Netanyahu and Israel’s Reality

Last night, Frontline aired an interesting (and controversial) special report about Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, called Netanyahu at War.  Here's the trailer:



As it is shown by PBS, it is naturally presented through the prism of a series of left-wing ideologues, resulting in the simplistic conclusion: Netanyahu bad, Clinton/Obama good.  The conceit of the left is in believing that Netanyahu shaped the cynicism of the Isreali public (shaped by a decade of "Palestinian" suicide bombing in response to Israel's peace overtures), rather than simply acknowledging and embracing it.  Liel Leibovitz at Tablet Magazine eviscerates the surreal way in which Frontline carries this out:

Last night, I watched a movie. It was intense. A handful of characters, very few of them likable, are forced to put up with each other and spend their days discussing lofty things like destiny and justice all while eyeing each other’s backs, looking for a good spot to stick the dagger. I’m not talking about Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight; I’m talking about Frontline’s The Hateful Eight Years. OK, so the movie was really called Netanyahu at War, but don’t let the thin grey mist of public television dullness fool you: last night’s prime time offering was every bit as surreal, titillating, maddening, and wonderful as anything the master of pulp fiction has done in years.

Now, had this been, you know, a documentary, it would’ve probably spent a little bit of time, you know, documenting some of the external realities that compel its lead character, the talented Mr. Bibi, to feel and act as he does. That would include stuff like, say, the concrete decision made by the Palestinian Authority to resort to violence after refusing Ehud Barak’s generous peace deal in Camp David in 2000, or the 11,000 rockets Hamas has fired into Israel since the IDF’s 2005 withdrawal, or Iran’s dedication to sponsor, plan, and finance terrorist attacks against Jews and Israelis anywhere from Bint Jbeil to Buenos Aires. None of these things are discussed at any real length; when we see Palestinians, it’s only briefly and in black-and-white snapshots of youths holding slingshots.

That’s not because of some ideological bend. It’s because reality, really, is a nuisance: because it perfectly mimicks the emotional and intellectual sensibilities of the Obama Administration, Netanyahu at War is a movie that’s all about politics and perceptions and theories and maneuvers, and not at all about observable facts. Bibi and Barack are clashing about Iran? Must be because of some deeply nuanced set of personal and political intricacies, not simply because one leader thinks it’s a good idea to placate the world’s foremost exporter of terrorism while the other has strong reservations.

That basically sums up the critical flaws of the report, but it is still a useful background through which to ask the question: why is Israel content to manage the conflict and maintain the status quo, rather than engage in yet another push for peace with the "Palestinian" Arabs?  To answer this, Haviv Rettig Gur provides an incisive and insightful look at Netaynahu and the state of Israeli society:

Powerless power

In terms of his straightforward control over the mechanisms of policymaking, Netanyahu has become an incredibly powerful prime minister. Yet in another, perhaps more important sense, Netanyahu’s growing influence reflects the very opposite of power. It is rooted in the shrunken horizons of Israeli politics, in the fact that political parties have lost the capacity to articulate and implement solutions to the nation’s most vexing problems. Netanyahu’s power is growing amid and because of the growing irrelevance of political power in the Israeli political imagination.

For most Israelis, the last 25 years of national politics have been a period of wild political experimentation on the issue that has defined the left-right divide: the Palestinians. From Yitzhak Shamir’s grudging acquiescence to American-led multilateral peace talks in Madrid to Yitzhak Rabin’s decision to retake the initiative, surprising the Americans with the Oslo process in 1992; from Netanyahu’s signing of the Wye agreement – the last agreement actually signed between an Israeli and Palestinian leader – to Ehud Barak’s lunge for a deal with the Palestinians at Camp David in 2000; and on to Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and Ehud Olmert’s 2006 campaign promise of a similar withdrawal from the West Bank, Israelis once elected such leaders in order to carry out these grand peacemaking experiments.

Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat sign maps prior to the Oslo II signing ceremony at the White House, as US president Bill Clinton, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Jordan's King Hussein look on, September 28, 1995. (GPO)

Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat sign maps prior to the Oslo II signing ceremony at the White House, as US president Bill Clinton, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Hussein look on, September 28, 1995. (GPO)

In 1992, 1999 and 2006, the explicit promise to separate Israel from the Palestinians won elections. Yet after the Second Intifada in 2000 and the Second Lebanon War in 2006, that was no longer true. Israelis lost faith not only in the Palestinian ability to reciprocate Israeli withdrawal with peace, but in the very leaders who urged them to make such gambles in the first place.

This is not an argument that Israelis’ skepticism is right, but only that for most Israelis, the experience of the failures of these promises, each time accompanied by waves of bloodshed, has come to define their political expectations. Israelis no longer believe there is a discernible way out of the current conflict, and are unwilling to elect anyone who doesn’t share their hard-earned distrust.

Israeli security forces at the site of a terror attack near the Etzion Junction in the West Bank on October 20, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli security forces at the site of a terror attack near the Etzion Junction in the West Bank on October 20, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As they have shown for the last decade, polls this month revealed yet again this underlying Israeli ambiguity, with most Israelis favoring separation from the Palestinians, but saying they are convinced it cannot be implemented.

“There is broad agreement in the Jewish public (71%) that even the signing of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement would not bring an end to Palestinian terror against Jews,” explains a report by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University summarizing the findings of December’s “peace index” poll.

The extent of this view is made clear by the finding that “The only party for which a majority of the voters think a peace agreement would bring an end to the terror is Meretz (81%).” Not coincidentally, Meretz is also the only Jewish-majority party in the Knesset that still openly advocates a near-term Israeli withdrawal.

Fair enough, but how does Netanyahu leverage that sentiment into electoral success?  Surely in a militarized country like Israel, there are many politicians there with the security credentials to carry the public.  Indeed, before Netanyahu's latest run as prime minister, former generals Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak had been PM.  But even that is no longer sufficiently comforting to the Israeli public, in that both of these former prime ministers took huge risks for peace, and utterly failed:

‘Responsible’ leadership

Netanyahu’s electoral victories are not as mysterious as they are portrayed by some of his opponents or overseas observers. As best as can be discerned from polling data, he wins elections not because he is personally loved by most Israelis. Rather, he is trusted on the issue Israelis most want to go away: the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hails victory in a speech at Likud campaign headquarters early in the morning of March 18, 2015 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hails victory in a speech at Likud campaign headquarters early in the morning of March 18, 2015 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

For the past seven years, Netanyahu’s political campaigns have usually (with a fewnotable exceptions) shied away from explicitly right-wing rhetoric on issues such as settlements or judicial reform, focusing instead on a single recurring theme: his promise to be “responsible,” by which he means, immune to the cajoling and pressure from abroad that urge him to attempt new diplomatic experiments with the Palestinians.

In this, Netanyahu plays consciously on the simple fact, demonstrated consistently in polling, that Israelis no longer trust the judgment of their leaders. It was Israel’s most celebrated military chiefs, after all, from Rabin to Barak to Sharon, who led the country into the peace processes and subsequent bloody terror waves of recent years.

Netanyahu is no general, and in his campaign messaging, at least, neither an ideologue nor a bearer of promises. He is, rather, a skeptic. Let the Palestinians change, he argues; let them stop seeking Israel’s destruction, and it won’t matter if the prime minister is Netanyahu or Herzog. Peace will come. Until then, he vows, he won’t gamble as his predecessors did.

It is this message, not Netanyahu’s persona or the posturing populism of some of his more strident Likud backbenchers, that has carried elections so consistently in recent years. And it is that consistent success at the ballot box that allows Netanyahu to grow his control over the agencies of government.

And so Netanyahu is not lying, as so many believe, when he promises support for Palestinian statehood in English while vowing in Hebrew that it won’t happen “on my watch,” if ever. The two statements, taken together, reflect precisely the views and expectations of his voters, their yearning for separation alongside their conviction that withdrawal can only worsen the bloodshed. They reflect, too, the deepest wellspring of his political support: his sidestepping of ideology in favor of an implicit promise to Israelis that he will never ask them to trust once more in Arab intentions.

Powerful, irrelevant

This duality of Netanyahu’s consolidation of power amid the hollowing out of the Israeli political discourse has profound implications for policy.

“[Barack] Obama has long understood Netanyahu to be the indispensable man of Middle East peacemaking,” writes journalist Jeffrey Goldberg of his interviews with the American president. “Obama believes that, alone among Israeli leaders, Netanyahu possesses the credibility to deliver as much as 70 percent of the Israeli public to a difficult compromise with the Palestinians.”

As Obama himself said in a March 2014 interview with Goldberg: “For Bibi to seize the moment in a way that perhaps only he can, precisely because of the political tradition that he comes out of and the credibility he has with the right inside of Israel, for him to seize this moment is perhaps the greatest gift he could give to future generations of Israelis.”

This theme, that Netanyahu is failing to deliver peace, assumes that Netanyahu candeliver peace, an assumption that may be a fundamental misreading of the roots of his power. (It is also, of course, based on assumptions about the Palestinian side’s capabilities, but these are not our subject here.)

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during their March 3, 2014, meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during their March 3, 2014, meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

As countless polls and Netanyahu’s own campaign rhetoric suggest, he does not, in fact, have much room to maneuver on negotiations or territorial withdrawal. Netanyahu is the chief political beneficiary of a broad and deep skepticism among most Israelis — but he is not actually the instigator of it.

If Netanyahu were to announce his acceptance of a West Bank withdrawal tomorrow, it is entirely possible — polls imply it may be all but certain — that his coalition would unravel and the Knesset collapse into new elections. Israelis might then be expected to put in office the next-most convincingly “responsible” candidate who rejects the formula of “risks” for peace in the face of what so many Israelis continue to view as an irreparably dysfunctional and violent Palestinian politics.

For many who wish to influence Israeli policy, the towering figure of Netanyahu serves as a distraction from these deeper political realities. It is a majority of Israelis, not Netanyahu, who must be convinced that a safe withdrawal is possible. It is Israelis, not Netanyahu, who elect Netanyahu to hold the line against any further diplomatic experiments.

And therein lies the paradox of the Netanyahu era: a period of American-style executive consolidation taking place even as — indeed, because — the Israeli political system no longer believes it is adequate to the most significant challenges that face the nation, and can no longer really imagine solutions to the defining questions of Israeli public life.

For those Americans and Europeans who regard Netanyahu as the main obstacle to peace, it would be helpful to wake up to the reality that Netanyahu wins because he respects the will of the Israeli people.  The Israeli people have taken multiple risks for peace, and all ended in disaster for them–this is the reality.  More peace efforts, logically, will result in more disasters.  Until this equation changes (and by that, I mean the nature of the "Palestinian" Arabs changes), there will be no peace.  Netaynahu recognizes this reality, and the Israeli people reward him for respecting that reality instead of denying it.

It's a lesson that would be well learned by the American foreign policy establishment.  Wishing that Iran would be friendly will not change Iran.  Surrendering to Iran will not sate Iran's ambitions, or smother its hostility.  Conceding that the West has not always been a shining beacon of high morality will not stop the Islamic fundamentalist terror that is arrayed against the West.  We cannot counter radicalism through passive appeals to humanity's better nature.  Barry Goldwater said it best:

I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!