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Will the Real Benjamin Netanyahu Please Stand Up?

Despite all avowals to the contrary, Bibi's never wanted peace with Palestine. And he may well have created an Israel that now agrees with him.  

By , the president of the U.S./Middle East Project and a former Israeli negotiator.
Uriel Sinai/Getty images
Uriel Sinai/Getty images
Uriel Sinai/Getty images

With the old peace process precariously poised between Palestinian flirtations with seeking international redress, U.S. congressional threats to funding, and Middle East Quartet incantations to resume negotiations, October promises to be just as rhetorically intense on the Israel-Palestine front as was the long-awaited September. Much depends on one's reading of Israel's man at the helm -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

With the old peace process precariously poised between Palestinian flirtations with seeking international redress, U.S. congressional threats to funding, and Middle East Quartet incantations to resume negotiations, October promises to be just as rhetorically intense on the Israel-Palestine front as was the long-awaited September. Much depends on one’s reading of Israel’s man at the helm — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Returning home from a week of diplomatic meet-and-greets and speechifying at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Bibi (to use his nickname) may not have been feted by the parades awaiting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but he could take comfort in a sight even more edifying to a politician — a boost in his poll numbers. The Israeli media had few kind words for its prime minister, with headlines suggesting he gave a speech devoid of hope and with leading Yedioth Ahronoth columnist Sima Kadmon describing his address as "demagoguery. Netanyahu deserves an Oscar, not a peace agreement." The rival Maariv newspaper’s chief columnist, Ben Caspit, suggested that the Netanyahu "ship continues to sail happily towards the iceberg, and this time instead of music, we are hearing fiery speeches from the upper deck." Enough of the Israeli public apparently thought otherwise.

After repeated warnings of a "September diplomatic tsunami" for Israel, the sun still appeared to be rising in the east, and the waters of the Mediterranean were still lapping at the beaches in Tel Aviv. Israelis still experienced no tangible consequences for the state’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Netanyahu enjoyed a similar dichotomy of reaction after his speech to U.S. Congress and public dressing-down of President Barack Obama this May — the mainstream media commentariat tutted at their leader, while a majority of his public was high-fiving Netanyahu’s chutzpah.

Netanyahu’s New York theatrics could perhaps be dismissed as another example of Bibi’s opportunistic — if skillful — ability to navigate between the competing pressures of his own coalition and global opprobrium by effectively deploying both his U.S. political assets and rhetorical skills. This represents a long-standing view of the current Israeli prime minister, a view that emphasizes his capacity to adapt and manipulate the conversation over hardened ideological preferences. This is Bibi who flies by the seat of his pants, devoid of any real plan other than the necessity of political survival.

Yet it is a view of Netanyahu long in need of a major rethink.

Netanyahu, the son of Benzion Netanyahu, is now in his second term of office and approaching a total of six years at Israel’s helm, making him one of the country’s longest-serving premiers. And, like him or hate him, he might go down in history as one of its most defining and consequential leaders.

But if there is a discernible legacy, what is it all about?

In his first campaign for the premiership in 1996, Netanyahu pledged to continue with the Oslo peace process, albeit with his own adjustments, despite having savaged the peace effort and its promoters, notably Yitzhak Rabin, in the preceding years. As prime minister from 1996 to 1999, Netanyahu concluded two agreements with the Palestinians as part of that Oslo framework — the Hebron Protocol and the Wye River Memorandum, both expanding the reach of the Palestinian self-governing authority in parts of the occupied territories — and famously shook then PLO leader Yasir Arafat’s hand along the way. And only weeks into his second term in office in June 2009, Bibi allowed the magic words to publicly pass his lips for the first time in a dramatically staged speech at Bar-Ilan University: There could be a "Palestinian state," he said, a two-state solution.

Throughout his years as leader, Netanyahu has never tired of paying homage to the peace agreement with Egypt (for instance in a U.N. General Assembly speech in 1998 and again this year). Every keynote speech is littered with incantations of his desire for peace, the outstretched hand, and a willingness to negotiate anytime, anywhere. It is therefore tempting to cast Netanyahu in the role of Joshua, leading his people on the final leg of the journey to the promised land of peace; or perhaps more modernly (and somewhat less triumphantly), as Nixon going to China. If only the right formula and choreography can be found, so goes this narrative, then Netanyahu, having broken with his own previous taboos regarding a Palestinian state, is the man who can deliver. In the more than three decades since Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s deal , a favorite mantra of Israeli politics has been rak ha-likud yachol — only Likud, the right wing, can (bring peace).

This is a reading of Netanyahu that is tempting, but wrong.

Every substantive parameter of that peace deal with Egypt has been rejected by Bibi when it comes to the Palestinians. The Israeli-Egyptian peace deal centered on an evacuation to the last centimeter of the 1967 lines, the removal of every last settler and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldier, and an international — as opposed to Israeli — security force deployment. And the Egyptians, by the way, did not have to recognize Israel as a Jewish state to get their peace. His position on the Palestinian track is to oppose these same principles on every single issue. Netanyahu wasn’t yet in politics to vote yes or no when the Camp David peace with Egypt was brought to the Knesset. He was, however, present when for a second time a Likud leader — Ariel Sharon — undertook a withdrawal from occupied territory and dismantled settlements. Netanyahu’s position was to vote against and quit the government in protest at the 2005 Gaza disengagement plan. His much-touted November 2009 settlement moratorium excluded both East Jerusalem and units already under construction, thereby making no noticeable dent in settlement growth rates, even for its nine-month duration.

Don’t go betting on Netanyahu to be Israel’s fourth Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Bibi has certainly left his mark in the realm of market-oriented economic reform, attempting to downsize government, remove layers of the social safety net, and de-unionize the workforce, with a string of policies in the Reagan-Thatcher tradition that, in particular, characterized his first term as prime minister and his period as finance minister from 2003 to 2005. Those policies have had a significant impact and, at least for the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who took to the streets in this summer’s social protest movement, a destructive one. Yet Bibi has never met his own bar of neoliberal economic absolutism. Israel maintains a significant and political coalition-driven core of social welfare provision. The recommendations of the Trachtenberg committee, appointed by Netanyahu (and named after its chair, Manuel Trachtenberg, an economist and former head of Israel’s National Economic Council) in response to the unprecedented social unrest that started in Tel Aviv and swept the country, may fall well short of the protesters’ demands but still include ideas that should have Netanyahu’s Republican friends in the United States crying sellout.

For an Israeli leader economics are one thing; but it is still in the arena of peace and war, soil and security, that reputations are made or mauled.

Writing in Maariv, Yehonatan Geffen, one of Israel’s best-known cultural icons, had the following to say in response to his prime minister’s speech to the United Nations this year:

I have two sensitive and smart grandchildren — the six year old Lev and the three year old Dylan — and I don’t mind if they watch porn movies and extreme violence on television, but I completely refuse to let them hear speeches like that, after which they are only going to want to pack their bags and look for someplace happier to live. And I totally understand them. I just don’t want them to leave grandpa all alone with the Holocaust and with his Bibi blues.

To understand the Netanyahu legacy spread across not only speeches at the United Nations, but throughout his terms in office and through his books, interviews, and most of all his policies, is to dig deeper into what those "Bibi blues" might mean for Israel and to understand a project that is reshaping the way the Israeli government relates to its own public, the global community, and especially the United States.

Reshaping the peace process

Israel’s leadership decisions historically have combined a singular, sometimes ruthless insistence on securing a Jewish state with an ability to make pragmatic compromises — the two sometimes being in synergy and sometimes being at odds. Israel’s leaders accepted the 1947 U.N. partition plan but then secured a much greater portion of Palestine than the United Nations had granted and expelled much of the Palestinian population in the ensuing war. Israel’s leaders captured the Egyptian Sinai in the late 1960s and spent a decade building civilian and military outposts there only to evacuate the area a little over a decade later. When the Arab world was out of bounds for Israel, its leaders pursued a regional strategy based on an alliance with the non-Arab states of the periphery — Turkey, Iran, and Ethiopia — and ultimately offset its regional isolation by enmeshing Israel into the structures of U.S. Cold War alliances. As the region changed, however, Israel established links to fellow members of the Pax Americana among the authoritarian but so-called "moderate" Arab regimes, like Egypt and Jordan — and more discreetly, parts of the Gulf.

Pragmatic Zionism in practice may have offered little comfort to the dispossessed Palestinians of 1948 and insufficient democracy to Israel’s own Palestinian Arab citizens (about 20 percent of the country’s population), but it did focus on thickening the thin sheet of ice upon which Israel’s future in the region was predicated. The Oslo process, started in 1993, would not address core Palestinian grievances or offer real justice, but it would fit neatly within that pragmatic tradition of thickening the ice, holding out the promise of at least an end to the occupation of the lands beyond the 1967 lines (or the vast majority of those lands) and of something recognizably approximating sovereign Palestinian statehood.

Netanyahu’s project for Israel, over the course of his political leadership, can be best understood as taking a pickax to those layers of stability and bringing something new in their place. Netanyahu patiently went about the work of unraveling the core aspects of Oslo that were not to his liking. He created a new peace discourse, one ostensibly reasonable and certainly accessible to the Western ear — but one also ultimately incompatible with the pragmatic compromise that Oslo might have set in motion.

The Netanyahu peace dictionary — that peace required reciprocity, that Palestinians would have to give if they were to get, that only unmediated, direct negotiations were admissible in the court of peacemaking — all created a false parallel between an occupying power and an occupied people and succeeded in draining the peace effort both substantively and procedurally of any vitality or chance of success. Having ostensibly bought into this bargain and made itself dependent on Israeli (and U.S.) goodwill, the PLO-Fatah leadership unsurprisingly lost credibility as the years of "peace-processing" dragged on — with no seeming cost to Israel.

The major shift in Netanyahu’s position between his first and second terms is highly instructive. Having rejected the idea of a Palestinian state previously, he now embraces the notion with a passion bordering on that of a convert. (In his U.N. speech in September, he noted that in peace Israel would be the first country to recognize a Palestinian state.) Yet his idea of what Palestinian statehood would entail is exactly the same as his previous vision for Palestinian autonomy, the only difference being his recognition that it makes more sense to say that if the Palestinians are willing to call this bantustanization statehood, then why on Earth should Israel oppose it?

In 1997, Netanyahu spoke of the Palestinians having the "most generous self-government." And later that year he talked of "a self-governing entity, offering them maximum self-government in the areas that will be under their control in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza." When addressing the United Nations during his first term in 1998, Netanyahu suggested that already "98 percent of the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria … are now living under Palestinian rule … their own flag, their own executive…. It can no longer be claimed that the Palestinians are occupied by Israel. We do not govern their lives." Eleven years later, at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, Netanyahu said, "Each [state] will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government." He only neglected to mention that only one would have anything resembling sovereignty. It is worth remembering that 60 percent of the West Bank and all of East Jerusalem are strictly out of bounds for this Palestinian self-governing entity.

Other than allowing the Palestinians to apply the label "state" to their prospective West Bank archipelago of limited self-governing islands, Netanyahu has pivoted in one other area from a decade ago. He has now made Palestine’s acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state a precondition for any movement. In so doing Netanyahu is castrating the old Oslo peace process of any last vestiges of potency. Intriguingly, he is also perhaps establishing a more honest Israeli-Palestinian playing field. Addressing the Knesset in this May just prior to his departure for Washington, Netanyahu asserted: "It is not a conflict over 1967, but over 1948."

Oslo was an attempt to subsume the weighty issues of Israel’s creation, Israel’s ethnocratic character, and Palestinian dispossession, and emphasize a resolution of issues arising from the 1967 occupation. Despite U.S., Quartet (EU-Russian-U.N.-U.S.), and other attempts to force the conflict back into that 1967 box, Netanyahu has probably drawn a line under a certain 1967-centric period in Israeli-Palestinian history. As Ahmad Khalidi, a Palestinian academic and occasional policy advisor to the PLO, explains in compelling detail in a recent Journal of Palestine Studies piece, acceptance of Zionism and the Jewish state is not "the Palestinian Arab narrative, nor can it be." It would require the Palestinians to not only embrace their own dispossession but also accept the other side’s appropriation of "the rights of those who reside in the territory … their very history and identity, their relationship to the land, and by extension their rights, future, and fate as well." Al-Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh has similarly eviscerated Bibi’s "Jewish state" recognition demand.

Netanyahu’s father, Benzion, a renowned historian of the right, rejected partition in the middle of the last century. His son Benjamin is rejecting partition for this century and setting up a winner-take-all struggle. There is no Palestinian state or two-state solution along the lines proposed by Netanyahu — in which Israel retains all of Greater Jerusalem, much of the West Bank, and an IDF presence in "Palestinian areas," and in which only one historical narrative guides future "coexistence." But the ironic favor that Netanyahu might be doing to peace and reconciliation efforts is that by relitigating history in that way he might have in fact forced all issues, including those of 1948, to be more fully addressed in any future genuine attempt at peace — far more than was the case in the negotiations of the Barak-Olmert years.

But is Netanyahu the man who will lead Israel on that journey?

A base of his own creation

During his first term, Netanyahu displayed a near paranoia when it came to the old Israeli, so-called liberal, Ashkenazi elite. Much as he tried to forge a new coalition of the right and religious, he ultimately did not have the numbers to do so — not in the public and not in parliament. And he was prematurely unseated by getting on the wrong side of both U.S. President Bill Clinton and the old establishment inside Israel. Israel has changed since then.

Israel is now in a period of right-wing hegemony with a new rightist elite drawn from different sectors of society: the media, the justice system, politics, and the security establishment. This is a reality that Netanyahu both feeds off and helped to shape. It also explains the extent to which he has shed his previous restraint in articulating his exceptionalist vision for Israel and in placing the country at the forefront of what appears to be a civilizational struggle of the Judeo-Christian tradition against Islam. In a wide-ranging Haaretz interview with journalist Ari Shavit back in 1996, Netanyahu described the then pervasive realities of Israel as he saw them:

Some people argue … that there are no right-wing intellectuals in Israel. This claim seems strange to me … in view of the fact that the intellectual dynamism of the past two decades throughout the West has come from the right-wing. I think that the Israeli situation reveals something completely different. We have academic institutions and media which are committed to the ‘unthinking’ uniformity of the dominant line, and they simply replicate these positions [the positions of the old Ashkenazi liberal elite]…. I intend to change this situation. I intend to help … set up a number of research centers which will not be controlled by the government, but will create genuine ideological competition in Israel.

Netanyahu has come a significant way in shaking up that culture in the intervening years. He helped found what has now become Israel’s leading think tank, the Shalem Center, which provides both personnel and policies for right-wing Israeli governments and is funded by Bibi’s key American supporters (Sheldon Adelson and Ron Lauder). Israel now has a free daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, the widest circulation broadsheet in the country, also funded by Adelson and unswervingly committed to the prime minister’s line. Netanyahu has named overtly political place holders to head up the news broadcasts on Israeli state TV and radio. The Israeli right now has an academic, think-tank, and campaigning infrastructure modeled on its U.S. neoconservative counterparts (with which there is close cooperation) and just as influential.

But it’s not due solely to force of Bibi’s charisma. This political and institutional change is built on solid demographic foundations. The ultra-Orthodox population continues to grow exponentially, tripling in less than two decades. When added to the traditional Orthodox, national-religious community and the trenchantly right-wing, Russian-speaking immigrant population, Israel’s Jewish public now has a heavily pronounced, built-in, right-wing bias. The school system reflects this tendency, focusing increasingly on narrowly defined Jewish and Zionist heritage instruction over civics and democracy. IDF officer-training courses are now well overpopulated by members of the pro-settler community in comparison with their proportion in the population as a whole (about a third of officer-training attendees self-identify as "national-religious" as opposed to about 10 to 15 percent in society at large).

It is a Bibi-esque coalition over a decade in the making. In the very last days of his successful 1996 election campaign, Netanyahu teamed up with the ultra-Orthodox of the Lubavitch movement who poured into the streets for him, chanting "Netanyahu is good for the Jews!" and waiving posters and banners. (In this year’s U.N. General Assembly speech, Netanyahu quoted the Lubavitch Rebbe as having called the United Nations a "house of many lies.")

Netanyahu’s relationship with the religious right is now strongly cemented. Bibi was not afraid to stir controversy by dedicating an entire new governmental budget line to preserving Jewish heritage sites — on both sides of the Green Line. Of course, not a shekel was allocated for Palestinian heritage, be it Muslim or Christian. In his Bar-Ilan University speech, Netanyahu described the settlers as "a principled, pioneering, and Zionist public." In his 1993 book, A Place Among the Nations, Netanyahu was already describing his emotional feelings as a young soldier after 1967, walking in the biblical footsteps of previous generations in the newly occupied Judean and Samarian areas of Shilo and Betar. Greater Israel and the practical assertion of the Jewish right to all of the land is not a new narrative for Netanyahu.

What is new is that Netanyahu now has a public with which he can be more open and transparent in asserting that cause. It is a narrative that is rapidly becoming the stuff of Israeli consensus. And unsurprisingly, in its wake there have been a slew of more racist and anti-democratic legislative initiatives giving full vent to the realization of the idea of an ethnocentric Jewish state.

Netanyahu inhabits a world divided between Jew and non-Jew, one in which the lessons of Jewish persecution endlessly cited in his speeches are particularist, not universalist. And that resonates not only with the Israeli public, but also with a set of Jewish leaders around the world who have lined up to support Bibi. The "with us or against us" divide is applied also to his fellow Jews. Netanyahu makes a point of speaking, as he did again this year at the United Nations, on behalf of "Israel and the Jewish people." He offers a vision that is deeply polarizing in the Jewish world. But it is a Jewish world and in particular an American Jewish community whose institutions have for some time leaned more to the right when it comes to Israel’s defense. (Some years ago, J.J. Goldberg did a wonderful job describing how this came about in his book Jewish Power). Today, Netanyahu seems perfectly willing to lose not only the more established world of liberal Zionism but also the next generation of Jews, less attached to Israel and best described by Peter Beinart as those who refuse to "check their liberalism at Zionism’s door."

The scorn in the prime minister’s office for Thomas Friedman and other critics among the intellectual elite of liberal American Jewry has become the stuff of legend, and Bibi has consistently refused to meet with any more J Street delegations, even if they include members of U.S. Congress.

If this seems unsurprising, consider how far the tone has shifted. In 1992, Yitzhak Rabin offered an entirely different vision for Israel in his first Knesset speech on reassuming the premiership:

No longer are we necessarily ‘a people that dwells alone,’ and no longer is it true that ‘the whole world is against us.’ We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in its thrall for almost half a century. We must join the international movement toward peace, reconciliation, and cooperation.

Netanyahu’s Israel could not have distanced itself further from that vision. In his speech to the United Nations this September, Netanyahu referenced the "Jewish state" no less than 10 times — unprecedented in the history of Israeli leaders addressing that forum. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in 1993, 1995, and 2002 did not utter the words "Jewish state" even once; nor did Shlomo Ben-Ami, Silvan Shalom, or Tzipi Livni when they were speaking at the same venue in their respective stints as Israeli diplomat in chief in 2000, 2004, and 2007, representing respectively the Labor, Likud, and Kadima parties. Netanyahu is a new brand of Israeli messenger.

The enemies of his enemies

Finally, it is fair to say that Netanyahu has also repositioned Israel globally. As with much else, there is a consistency to Netanyahu’s positions in this respect, positions that he has become more strident and confident in asserting over time. Over two decades ago, Bibi played a lead role in beginning to forge what has now become a defining alliance between Israel and the right-wing, evangelical Christian community in the United States and beyond. Netanyahu was an early courter of the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

Likewise, Netanyahu was a trendsetter in creating the close cooperation between the Israeli right and U.S. neoconservatives. In 1996, at the start of his first term, a collection of American neocons, some of whom were to later serve in George W. Bush’s administration (Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser) produced a policy report for Netanyahu titled "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm."

Of course, during the Global War on Terror campaign following the 9/11 attacks, Israel had a certain special place in U.S. policy — even more special than usual. But it was under Netanyahu and seemingly by design that Israel has so overtly become the stuff of partisan U.S. politics. Simply put, Netanyahu has aligned Israel as a global right-wing cause. He speaks the language and pursues the policies of the right. Although Democrats, including those in the Obama administration, demonstrate a great loyalty to Israel and go out to bat for Netanyahu’s policies, they do so on a terrain largely defined by the Republican right, and in so doing, they embrace a discourse that is alien to them on almost any other issue. Indeed, Netanyahu embraces a host of dog-whistle causes very familiar to the American right and almost anathema to liberals, from U.N. bashing to hyping the threat of Islam. Republican presidential candidates accuse Obama of betraying Israel, while Netanyahu has been more than willing to have Israel become a Republican talking point against incumbent Democratic presidents (both now and in the 1990s).

But the way Netanyahu is aligning support for his vision of the Jewish state goes well beyond the United States. In Europe, the most natural allies of Netanyahu’s policies have become the xenophobic and Islamophobic politicians of the populist right. When leading European politicians of the hard right — Dutch, Austrian, Belgian, Italian, Scandinavian, and more — visit Israel, they often do so as guests of the settler movement and as cheerleaders for Likud policies. In his recent visit to Israel, right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders said, "Jews need to settle Judea and Samaria." He added, "Our culture is based on Christianity, Judaism, and humanism, and [the Israelis] are fighting our fight…. If Jerusalem falls, Amsterdam and New York will be next."

To say that this is pregnant with potential for even greater ruptures between Israel and Jewish communities around the world would be an understatement. Such "allies" are sometimes descendants of fascist parties, always carrying the whiff of the Brownshirt, and seem attracted by the particular brand of the "more ethnocracy-than-democracy" Jewish state that the Netanyahu government is openly championing. As a possible defense for a white, Christian Europe, it is hardly an attractive alliance in the eyes of most Jewish communities.

But it is time to stop thinking of Netanyahu as a passing phenomenon or an ideological shape-shifter. It is time to appreciate — if not applaud — the transformative potential of his combined terms in office. The prospects for the kind of two-state outcome envisaged by President Clinton over a decade ago have receded far into the distance. Netanyahu may have permanently deep-sixed such an option. Palestinians’ complicity in their own permanent disenfranchisement is an unlikely alternative, given the Palestinian government’s willingness to plow ahead at the United Nations. Indeed, the status quo holds only for as long as the PLO leadership believes there is some hope to return to that old Oslo model. That era seems to be passing.

Netanyahu could go down as Israel’s first "post-two-state" prime minister. That would make for an Israel whose future would be less Jewish, not only demographically (in controlling a majority of non-Jews), but more importantly, morally — having strayed so far from a set of universal ethical values so central to much of contemporary Jewish identity.

If Netanyahu’s brand of chauvinist nationalism finds its roots in Jewish sources, then so does its antithesis. In synagogues around the world this weekend, on the Day of Atonement, Jews will be reading from Isaiah in the Book of Prophets. In describing this fast day, Isaiah suggests that starving the body is not of interest to the Lord but rather a real reckoning with wickedness: "To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke." It may be too late for a secular-led overhaul of the Netanyahu path from within Israel. Instead, the options are becoming clearer: Either Israel will be pressured into ending its denial of Palestinian freedoms, or the Jewish world will find enough modern-day Isaiahs to chart a new course.

Daniel Levy is President of the U.S./Middle East Project and served as an Israeli peace negotiator at the Oslo-B talks under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Taba negotiations under Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

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