Netanyahu’s catastrophic leadership

Every year I become more alarmed about Israel’s future, not least because of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s intransigent response to a changing world

Saturday’s Wall Street Journal includes the headline “Netanyahu delivers rare public rebuke to U.S. President.” The papers report that Netanyahu publicly rejected the concept of 1967 borders as non-negotiable. Israeli aides were quoted to say that “Obama apparently does not understand the reality in the Mideast.” Netanyahu will address a joint session of Congress, where he is expected to rally support for a hard-line Israeli approach to the peace process which, predictably and intentionally, won’t go anywhere.

In the short-run, Netanyahu may have tactical leverage to resist American pressure over settlements and other matters. In the long-run, he is pursuing a catastrophic course, both for Israel and for the United States. I take no pleasure in writing this. I am no Middle East expert. I am religiously unobservant. I still feel a strong sense of kinship, identification, and affection for Israelis. Every year I become more alarmed about Israel’s future.

Cynical leadership by Netanyahu (and by others) has greatly worsened Israel’s predicament. Consider what has happened since the Oslo Accords. When that process commenced, Israel enjoyed de facto alliances with Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt. Lebanon posed quite manageable security concerns. Iran was a distant threat, recovering from the Iran-Iraq war. Israel was militarily ascendant. Even if it wasn’t, the United States had just effortlessly mauled the most powerful army in the Arab world. Israel had a flawed but interested set of Palestinian partners. It had relatively good relations with the European community.

Israel was not able to use this moment, or to use many other moments, in achieving a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. Israel hardly bears sole responsibility for this. The simple fact is that Israel’s position has steadily eroded. Its relationship with Europe is under serious question. Egypt is unlikely to abrogate its peace treaty, but the de facto alliance is no more. Turkey has dramatically repositioned itself—a repositioning hastened by Israel’s disastrous decision to storm a Turkish ship seeking to break the Gaza blockade. Iran is on its way to developing nuclear capability and to unprecedented regional reach. Hamas is entrenched in Gaza. Palestinians seem to be turning away from a discredited peace process. The power of Israel’s patron, the United States, has visibly eroded. The Arab Spring’s broad and deep populist anger against Israel poses new dangers. The relative demography has continued to move.

Israel has tangibly lost some moral and political standing within the United States. Yitzhak Rabin was a genuinely revered figure. Bibi Netanyahu…is not. Some of this slippage is generational. I remember sitting anxiously with my parents by the radio hearing tough battle reports from the Yom Kippur war. Nobody needed to argue that Israel was a small nation besieged by hostile neighbors who rejected its very existence. That was an obvious fact. The founding of Israel in the wake of the Holocaust was a living memory among most adult Americans, too.

Politicians still make pilgramages to AIPAC, but it’s different now. Many of these recitations seem dutiful rather than heartfelt, akin to a speech made to Archer Daniels Midland or some other special interest groups. Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans are emerging as important political constituencies with their own legitimate perspectives. This, too, will tell.

Israel’s standing within the American and European Jewish communities has fallen too. I’ve met few Jews under the age of 40 who are unapologetic supporters of Israel in the way my friends and I were raised to be. Liberal and moderate Jewish opinion leaders are increasingly alienated from Israeli policy. Read virtually any column these days on the Middle East by David Remnick, Jeffrey Goldberg, Thomas Friedman, Leon Wieseltier, or Peter Beinert. Compare to what they are saying today to what these same people were writing ten or fifteen years ago. Even the Onion is chiming in.

The Prime Minister gambles dangerously by bluntly allying himself with American conservatives against a sitting president. Christian conservatives and neoconservatives will support Netanyahu. So, for the moment, will partisan Republicans, but President Obama’s policy views are widely shared within the Republican policy elite. Netanyahu’s on-the-ground policies and his efforts to play American domestic politics are generating real ill-will among American diplomats and the American military fighting two wars within the Arab and Muslim worlds.

If America loses control of the peace process, for example through a General Assembly vote on a Palestinian state, Netanyahu will bear considerable blame for this humiliation. There is growing global momentum for precisely this outcome. President Obama made these points clear in his non-applause-line comments to AIPAC this morning.

President Obama is more popular among American Jews than Netanyahu is, especially over the settlement issue. The American Jewish community will split if Netanyahu confronts the Palestinians or the United States over continued expansion of these settlements. Israel will find itself in a terrible position if it defies the United States and then Palestinians wage a politically sophisticated nonviolent intifada. Israel will be in an impossible position if things keep drifting the way they are now.

Netanyahu may believe that President Obama holds naïve views of the peace process. I think Bibi has a pretty naïve view himself.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

18 thoughts on “Netanyahu’s catastrophic leadership”

  1. For the Palestinians, there is no possibility of a two state solution. Oslo proved that. Palestine has systematically executed, publicly and brutally, its own peace activists. there aren’t any left. The situation hasn’t eroded. It’s merely becoming more clear to some people, notably American liberals.

  2. As others have observed, a one-state solution, if democratic, will not have a Jewish majority.

    I’d favor a two-state solution with 1967 borders (modified by mutually-favorable land swaps) maintained by an international force, and a huge investment in Palestinian infrastructure, especially education. I think that would result in a decent situation, if it could be held in place for a generation or so. Long-term economic prospects are a strong force for peace.

  3. It isn’t as if the Israelis were the only polity that wanted to put off hard choices, but it is hard to see how Israel’s negotiating position will improve as time passes. There seem to be a lot of Israelis who think the status quo (or something close to it) is more stable than it looks to me.

  4. he is pursuing a catastrophic course, both for Israel and for the United States.

    The rest of the post details why this course is bad for Israel, but I do not see any argument for the proposition that it’s bad for the United States (unless there’s an unstated assumption that that which is bad for Israel is automatically bad for the United States).

  5. “I’d favor a two-state solution with 1967 borders (modified by mutually-favorable land swaps) maintained by an international force, and a huge investment in Palestinian infrastructure, especially education. I think that would result in a decent situation, if it could be held in place for a generation or so.”

    International forces don’t have a very good track record, unfortunately – outside of waging war, that is. Remember UNIFIL? It was supposed to enforce UN Res. 1701, which called for, among other things, establishing Lebanese government control below the Litani River and preventing Hezbollah from re-arming. The result: Hezbollah has increased its power and has more missiles than it did before, mostly in civilian areas. Remember the international force that was supposed to monitor the Philadelphi corrider and prevent Hamas from pushing through? They left when Hamas started trying to push through.

    “Long-term economic prospects are a strong force for peace.”

    Would that it were! But what evidence is there that such prospects are high on the list of Hamas priorities? We know their priority – the destruction of Israel. It’s explicit in their charter. There have been no real consequences for this; why should they abandon this goal when it is not costing them anything?

    The reason for the absence of peace in the Middle East is not anything Netanyahu is doing or failing to do. Turkey is falling into the Iranian camp because their ideology is a reasonable match and Iran looks powerful, while the US looks weak.

  6. “The American Jewish community will split if Netanyahu confronts the Palestinians or the United States over continued expansion of these settlements.”

    Expansion could mean a lot of things, including just more people living there, more dwellings within existing settlements, and entirely new settlements.

    Can Netanyahu avoid confrontation even though expansion continues as long as he doesn’t talk about it?

  7. While it’s certainly arguable that Israel’s strategic position isn’t as strong now as it was 20 years ago it isn’t clear what Netanyahu’s current tactics have to do with that. I mean, America’s strategic position isn’t as strong in the Middle East now as it was 20 years ago. I admire many of President Obama’s goals and the man himself. But his policies in the Middle East, other than unwinding Bush’s occupation of Iraq, have clearly been a failure. Efforts to engage Iran and Syria were an embarrassing debacle. Turkey is no longer a secure ally, if an ally at all. Even Abbas complained about the political headaches caused to him by the administration’s misguided and maladroit effort to link settlements to negotiations. There is good reason to be think that the President doesn’t have his act together in dealing with the region’s problems. Maybe that’s to be expected. It’s entirely possible that no one could. But in that case the right thing to do is learn a little caution. If pushback from Netanyahu helps to speed that learning, then he’s doing the President (and us) a favor.

  8. Dear Mr. Pollack,

    That was a very wise post. Israel simply will not concede a true Palestinian state, and thus the two state solution is fatally flawed. Brute demographics argue for a one state solution, but its advocates are blithely written off as “insincere”. The US would be beyond stupid to “double down” and blindly align itself with an increasingly apartheid state.

    Like many, I feel the present state of affairs may well continue for some time, but ultimately it will end badly.

  9. “why should they abandon this goal when it is not costing them anything?”

    Because if they abandoned this goal it would cost them everything. But let us presuppose the Palestinians renounced the right of return and conceded the right of the Israeli state to exist. What, exactly, would they get in return? I’d wager a great deal that they would get little more than nothing. If that is the case, why give those demands up? And further, why is the other side demanding these concessions up front, even though they know they are meaningless?

  10. I agree with Pollack. I am an American non-evangelical gentile who used to like Israel more than the Palestinians but that has changed over the last decade. Israel is a bully, and we Americans are getting a lot of blame in the world for supporting it. And I am sick and tired of my country being led by the nose by the likes of Netanyahu. Cut a deal, Israel, time is not on your side.

  11. “But let us presuppose the Palestinians renounced the right of return and conceded the right of the Israeli state to exist. What, exactly, would they get in return? I’d wager a great deal that they would get little more than nothing.”

    I expect that they would get an independent state, which they are very unlikely to get as long as Israel correctly perceives their ambitions to be the destruction of the Jewish state. But I agree with you – to them, an independent state is “little more than nothing.” Their goal, which they have stated repeatedly and backed up with both words and actions, is the end of Israel. And as long as that is true, there will never be peace in the Middle East. If the Quartet actually desires peace, it would need to change that.

  12. Where, exactly, has Israel expressed the demand that Palestinian statehood be “off the table?” i.e. a two state solution

  13. NYShooter: “Israel” has not expressed the sentiment that Palestinian statehood be off the table. However, Likud, the ruling party in the Israeli coalition government, has, in its party platform:

    The Government of Israel flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.

    This is why commentators have, in the last few weeks, been pointing out that the current Israeli government denies recognition to a Palestinian state as much as Hamas denies recognition to the Israeli state: because Likud rejects it.

  14. Ah, o.k….thanks Kevin

    I haven’t kept up with the details there for the last couple of years as progress seems to have stalled, and instead, has settled into a toxic, degenerative descent. I think I stopped paying close attention after Arafat, somewhat surprisingly, rejected a pretty could offer at Camp David during Clinton’s Presidency. Even the couple of stickier issues between Barak and Arafat were framed in a way that could have evolved into a satisfactory lasting agreement.
    I’m not sure if it was fact, or some insider gossip, but I recall Arafat allegedly saying in private, when asked why he rejected what seemed to be the best deal yet, and from a Hawk like Barak, “that had he signed the agreement he would be greeted the next morning by a bullet behind his ear.”

    Its hard to remain optimistic when morbidly cold political reality trumps the aspirations of statesmen so vivdly.

  15. “I expect that they would get an independent state, which they are very unlikely to get as long as Israel correctly perceives their ambitions to be the destruction of the Jewish state.”

    An independent state? Really? One with their own “defensible borders”? Complete sovereign control of their air space and water rights? Nuclear deterrence? And, pray tell, how much of pre-1967 Israel will be “swapped” to offset the intrusion of the settlements? And what if the Palestinians “correctly perceive” that Israel has no intention of ever allowing a vibrant, powerful, and wealthy Palestinian state on the West Bank?

    What then, oh wise sir?

  16. Dear NYShooter,

    That is like saying that the Native Americans got a “good deal” by agreeing to widely dispersed “reservations” on land that nobody else wanted in exchange for not being wiped out to the last man, woman, and child. The Israeli offer at Camp David was deeply flawed and the perception that Arafat rejected a “good deal” is a tribute to western propaganda.

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