The Last Act of Obama’s Israel Drama May Be His Best
Despite their momentary ascendancy, Bibi, Trump, and Putin are yesterday’s men.
The Israeli government’s settlement policy puts it on the wrong side of history, justice, demography, the law, its own interests — and therefore the interests of its friends and allies. For each of these reasons, Israel should neither be surprised nor outraged at the recent U.N. Security Council resolution condemning those settlements. Nor should they be offended by the U.S. government’s policy with respect to that vote, a policy that was well-articulated and defended by Secretary of State John Kerry in an address Wednesday.
The Obama administration’s abstention, which enabled that resolution to pass, should for the same reasons not be seen as a betrayal. Indeed, as a friend of Israel, the United States should have gone further and actively supported Resolution 2334, which passed with 14 votes in favor and just Washington abstaining. The settlements are hurting Israel, and true friends have the courage to tell each other what they need to hear, even when they don’t want to hear it.
I have regularly criticized the Obama administration for what I have seen as weak, vacillating, or strategically unsound behavior in the Middle East. A regular point of that critique has been that we have not recognized who our friends are and in so doing have failed to support our traditional allies in the way that we should. I was deeply skeptical of the Iran nuclear deal (although in the end, I accepted it as better than not having any deal at all), so I am no reflexive defender of Obama-era policies. Yet what the administration did with regard to Resolution 2334 was sound and good policy.
Indeed, if the Obama team should be subjected to any criticism at all for its stance on the settlements, it is not, as the Israelis have subsequently hissed, that the administration may have helped orchestrate the vote — a position refuted by Kerry. Rather, it is that it did not take a stronger position on this issue sooner. We are almost at the end of President Barack Obama’s time in office. The United States should not have tolerated Israel’s settlement policy for one single day. It should have fought against it, even as it was continuing to fund Israeli arms purchases at record levels and work for a peace deal without the notable cooperation of the Israelis (or, to be fair, the Palestinians).
Some Israelis, seeking to defend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of this issue, note that he has supported a settlement policy that is not as extreme as that of the far-right wing of his party. This is an absurd defense. Committing a hundred wrongs is not forgiven merely because you could have committed 200 but chose not to.
Bibi’s spluttering outrage on this deal is not only unproductive; it is revealing in the worst ways. He speaks of betrayal and seeks to shutter relations with friends who supported the vote — but he betrayed both Israel’s interests and its best values when he instructed his emissary not to vote for an inquiry into war crimes in Syria a week earlier, as a craven sop to Vladimir Putin. That he could curry favor with a serial violator of international law and norms like Putin, fail to seek justice in Syria, and thus exacerbate tensions throughout the region, which will only increase risks for Israel, is a sign that for Bibi everything is about political tactics, not strategy or principles. He has succeeded at being prime minister largely by doing things that were good for his base in the short term and bad for his country in the long term.
The settlements are the prime example. Supporting the colonization of land on which Israel has no legitimate claim may make the hard right in Israel happy and may, their defenders argue, give the country (dubious) advantages from a security perspective. But those settlements will not stem the tides that will ultimately subsume Netanyahu’s vision of Israel. The Palestinian population continues to grow so that very soon Israel faces the fateful choice of whether it wishes to be a democracy (in which the majority Palestinians living within the state’s claimed borders would have real rights they currently do not have) or a Jewish state (which would depend on the adoption of policies that permanently disenfranchise the majority population). Further, the security threats against Israel are increasingly missiles, drones, cyberwarfare, and other tools that settlements do little to protect against. While Bibi and his minions argue that the U.N. resolution will empower terrorists, nothing does that more effectively than building settlements or aligning with ruthless killers of Muslims like the Russians.
If the settlements inflame risks to Israel, undermine its legitimacy, and hollow out international support, they are clearly not in the Israeli interest. Further, they weaken the support of those who might otherwise support Israel, including American Jews. It is increasingly difficult to embrace American ideals of justice, respect for the rule of law, and respect for human rights while supporting the current government of Israel — whether because of settlements or because of a policy of disproportionate response to localized, small-scale attacks as occurred during the last Gaza conflict.
There is also a generational shift taking place among American Jews. Virtually all who are under the age of 55 simply do not remember the Israel of the Six-Day War, the little country that could, the David that stood up to the Goliaths of the Arab world. For the new majority among American Jews, Israel is the nuclear superpower of the Middle East, the regional bully behind the outrages that began in the Sabra and Shatila camps, the “peace-loving” hypocrite of settlement construction and Gaza destruction.
That the response of Israelis is condescension and a suggestion that simple, coddled, soft American Jews could never understand their situation is hardly helpful. The lack of outrage among many moderate and liberal American Jews at the recent vote indicates just how much Israel’s hard-right has done to undercut the country’s most important relationships over the past couple of decades.
Now, of course, Bibi and his loud-mouthed bully boy of an ambassador here in the United States, Ron Dermer, are feeling empowered by the recent election of Donald Trump (who attacked the Obama-Kerry position from his Twitter-based Oval Office waiting room). Quite apart from the obvious notion that you must be in deep trouble when a foreign-policy neophyte and shoot-from-the-lip buffoon becomes your champion, Netanyahu and Co. are making a big mistake. Trump and his world-class awful choice of an ambassador to Israel, a far-right fringe character named David Friedman, may offer some succor to Netanyahu for a while. They may even enlist the help of Putin, friend to Bibi and the Donald. But this will only alienate the rest of the world — and massive portions of the base within the United States upon which the Israelis will depend for their long-term support. Further, there is a hard reality that has seemingly been tough to grasp for Israeli hard-liners: The only alternative to a two-state solution is a one-state solution — which cannot be a Jewish state if it is to be secure, sustainable, or just.
Bibi, Trump, and Putin are part of a dying breed, the last politicians of the 20th century. They seek to preserve realities that are founded in the post-World War II and Cold War realities in which their views were shaped. But the world has moved on from them, and future generations of leaders will see a radically different picture — one in which Israel not only has no better claim on its land than the Palestinians but one in which the memories of the Palestine Liberation Organization and much of Palestinian terrorism lie in the foggy past; in which Palestinians without a nation outnumber Israelis; in which Palestinians lack rights because Israelis deny them those rights; in which Russia is a failing state with a faltering economy; in which Russia is seen as a supporter of oppressors and not of the people (always a lousy long-term strategy); in which China and other powers are much more important; and one in which new technologies will empower new leaders in new ways, creating new threats and shifting the regional balance of power in the Middle East and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Trump will seek to bully a world he does not understand, one in which America’s leverage on trade has been diminished and in which his chosen tactics for doing so long ago proved to be ineffective and damaging to U.S. interests.
Indeed, the reason this settlements vote has so many in the Israeli leadership so outraged is not because they didn’t want it to happen. It is because it is only the latest proof that their preferred narrative about Israel has been overtaken by reality — and that the days of their ability to defend Israel as the region’s lone democracy are numbered as their demographic clock keeps ticking and their policies keep undercutting the legitimate rights of Palestinians. The vote was infuriating to them because it showed that the countries of the Security Council were unanimously opposed to their policies. It was scary to them because it underscored that their policies and diplomacy were failing them and that the time has come for a new generation of leaders with new ideas for Israel — just as it has come for the aging, failed leadership of the Palestinians, and just as it is coming for the political dinosaurs of our era, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
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