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Saturday, October 8, 2011
Will The Real Benjamin Netanyahu Please Stand Up?
Despite all avowals to the contrary, Bibi's never wanted peace
with Palestine. And he may well have created an Israel that now agrees with
By Daniel Levy
Benjamin Netanyahu: he is in a box!
the old peace process precariously poised between Palestinian flirtations with
seeking international redress, U.S. congressional threats to funding, and
Middle East Quartet incantations to resume negotiations, October promises to be
just as rhetorically intense on the Israel-Palestine front as was the
long-awaited September. Much depends on one's reading of Israel's man at the
helm -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
home from a week of diplomatic meet-and-greets and speechifying at the U.N.
General Assembly in New York, Bibi (to use his nickname) may not have been
feted by the parades awaiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but he could
take comfort in a sight even more edifying to a politician -- a boost in his
poll numbers. The Israeli media had few kind words for its prime minister, with
headlines suggesting he gave a speech devoid of hope and with leading Yedioth
Ahronoth columnist Sima Kadmon describing his address as "demagoguery.
Netanyahu deserves an Oscar, not a peace agreement." The rival Maariv
newspaper's chief columnist, Ben Caspit, suggested that the Netanyahu
"ship continues to sail happily towards the iceberg, and this time instead
of music, we are hearing fiery speeches from the upper deck." Enough of the
Israeli public apparently thought otherwise.
repeated warnings of a "September diplomatic tsunami" for Israel, the
sun still appeared to be rising in the east, and the waters of the
Mediterranean were still lapping at the beaches in Tel Aviv. Israelis still
experienced no tangible consequences for the state's occupation of Palestinian
territories. Netanyahu enjoyed a similar dichotomy of reaction after his speech
to U.S. Congress and public dressing-down of President Barack Obama this May --
the mainstream media commentariat tutted at their leader, while a majority of
his public was high-fiving Netanyahu's chutzpah.
New York theatrics could perhaps be dismissed as another example of Bibi's
opportunistic -- if skillful -- ability to navigate between the competing
pressures of his own coalition and global opprobrium by effectively deploying
both his U.S. political assets and rhetorical skills. This represents a
long-standing view of the current Israeli prime minister, a view that
emphasizes his capacity to adapt and manipulate the conversation over hardened
ideological preferences. This is Bibi who flies by the seat of his pants,
devoid of any real plan other than the necessity of political survival.
it is a view of Netanyahu long in need of a major rethink.
the son of Benzion Netanyahu, is now in his second term of office and
approaching a total of six years at Israel's helm, making him one of the
country's longest-serving premiers. And, like him or hate him, he might go down
in history as one of its most defining and consequential leaders.
if there is a discernible legacy, what is it all about?
his first campaign for the premiership in 1996, Netanyahu pledged to continue
with the Oslo peace process, albeit with his own adjustments, despite having
savaged the peace effort and its promoters, notably Yitzhak Rabin, in the
preceding years. As prime minister from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu concluded two
agreements with the Palestinians as part of that Oslo framework -- the Hebron
Protocol and the Wye River Memorandum, both expanding the reach of the
Palestinian self-governing authority in parts of the occupied territories --
and famously shook then PLO leader Yasir Arafat's hand along the way. And only
weeks into his second term in office in June 2009, Bibi allowed the magic words
to publicly pass his lips for the first time in a dramatically staged speech at
Bar-Ilan University: There could be a "Palestinian state," he said, a
his years as leader, Netanyahu has never tired of paying homage to the peace
agreement with Egypt (for instance in a U.N. General Assembly speech in 1998
and again this year). Every keynote speech is littered with incantations of his
desire for peace, the outstretched hand, and a willingness to negotiate
anytime, anywhere. It is therefore tempting to cast Netanyahu in the role of
Joshua, leading his people on the final leg of the journey to the promised land
of peace; or perhaps more modernly (and somewhat less triumphantly), as Nixon
going to China. If only the right formula and choreography can be found, so
goes this narrative, then Netanyahu, having broken with his own previous taboos
regarding a Palestinian state, is the man who can deliver. In the more than
three decades since Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian
President Anwar Sadat's deal , a favorite mantra of Israeli politics has been
rak ha-likud yachol -- only Likud, the right wing, can (bring peace).
This is a reading of Netanyahu that is
tempting, but wrong.
substantive parameter of that peace deal with Egypt has been rejected by Bibi
when it comes to the Palestinians. The Israeli-Egyptian peace deal centered on
an evacuation to the last centimeter of the 1967 lines, the removal of every
last settler and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier, and an international --
as opposed to Israeli -- security force deployment. And the Egyptians, by the
way, did not have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state to get their peace. His
position on the Palestinian track is to oppose these same principles on every
single issue. Netanyahu wasn't yet in politics to vote yes or no when the Camp
David peace with Egypt was brought to the Knesset. He was, however, present
when for a second time a Likud leader -- Ariel Sharon -- undertook a withdrawal
from occupied territory and dismantled settlements. Netanyahu's position was to
vote against and quit the government in protest at the 2005 Gaza disengagement
plan. His much-touted November 2009 settlement moratorium excluded both East
Jerusalem and units already under construction, thereby making no noticeable
dent in settlement growth rates, even for its nine-month duration.
go betting on Netanyahu to be Israel's fourth Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
has certainly left his mark in the realm of market-oriented economic reform,
attempting to downsize government, remove layers of the social safety net, and
de-unionize the workforce, with a string of policies in the Reagan-Thatcher
tradition that, in particular, characterized his first term as prime minister
and his period as finance minister from 2003 to 2005. Those policies have had a
significant impact and, at least for the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who
took to the streets in this summer's social protest movement, a destructive
one. Yet Bibi has never met his own bar of neoliberal economic absolutism.
Israel maintains a significant and political coalition-driven core of social
welfare provision. The recommendations of the Trachtenberg committee, appointed
by Netanyahu (and named after its chair, Manuel Trachtenberg, an economist and
former head of Israel's National Economic Council) in response to the
unprecedented social unrest that started in Tel Aviv and swept the country, may
fall well short of the protesters' demands but still include ideas that should
have Netanyahu's Republican friends in the United States crying sellout.
an Israeli leader economics are one thing; but it is still in the arena of
peace and war, soil and security, that reputations are made or mauled.
in Maariv, Yehonatan Geffen, one of Israel's best-known cultural icons, had the
following to say in response to his prime minister's speech to the United
Nations this year:
have two sensitive and smart grandchildren -- the six year old Lev and the
three year old Dylan -- and I don't mind if they watch porn movies and extreme
violence on television, but I completely refuse to let them hear speeches like
that, after which they are only going to want to pack their bags and look for
someplace happier to live. And I totally understand them. I just don't want
them to leave grandpa all alone with the Holocaust and with his Bibi blues.
understand the Netanyahu legacy spread across not only speeches at the United
Nations, but throughout his terms in office and through his books, interviews,
and most of all his policies, is to dig deeper into what those "Bibi
blues" might mean for Israel and to understand a project that is reshaping
the way the Israeli government relates to its own public, the global community,
and especially the United States.
Reshaping the peace process
leadership decisions historically have combined a singular, sometimes ruthless
insistence on securing a Jewish state with an ability to make pragmatic
compromises -- the two sometimes being in synergy and sometimes being at odds.
Israel's leaders accepted the 1947 U.N. partition plan but then secured a much
greater portion of Palestine than the United Nations had granted and expelled
much of the Palestinian population in the ensuing war. Israel's leaders
captured the Egyptian Sinai in the late 1960s and spent a decade building
civilian and military outposts there only to evacuate the area a little over a
decade later. When the Arab world was out of bounds for Israel, its leaders
pursued a regional strategy based on an alliance with the non-Arab states of
the periphery -- Turkey, Iran, and Ethiopia -- and ultimately offset its
regional isolation by enmeshing Israel into the structures of U.S. Cold War
alliances. As the region changed, however, Israel established links to fellow
members of the Pax Americana among the authoritarian but so-called
"moderate" Arab regimes, like Egypt and Jordan -- and more
discreetly, parts of the Gulf.
Zionism in practice may have offered little comfort to the dispossessed
Palestinians of 1948 and insufficient democracy to Israel's own Palestinian
Arab citizens (about 20 percent of the country's population), but it did focus
on thickening the thin sheet of ice upon which Israel's future in the region
was predicated. The Oslo process, started in 1993, would not address core
Palestinian grievances or offer real justice, but it would fit neatly within
that pragmatic tradition of thickening the ice, holding out the promise of at
least an end to the occupation of the lands beyond the 1967 lines (or the vast
majority of those lands) and of something recognizably approximating sovereign
project for Israel, over the course of his political leadership, can be best
understood as taking a pickax to those layers of stability and bringing something
new in their place. Netanyahu patiently went about the work of unraveling the
core aspects of Oslo that were not to his liking. He created a new peace
discourse, one ostensibly reasonable and certainly accessible to the Western
ear -- but one also ultimately incompatible with the pragmatic compromise that
Oslo might have set in motion.
Netanyahu peace dictionary -- that peace required reciprocity, that
Palestinians would have to give if they were to get, that only unmediated,
direct negotiations were admissible in the court of peacemaking -- all created
a false parallel between an occupying power and an occupied people and
succeeded in draining the peace effort both substantively and procedurally of
any vitality or chance of success. Having ostensibly bought into this bargain
and made itself dependent on Israeli (and U.S.) goodwill, the PLO-Fatah
leadership unsurprisingly lost credibility as the years of
"peace-processing" dragged on -- with no seeming cost to Israel.
major shift in Netanyahu's position between his first and second terms is
highly instructive. Having rejected the idea of a Palestinian state previously,
he now embraces the notion with a passion bordering on that of a convert. (In
his U.N. speech in September, he noted that in peace Israel would be the first
country to recognize a Palestinian state.) Yet his idea of what Palestinian
statehood would entail is exactly the same as his previous vision for
Palestinian autonomy, the only difference being his recognition that it makes more
sense to say that if the Palestinians are willing to call this bantustanization
statehood, then why on Earth should Israel oppose it?
1997, Netanyahu spoke of the Palestinians having the "most generous
self-government." And later that year he talked of "a self-governing
entity, offering them maximum self-government in the areas that will be under
their control in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza." When addressing the United
Nations during his first term in 1998, Netanyahu suggested that already
"98 percent of the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria ... are now living
under Palestinian rule ... their own flag, their own executive.... It can no
longer be claimed that the Palestinians are occupied by Israel. We do not
govern their lives." Eleven years later, at Bar-Ilan University in 2009,
Netanyahu said, "Each [state] will have its own flag, its own national
anthem, its own government." He only neglected to mention that only one
would have anything resembling sovereignty. It is worth remembering that 60
percent of the West Bank and all of East Jerusalem are strictly out of bounds
for this Palestinian self-governing entity.
than allowing the Palestinians to apply the label "state" to their
prospective West Bank archipelago of limited self-governing islands, Netanyahu
has pivoted in one other area from a decade ago. He has now made Palestine's
acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state a precondition for any movement. In so
doing Netanyahu is castrating the old Oslo peace process of any last vestiges
of potency. Intriguingly, he is also perhaps establishing a more honest
Israeli-Palestinian playing field. Addressing the Knesset in this May just
prior to his departure for Washington, Netanyahu asserted: "It is not a
conflict over 1967, but over 1948."
was an attempt to subsume the weighty issues of Israel's creation, Israel's
ethnocratic character, and Palestinian dispossession, and emphasize a
resolution of issues arising from the 1967 occupation. Despite U.S., Quartet
(EU-Russian-U.N.-U.S.), and other attempts to force the conflict back into that
1967 box, Netanyahu has probably drawn a line under a certain 1967-centric
period in Israeli-Palestinian history. As Ahmad Khalidi, a Palestinian academic
and occasional policy advisor to the PLO, explains in compelling detail in a
recent Journal of Palestine Studies piece, acceptance of Zionism and the Jewish
state is not "the Palestinian Arab narrative, nor can it be." It
would require the Palestinians to not only embrace their own dispossession but
also accept the other side's appropriation of "the rights of those who
reside in the territory ... their very history and identity, their relationship
to the land, and by extension their rights, future, and fate as well."
Al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh has similarly eviscerated Bibi's
"Jewish state" recognition demand.
father, Benzion, a renowned historian of the right, rejected partition in the
middle of the last century. His son Benjamin is rejecting partition for this
century and setting up a winner-take-all struggle. There is no Palestinian
state or two-state solution along the lines proposed by Netanyahu -- in which
Israel retains all of Greater Jerusalem, much of the West Bank, and an IDF
presence in "Palestinian areas," and in which only one historical
narrative guides future "coexistence." But the ironic favor that
Netanyahu might be doing to peace and reconciliation efforts is that by
relitigating history in that way he might have in fact forced all issues,
including those of 1948, to be more fully addressed in any future genuine
attempt at peace -- far more than was the case in the negotiations of the
is Netanyahu the man who will lead Israel on that journey?
A base of his own creation
his first term, Netanyahu displayed a near paranoia when it came to the old
Israeli, so-called liberal, Ashkenazi elite. Much as he tried to forge a new
coalition of the right and religious, he ultimately did not have the numbers to
do so -- not in the public and not in parliament. And he was prematurely
unseated by getting on the wrong side of both U.S. President Bill Clinton and
the old establishment inside Israel. Israel has changed since then.
is now in a period of right-wing hegemony with a new rightist elite drawn from
different sectors of society: the media, the justice system, politics, and the
security establishment. This is a reality that Netanyahu both feeds off and
helped to shape. It also explains the extent to which he has shed his previous
restraint in articulating his exceptionalist vision for Israel and in placing the
country at the forefront of what appears to be a civilizational struggle of the
Judeo-Christian tradition against Islam. In a wide-ranging Haaretz interview
with journalist Ari Shavit back in 1996, Netanyahu described the then pervasive
realities of Israel as he saw them:
people argue ... that there are no right-wing intellectuals in Israel. This
claim seems strange to me ... in view of the fact that the intellectual
dynamism of the past two decades throughout the West has come from the
right-wing. I think that the Israeli situation reveals something completely
different. We have academic institutions and media which are committed to the
'unthinking' uniformity of the dominant line, and they simply replicate these
positions [the positions of the old Ashkenazi liberal elite].... I intend to
change this situation. I intend to help ... set up a number of research centers
which will not be controlled by the government, but will create genuine
ideological competition in Israel.
has come a significant way in shaking up that culture in the intervening years.
He helped found what has now become Israel's leading think tank, the Shalem
Center, which provides both personnel and policies for right-wing Israeli
governments and is funded by Bibi's key American supporters (Sheldon Adelson
and Ron Lauder). Israel now has a free daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, the
widest circulation broadsheet in the country, also funded by Adelson and
unswervingly committed to the prime minister's line. Netanyahu has named
overtly political place holders to head up the news broadcasts on Israeli state
TV and radio. The Israeli right now has an academic, think-tank, and
campaigning infrastructure modeled on its U.S. neoconservative counterparts
(with which there is close cooperation) and just as influential.
it's not due solely to force of Bibi's charisma. This political and
institutional change is built on solid demographic foundations. The
ultra-Orthodox population continues to grow exponentially, tripling in less
than two decades. When added to the traditional Orthodox, national-religious
community and the trenchantly right-wing, Russian-speaking immigrant
population, Israel's Jewish public now has a heavily pronounced, built-in,
right-wing bias. The school system reflects this tendency, focusing increasingly
on narrowly defined Jewish and Zionist heritage instruction over civics and
democracy. IDF officer-training courses are now well overpopulated by members
of the pro-settler community in comparison with their proportion in the
population as a whole (about a third of officer-training attendees
self-identify as "national-religious" as opposed to about 10 to 15
percent in society at large).
is a Bibi-esque coalition over a decade in the making. In the very last days of
his successful 1996 election campaign, Netanyahu teamed up with the
ultra-Orthodox of the Lubavitch movement who poured into the streets for him,
chanting "Netanyahu is good for the Jews!" and waiving posters and
banners. (In this year's U.N. General Assembly speech, Netanyahu quoted the
Lubavitch Rebbe as having called the United Nations a "house of many
relationship with the religious right is now strongly cemented. Bibi was not
afraid to stir controversy by dedicating an entire new governmental budget line
to preserving Jewish heritage sites -- on both sides of the Green Line. Of
course, not a shekel was allocated for Palestinian heritage, be it Muslim or
Christian. In his Bar-Ilan University speech, Netanyahu described the settlers
as "a principled, pioneering, and Zionist public." In his 1993 book,
A Place Among the Nations, Netanyahu was already describing his emotional
feelings as a young soldier after 1967, walking in the biblical footsteps of
previous generations in the newly occupied Judean and Samarian areas of Shilo
and Betar. Greater Israel and the practical assertion of the Jewish right to
all of the land is not a new narrative for Netanyahu.
is new is that Netanyahu now has a public with which he can be more open and
transparent in asserting that cause. It is a narrative that is rapidly becoming
the stuff of Israeli consensus. And unsurprisingly, in its wake there have been
a slew of more racist and anti-democratic legislative initiatives giving full
vent to the realization of the idea of an ethnocentric Jewish state.
inhabits a world divided between Jew and non-Jew, one in which the lessons of
Jewish persecution endlessly cited in his speeches are particularist, not
universalist. And that resonates not only with the Israeli public, but also
with a set of Jewish leaders around the world who have lined up to support Bibi.
The "with us or against us" divide is applied also to his fellow
Jews. Netanyahu makes a point of speaking, as he did again this year at the
United Nations, on behalf of "Israel and the Jewish people." He
offers a vision that is deeply polarizing in the Jewish world. But it is a
Jewish world and in particular an American Jewish community whose institutions
have for some time leaned more to the right when it comes to Israel's defense.
(Some years ago, J.J. Goldberg did a wonderful job describing how this came
about in his book Jewish Power). Today, Netanyahu seems perfectly willing to
lose not only the more established world of liberal Zionism but also the next
generation of Jews, less attached to Israel and best described by Peter Beinart
as those who refuse to "check their liberalism at Zionism's door."
scorn in the prime minister's office for Thomas Friedman and other critics
among the intellectual elite of liberal American Jewry has become the stuff of
legend, and Bibi has consistently refused to meet with any more J Street
delegations, even if they include members of U.S. Congress.
this seems unsurprising, consider how far the tone has shifted. In 1992,
Yitzhak Rabin offered an entirely different vision for Israel in his first
Knesset speech on reassuming the premiership:
longer are we necessarily 'a people that dwells alone,' and no longer is it
true that 'the whole world is against us.' We must overcome the sense of
isolation that has held us in its thrall for almost half a century. We must join
the international movement toward peace, reconciliation, and cooperation.
Israel could not have distanced itself further from that vision. In his speech
to the United Nations this September, Netanyahu referenced the "Jewish
state" no less than 10 times -- unprecedented in the history of Israeli
leaders addressing that forum. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in 1993, 1995, and
2002 did not utter the words "Jewish state" even once; nor did Shlomo
Ben-Ami, Silvan Shalom, or Tzipi Livni when they were speaking at the same
venue in their respective stints as Israeli diplomat in chief in 2000, 2004,
and 2007, representing respectively the Labor, Likud, and Kadima parties.
Netanyahu is a new brand of Israeli messenger.
The enemies of his enemies
it is fair to say that Netanyahu has also repositioned Israel globally. As with
much else, there is a consistency to Netanyahu's positions in this respect,
positions that he has become more strident and confident in asserting over
time. Over two decades ago, Bibi played a lead role in beginning to forge what
has now become a defining alliance between Israel and the right-wing,
evangelical Christian community in the United States and beyond. Netanyahu was
an early courter of the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.
Netanyahu was a trendsetter in creating the close cooperation between the
Israeli right and U.S. neoconservatives. In 1996, at the start of his first
term, a collection of American neocons, some of whom were to later serve in
George W. Bush's administration (Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and David
Wurmser) produced a policy report for Netanyahu titled "A Clean Break: A
New Strategy for Securing the Realm."
course, during the Global War on Terror campaign following the 9/11 attacks,
Israel had a certain special place in U.S. policy -- even more special than
usual. But it was under Netanyahu and seemingly by design that Israel has so
overtly become the stuff of partisan U.S. politics. Simply put, Netanyahu has
aligned Israel as a global right-wing cause. He speaks the language and pursues
the policies of the right. Although Democrats, including those in the Obama
administration, demonstrate a great loyalty to Israel and go out to bat for
Netanyahu's policies, they do so on a terrain largely defined by the Republican
right, and in so doing, they embrace a discourse that is alien to them on
almost any other issue. Indeed, Netanyahu embraces a host of dog-whistle causes
very familiar to the American right and almost anathema to liberals, from U.N.
bashing to hyping the threat of Islam. Republican presidential candidates
accuse Obama of betraying Israel, while Netanyahu has been more than willing to
have Israel become a Republican talking point against incumbent Democratic
presidents (both now and in the 1990s).
the way Netanyahu is aligning support for his vision of the Jewish state goes
well beyond the United States. In Europe, the most natural allies of
Netanyahu's policies have become the xenophobic and Islamophobic politicians of
the populist right. When leading European politicians of the hard right --
Dutch, Austrian, Belgian, Italian, Scandinavian, and more -- visit Israel, they
often do so as guests of the settler movement and as cheerleaders for Likud
policies. In his recent visit to Israel, right-wing Dutch politician Geert
Wilders said, "Jews need to settle Judea and Samaria." He added,
"Our culture is based on Christianity, Judaism, and humanism, and [the
Israelis] are fighting our fight.... If Jerusalem falls, Amsterdam and New York
will be next."
say that this is pregnant with potential for even greater ruptures between
Israel and Jewish communities around the world would be an understatement. Such
"allies" are sometimes descendants of fascist parties, always carrying
the whiff of the Brownshirt, and seem attracted by the particular brand of the
"more ethnocracy-than-democracy" Jewish state that the Netanyahu
government is openly championing. As a possible defense for a white, Christian
Europe, it is hardly an attractive alliance in the eyes of most Jewish
it is time to stop thinking of Netanyahu as a passing phenomenon or an
ideological shape-shifter. It is time to appreciate -- if not applaud -- the
transformative potential of his combined terms in office. The prospects for the
kind of two-state outcome envisaged by President Clinton over a decade ago have
receded far into the distance. Netanyahu may have permanently deep-sixed such
an option. Palestinians' complicity in their own permanent disenfranchisement
is an unlikely alternative, given the Palestinian government's willingness to
plow ahead at the United Nations. Indeed, the status quo holds only for as long
as the PLO leadership believes there is some hope to return to that old Oslo
model. That era seems to be passing.
could go down as Israel's first "post-two-state" prime minister. That
would make for an Israel whose future would be less Jewish, not only
demographically (in controlling a majority of non-Jews), but more importantly,
morally -- having strayed so far from a set of universal ethical values so
central to much of contemporary Jewish identity.
Netanyahu's brand of chauvinist nationalism finds its roots in Jewish sources,
then so does its antithesis. In synagogues around the world this weekend, on
the Day of Atonement, Jews will be reading from Isaiah in the Book of Prophets.
In describing this fast day, Isaiah suggests that starving the body is not of
interest to the Lord but rather a real reckoning with wickedness: "To let
the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke." It may be too late for a
secular-led overhaul of the Netanyahu path from within Israel. Instead, the
options are becoming clearer: Either Israel will be pressured into ending its
denial of Palestinian freedoms, or the Jewish world will find enough modern-day
Isaiahs to chart a new course.
-This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 07/10/2011
-Daniel Levy directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation
and is an editor of Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel