Here’s a fun thought experiment: What would it mean for Israel to “win” its conflict with the Palestinians? What would absolute, final victory even look like, for either side? Whatever sense of discomfort this question elicits helps reveal just how distant the Israeli-Arab struggle now is from traditional notions of victory and defeat. Perhaps that’s because “victory” is popularly thought of as a zero-sum concept, thus making it a dangerous notion to re-introduce into this particular arena. On top of the inherent hazards of talking about achieving “victory” in a century-long ethnic, religious, and territorial conflict, the last 25-odd years of peace process-ing has conditioned observers to equate “winning” with the extinguishment of the national aspirations of the other side. If anything, the Oslo process is predicated on the mutual agreement that such a victory is both impossible and undesirable, and that compromise is the best available option for everyone.
Still, an emerging group of Israeli and American legislators don’t see “victory” as a dirty word. This week, members of the Knesset Israel Victory Caucus were in the United States, partly to meet with members of the Congressional Israel Victory Caucus on Capitol Hill. In a joint statement issued earlier this week, the two groups hinted at what “victory” refers to: “Only Palestinian acknowledgment of the Jewish People’s historic connection to the Land of Israel, and acceptance of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, will end the conflict,” the statement reads, while affirming that “Israel should be encouraged to use all diplomatic, economic and military tools to end the conflict, while respecting humanitarian norms to achieve that acceptance.” The Knesset Victory Caucus has 16 members from across the spectrum of Zionist parties, and is co-chaired by Oded Forer of Yisrael Beitenu and Yaakov Perry of the opposition Yesh Atid party. The American version counts 32 members of Congress, the majority of whom are Republicans.
In a meeting in New York earlier this week, two of the members of the Knesset caucus explained what “victory” might actually mean here. Forer and Likud’s Avram Neguisi emphasized that their group doesn’t exist to advance a unified policy solution to the conflict. “Victory,” as they mean it, isn’t about lining up behind a specific final-status deal, but rather convincing the other side to accept the country’s existence as a Jewish state while also demonstrating that there are core issues where Israel simply won’t negotiate. “Until 1993, it was clear to everybody that Israel was willing to fight against anyone who wants to destroy it,” said Forer. In his view, the Oslo Accords were “the first crack in this perception.” The caucus is fighting for “the victory our founding fathers wanted,” Forer said: Namely, the secure existence of a country that wouldn’t have its national character in any way dictated by its enemies.
The “victory” concept is less nebulous than it might appear. Forer said that the caucus has sent a message to president Donald Trump, calling on him to demand that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel as a Jewish state. According to a report in The New York Times earlier this week, the Trump administration is currently drafting a plan for achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Responses from from the victory caucuses in Israel and the US could create pressure on American mediators to insist that the Palestinians acknowledge Israel’s Jewish character—an issue that emerged as a major sticking point between the three sides during Obama-era peace negotiations.
As the joint statement suggests, proponents of “victory” advocate using US and Israeli pressure to get the Palestinians to acknowledge Israel’s existence as the Jewish homeland, and to force the permanent end to any Palestinian effort to destroy Israel. What makes this concept potentially significant—and, from some perspective, hazardous to any future peace efforts—is that there are still plenty of areas where Israel and the US can apply pressure on the Palestinians, whether it’s through pulling funding for the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, or reducing aid to the Palestinian Authority. The political tools for trying to coerce “defeat” out of the Palestinians are readily available, even if it’s far from obvious what their actual impact would end up being.
The MKs argued that victory would create a “win-win” scenario for both sides, since they believe that added leverage against the Palestinians and clearer Israeli objectives would hasten a nd mutually beneficial end to the conflict. At the same time, Neguisi frequently mentioned the caucus as presenting “a new paradigm”—an alternative to the last quarter-century of peace and negotiation-minded policy towards the PA in Washington and Jerusalem. If the next round of peace talks fail, “victory” could be one possible rallying cry during the period of uncertainty that would likely come next.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.