Stop Blaming Bibi

Sorry, folks: Benjamin Netanyahu is not the reason there is no Middle East peace.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

It's been a bad month for Benjamin Netanyahu.

It’s been a bad month for Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israeli prime minister has been hammered for being trigger-happy on Iran, he won’t see his good friend Barack Obama at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, and he’s being blasted for intervening in American politics.

It’s not the first time that the world has united in blaming Bibi for the Middle East’s ills. As FP‘s own Josh Rogin reported, this time last year former President Bill Clinton was holding forth on why we don’t have a peace process, and his view boils down to this: There’s this guy Netanyahu — he’s a jerk and is unwilling to accept the terms I offered at Camp David as the basis for a settlement with the Palestinians. In a stunning assertion, Clinton said: "[Palestinian leaders] have explicitly said on more than one occasion that if [Netanyahu] put up the deal that was offered to them before — my deal — that they would take it."

I really like Bill Clinton. I used to work for the guy. But let’s be clear. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas a much better deal than Clinton offered Yasir Arafat. The Palestinians didn’t accept it.

I’m aware of all the reasons many rational and right-thinking people want to pin the rap for the current impasse with the Palestinians and the bad U.S.-Israeli relationship on Bibi. And the Israeli prime minister certainly deserves a large share of the blame.

Bibi is no pushover. We dealt with him during the Clinton years and — to use a Bush 41 phrase — he was a tough trader. My views on what Israel should or shouldn’t do on the Palestinian issue are different than his.

Still, I like Bibi all the same. He’s a smart guy in a tough spot, and though he unceasingly seems to make his own situation worse, he doesn’t have many easy choices. These days, no Israeli leader does.

Then there’s the inconvenient fact that Netanyahu is (once again) the duly elected prime minister of Israel. Given Israel’s peculiar parliamentary system, there’s a reason why only he was in a position to put together a workable coalition. This fact generates a certain legitimacy of its own, which American leaders are obliged to respect.

Still, is Clinton right?  Is Bibi the key reason we aren’t on the verge of a conflict-ending accord between Israel and the Palestinians?

There’s no denying that Netanyahu is more intransigent on some key questions than other Israeli politicians. Bibi is expanding settlements in the West Bank, won’t share Jerusalem, and is adamantly against any compromise on the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees. If Ehud Barak, Shaul Mofaz, or Ehud Olmert were in charge and had a supportive coalition, the situation would clearly improve.

But what are the current chances of reaching a conflict-ending agreement under those guys, or for that matter any Israeli prime minister? As the late Yitzhak Rabin, himself a two-time Israeli prime minister, used to say when faced with a scenario he thought unrealistic, "You can forget about it." The peace process is temporarily closed for the season, and not just because of Netanyahu. What follows isn’t a brief for Bibi — it’s a brief for reality.


The peace process has always required two hands — sometimes three — clapping. And while there is a Palestinian partner (maybe even two with Fatah and Hamas), like the Israelis, the Palestinians are a very complex lot.

The Palestinian national movement today is in profound crisis. As I’ve written before, it’s like Noah’s Ark — there are two of everything: prime ministers, security services, constitutions, foreign patrons, geographic polities, and visions of where and what Palestine is. And these divisions aren’t going away. If anything, they’re hardening.

Want to blame Palestinian dysfunction on the Israeli occupation? Go ahead, if it makes you feel better. But it won’t change the harsh reality that without Palestinian unity that produces one authority and one negotiating position, there won’t be a serious dialogue, let alone a Palestinian state.

And Palestinians themselves have to face the inconvenient truth that a state’s viability lies in its capacity to maintain a monopoly over violence in its own society. Without it, frankly, no state can maintain the respect of its neighbors or its own citizens. Are we going to blaming Fatah’ s dysfunction and Hamas’s viability on Bibi too?


If I hear one more time that we’re "this close" to an agreement, I’m going to toss my lunch. Even if we were, it’s the political will that’s missing — not the clever diplomatic formulae. And we’re not even close in any case. On Jerusalem, refugees, security, and even the borders of the prospective Palestinian state, there are wide differences between Israel and the Palestinians — and within the Israeli and Palestinian camps, too. This silly notion that everyone knows generally what the solution will be — and that therefore getting there should be easy — only trivializes how hard it’s going to be to reach a conflict-ending accord. Details matter.

The Arabs

I can only chuckle now when I recall those who made the argument that the so-called Arab Spring would make it easier to deal with Arab-Israeli peace. Some said that now that the Arabs were democratizing, Israel would want to reach out. Others used the reverse argument: Now that Arab populism had gotten rid of the acquiescent, pro-American autocrats, Israel would have no choice but to settle up before the Palestinian problem radicalized the whole region.

Forget the demonizing or the idealizing. What the Arab Spring wrought above all was uncertainty, and a new populism that brought with it anti-Israel and anti-American tropes. Instead of making Israel more willing to deal — or so fearful that it had no choice but to settle — changes in the Arab world produced neither sufficient incentives nor disincentives to compel a shift in the status quo. Instead of bold moves, the watch word was risk-aversion, not risk readiness.


You heard it here first. There will be no Israeli-Palestinian deal until there’s much more clarity on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. Regardless of whether Mitt Romney or Barack Obama is America’s next president, Iran will be the dominant issue over the next year. These are the issues that strategists across the globe will be occupied with: Will there be a military strike by Israel or the United States? Can high-level U.S.-Iranian diplomacy put together a grand bargain? Or will we see more of the same — the continuation of sanctions and the perpetuation of a cold war between Iran and the West?

In any event, there will be very little room or incentive for serious moves toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, particularly on the Israeli side. Indeed, Israel has so teed up the urgency of dealing with Iran in 2012 that it’s almost unimaginable 2013 won’t bring some decision point. If it’s military action, the chances of any peace process in the face of the subsequent regional turmoil would be slim. Indeed, in many respects, there’s no greater drag on the peace process right now than the focus on Iran’s nuclear program.

Face the Facts

Netanyahu not only shapes Middle East politics, he is also a product of his political surroundings. To regard him — and much of the country he leads — as solipsistic entities that exist in a vacuum independent of other factors, some of which are beyond Israel’s control, is ridiculous.

The Palestinian house is a mess not just because of Israel — the differences between Hamas and Fatah are real and durable. Neither Barak nor Olmert could reach an agreement, either. As for the Israeli people, it’s not unreasonable to assume their current conservative attitude and interest in peace is shaped by their own assessment of how their neighbors are behaving. And that’s not an altogether rosy picture, to say the least.

We can choose to pretend that the main obstacle standing in the way of Israeli-Palestinian peace is Bibi. That explanation suits our need to personalize problems, find easily digestible answers, and turn the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a morality play that pits the forces of right against wrong. But it’s also fundamentally incorrect: Netanyahu may not be the Israeli leader capable of leading his country to a conflict-ending agreement with the Palestinians, but he’s not the single most important or only reason we don’t have one.

I’m actually surprised that a guy as smart as Clinton — who knows the world’s a complex place — feels that way. But then again, maybe not. At Camp David in July 2000, Clinton blamed Arafat for not accepting his peace plan. Now, he’s blaming Netanyahu and the Israeli public for the same thing. Clinton is right to be concerned that there’s no serious peace process. But let’s at least be honest about why we don’t have one.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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