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Hey, everybody. Greetings from King Bibi-Land. Troy suggested I drop in and offer a word or two about the Israeli election from ground zero, as it were. I’m happy to do so, although I confess to some slight hesitation, as my views on the result run somewhat counter to the general sentiment at Ricochet.
There appears to be much (forgive me) rather uninflected delight being expressed at Ricochet over Bibi’s victory — a victory that does offer obvious satisfaction to anyone who views it strictly in terms of the thumb in the eye it offers to President Obama. I understand this. I can see that the result has really energized some of you, who view it as evidence that a rhetorical, chest-thumping lunge for the throat can, under certain circumstances and when executed by a pro, be a productive strategy against Obama.
But from my perspective here in Israel, it’s hard to view Bibi’s dissing of the US president and subsequent electoral triumph with unalloyed joy. This is not because I have any problem in principle with this president being flipped a well-earned bird, but because the consequences could be precisely the opposite of what Bibi intended. They could, in fact, be horrendously costly to us.
Over the course of the run-up to this election and during the election itself, Bibi managed not only to worsen an already fraught relationship with the White House but to shift the rules of engagement with regard to the Palestinians in a direction that Americans cannot possibly follow — and to take this dramatic second step as an eleventh-hour electoral tactic, making it appear spectacularly cynical.
It is hard to imagine this remaining unanswered. I would not be at all surprised if, over the course of the interminable remainder of his term in office, Obama does something truly dramatic in retaliation.
I hate making specific predictions, but it’s entirely conceivable that he will withdraw the American veto of UN Security Council resolutions condemning settlement construction, which would plunge us even deeper into the pariah mire than we are already. Obama might even go so far as to back a UN resolution recognizing Palestine. Like so many hapless leaders before him, Obama has seized on Israel/Palestine as his ticket to a “legacy”, and Bibi appears to have put paid to any kind of negotiated settlement. If Obama can’t get the legacy with us, he may well try to get it without us.
But let me back up a little. Part of what has been so astonishing to me over the course of this campaign has been the failure of Bibi’s usually strong instincts. He is not a stupid man by any means, but his acceptance of John Boehner’s curiously timed invitation to speak before Congress was a truly boneheaded move from an international standpoint. I know that speech delighted many who relished the spectacle of Bibi getting his rockstar on at Obama’s expense. But over here, it horrified a lot of us, including those of us who find much to admire in Bibi and little to love in Obama.
I, for one, was absolutely floored by Bibi’s decision to flout basic diplomatic protocol and decorum for the sake of a domestic campaign strategy, a cynical move by anyone’s measure. Not because I’m so enamored of diplomatic protocol and decorum per se, but because Bibi’s choice did two highly unpalatable things: a) it disrespected the office of the presidency itself, which, as a passionate champion of US-style democracy, I find highly problematic; and b) it put many Democrats in Congress in the embarrassing, difficult, unnecessary, and self-defeating (from Israel’s perspective) position of having to take a public stand against our prime minister. Bibi’s swagger has its place and has served us well at other times in our long national relationship with him, but this time he really overstepped, and I — and many other Israelis, including some right-leaning ones like me — believe he did us harm.
In the wake of the election, a trope is making itself heard in right-wing American circles that any criticism of Bibi’s election night demagoguery is nothing more than empty, sour-grapes, liberal/progressive bilge. That just doesn’t wash. It was disgraceful of Bibi to attempt to drum up votes for Likud by condemning Arab Israelis for exercising their right to vote, no matter who was encouraging them to do so. Of course, it seems to have worked, insofar as it convinced late-voting right-wingers to back Likud itself rather than their own, smaller right-wing parties in the hope of being part of the coalition (the argument being that if Likud isn’t forming the government, those smaller parties are out on their tushes anyway). But that move was pure, unadulterated, hail Mary demagoguery, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise. The fact that Democrats are saying it, or that they’re guilty of the same kind of thing when it suits them (takes one to know one), doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
As you can probably tell, I’m deeply torn about Bibi. I believe that his central premise is absolutely right: until things change a hell of a lot for the better around here, our number one concern has to remain security and defense above all else. Despite my issues with his sense of timing and the respect I believe is due the White House, I’m profoundly grateful to Bibi for insisting on shouting from the hilltops to anyone who will listen about the reality of the threat we face from Iran, no matter how much scorn or vilification he brings down on his own head. Frankly, it’s heroic.
On the other hand, I believe his approach to the Palestinian problem, which is, as ever, an immediate and perpetual security threat, is totally short-sighted and ultimately dangerous to the whole Israeli experiment.
There is a perception abroad that there are two options available in this country with regard to the Palestinians: the Bibi/Likud option — dig in your heels and don’t give an inch (or even discuss giving an inch) until the other side demonstrates that they are acting in good faith; and the left option, which will give away the whole country in a heartbeat if it’ll get the Arabs to at least pretend to like us for a few minutes.
This is a false dichotomy. The fact of the matter is that there is less daylight than most people think between Likud and Labor in terms of territorial concessions (or at least there was, until Bibi decided at the last second to cement his electoral victory by disavowing his commitment to an eventual Palestinian state, a statement he is now frantically backtracking). There are, however, two areas of critical difference between Bibi and Labor: the expansion of settlements and the willingness to negotiate.
Let’s start with the second one. It is generally assumed that the willingness of Labor simply to talk to the Palestinians implies an ipso facto willingness to make crazy concessions to them. The awful, tragic truth is this: we all know, left and right alike, that the Palestinians will blow it no matter what’s on the table. They always do. They are so hopelessly fractured and poorly led that they are practically guaranteed not to agree to anything we offer them, no matter how much it’s in their interest to accept.
Our center-left parties (I’m not speaking about the hard left, which is so decimated that it has no power to do anything anyway) are simply not so stupid as to make gigantic offers with no security guarantees, no international guarantees, no reciprocal concessions, no nothing. It is not what they want. It is not what the people want.
The Palestinians will not agree to give us any real guarantees in any case. They’re hamstrung by the maximalists in their camp who view any concession to us, no matter how trivial, as both a sign of weakness and an unacceptable grant of legitimacy. As a result, there is little to no danger of an agreement being hammered out in the first place. So, with Bibi, there’s no agreement but we’re the villains because we won’t even talk to them; with Labor, there would be no agreement either, and we’d still probably be blamed for the failure — but at least we wouldn’t be writing the Israel-bashers’ script for them. Sitting down with the enemy can be a strategy unto itself.
On the other distinction between Bibi and Labor — the building of settlements — we wade into very difficult territory. If you believe, as many evangelical Christians and religious Jews do, that God gave this land from the Jordan to the Mediterranean to the Jews and that’s all there is to it, then you’re probably (although not necessarily) going to favor Israeli settlement throughout the territories. But there is a demographic reality on the ground here that cannot be ignored.
Yes, it is a fiction that the West Bank and Gaza were “Palestinian” before Israel took them over in 1967, but that does not mean that they are, or should be, Israeli, particularly since they contain Muslim populations that, if incorporated into Israel, will quickly completely undermine the Jewish nature of the state. It’s extremely difficult to see what the desired endpoint is of all the settlement building other than to make a division into two states ultimately impossible. And then what? The Palestinians are never going to just throw up their hands and all move to Belgium. They’re not going anywhere, and their claims — flimsy and ahistorical though they may be — will become more and more cemented into an unshakeable reality the more time passes. We have wrought this; we must fix it. It’s in our best interests as well as theirs.
As to the physical advantage of holding a wider area: I am all for strategic depth (although it’s of much more limited value in this day and age than it was in 1948 or 1967), but I am even more for a healthy Israel living alongside a healthy Palestine. Yes, a healthy Palestine might be an impossible dream at this moment in history, but choking off the possibility that one might ever emerge doesn’t seem likely to end well for either party.
I hope you’ve stayed with me all the way through this long post. I know how profoundly so many of you care about Israel, and your concern has been a great comfort to me during very difficult times here. The situation in Israel is in some respects extremely complex — I haven’t even touched, for example, on the domestic issues that played into the election. But, in other respects, it’s awfully simple. We have a big problem — the Israeli-Palestinian problem — and if we don’t solve it, this country might not make it. We have to use our heads and figure out which of the myriad approaches to the problem is most likely to leave us not only alive, but stronger. King Bibi gives a hell of a speech, it’s true. But we are more isolated now than ever. A good deal of that is down to him.