What Sarah Palin could teach Netanyahu about reality

When I read the Washington Post‘s story "Palestinians Seek Recognition through South America" this morning, all I could think of was Sarah Palin. Now, some might think that is a kind of a disorder that calls for therapy more than it does another blog post. But I suspect you are probably jumping to the wrong ...

GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images
GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images
GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images

When I read the Washington Post's story "Palestinians Seek Recognition through South America" this morning, all I could think of was Sarah Palin. Now, some might think that is a kind of a disorder that calls for therapy more than it does another blog post. But I suspect you are probably jumping to the wrong conclusion about what I think about either issue.

In defense of my mental health (which needs all the defending it can get), one reason I thought of Palin was that as I was reading the article, she appeared on the television. She was being asked what she thought about birther claims that President Obama was not born in the United States. Without the hesitation or weasel words that have made recent statements on this subject by Michele Bachmann and John Boehner such indictments of their ability to lead, Palin said that it wasn't an issue for her and that we ought to be talking about how to fix the economy. In this instance, she got it precisely right.

But the Palin comment and the birther debate also resonated with the story of the eight Latin American governments that in December and January recognized Palestinian statehood. representatives of the Netanyahu government including the prime minister himself apparently vigorously tried to persuade the region's leaders not to join the almost 100 nations that have also acknowledged the legitimacy of the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people.

When I read the Washington Post‘s story "Palestinians Seek Recognition through South America" this morning, all I could think of was Sarah Palin. Now, some might think that is a kind of a disorder that calls for therapy more than it does another blog post. But I suspect you are probably jumping to the wrong conclusion about what I think about either issue.

In defense of my mental health (which needs all the defending it can get), one reason I thought of Palin was that as I was reading the article, she appeared on the television. She was being asked what she thought about birther claims that President Obama was not born in the United States. Without the hesitation or weasel words that have made recent statements on this subject by Michele Bachmann and John Boehner such indictments of their ability to lead, Palin said that it wasn’t an issue for her and that we ought to be talking about how to fix the economy. In this instance, she got it precisely right.

But the Palin comment and the birther debate also resonated with the story of the eight Latin American governments that in December and January recognized Palestinian statehood. representatives of the Netanyahu government including the prime minister himself apparently vigorously tried to persuade the region’s leaders not to join the almost 100 nations that have also acknowledged the legitimacy of the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people.

Once again, the issue seems like a distraction to me. The response of Israel ought to be like the response of Palin, "Of course, the Palestinian people have a right to a state." In fact, it’s only a bit of an over-simplification to say, the right response ought to be literally what Palin’s was: That it’s not an issue for them and we ought to be talking about how to fix the economy — that is we ought to be focused on how you go from the indisputable right of the Palestinians to have their own state to working together to create one that is self-sustaining and can do a better job creating opportunities for the Palestinian people than neighboring states (other than Israel) have done for their citizens. That’s the critical challenge for both Israelis and Palestinians together.

That of course, also requires that the Palestinian leadership actually get serious about both negotiating a deal and providing fundamental services to the Palestinian people. An honest debate about this subject, stripped of the distractions upon which both sides have depended on as cover for so long, would turn more to such practical issues.

In the same way, friends of Israel (and I count myself as one) who are getting spun up into a lather over the recent tentative embrace at the United Nations by the United States use of language condemning Israel for its settlements policy are also not helping matters. It is inarguable that Israel’s settlement policies are an impediment to the peace process and needlessly inflammatory. Those who defend them as necessary to the politics of Israel and the ability of the ruling coalition to continue to lead need to accept with more equanimity the international consequences they will inevitably bring. Israel can handle international opprobrium, has done so often in the past, knew they would get it for the settlements policy and thus the actual delivery of some type of formalized condemnation ought to be taken in stride.

Further, is it reasonable to expect even Israel’s most dependable ally in the world to always support Israel? Always? Even when Israel is clearly wrong? Seeking that is not seeking support, it is asking the United States to be an enabler. Blindly supporting Israel’s destructive and distracting settlements policy is like handing Charlie Sheen his next drink. No one benefits except those who profit from bad behavior. (And such people exist in Israel … and among the Palestinians … just as they do in Malibu.)

The problem with the debate about Israel and the Palestinians is that it has taken on an almost ritualistic quality. Litmus test issues and appearances trump the kind of eyes-open grappling with real issues that is called for. Debates become about the rituals and about how purely one can support fairly extreme ideological views (on both sides) and not about the underlying concerns. Indeed, as we have seen the entire Israel-Palestine issue has served for far too long as a ritualistic distraction from the real underlying issues of the Middle East.

Just as those issues are now surfacing from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Iran to Libya to Bahrain, so too should we expect the issues within Israel and Palestine to do the same soon. If a move in the United Nations to recognize Palestine helps force us in that direction, it would not only be a good thing for the Palestinians and the world, it would be a good thing for Israel … because avoidance, delusions about what constitutes "loyal" behavior and distractions only enable real problems to grow worse and more dangerous. (And if you want a case in point, turn your attention again to the other roiling countries of the Middle East … or back to superficial U.S. politics and the U.S. economy which is where this particular conversation started.)

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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