leaders will end liberal. That is a day to dream about. But, until then — the make-up of Israel’s government? I am not too worried.

Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times

Last updated: 10:29am, April 7 2009