Netanyahu’s Catastrophic Leadership

Saturday’s Wall Street Journal includes the headline “Netanyahu delivers rare public rebuke to U.S. President.” The papers report that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly rejected the concept of 1967 borders as non-negotiable. Israeli aides were quoted to say that “Obama apparently does not understand the reality in the Mideast.” Netanyahu will address a joint session of Congress, where he is expected to rally support for a hard-line Israeli approach to the peace process which, predictably and intentionally, won’t go anywhere.

In the short-run, Netanyahu may have tactical leverage to resist American pressure over settlements and other matters. In the long-run, he is pursuing a catastrophic course, both for Israel and for the United States. I take no pleasure in writing this. I am no Middle East expert. I am religiously unobservant. I still feel a strong sense of kinship, identification, and affection for Israelis. Every year I become more alarmed about Israel’s future.

Cynical leadership by Netanyahu (and by others) has greatly worsened Israel’s predicament. Consider what has happened since the Oslo Accords. When that process commenced, Israel enjoyed de facto alliances with Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt. Lebanon posed quite manageable security concerns. Iran was a distant threat, recovering from the Iran-Iraq war. Israel was militarily ascendant. Even if it wasn’t, the United States had just effortlessly mauled the most powerful army in the Arab world. Israel had a flawed but interested set of Palestinian partners. It had relatively good relations with the European community.

Israel was not able to use this moment, or to use many other moments, in achieving a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. Israel hardly bears sole responsibility for this. The simple fact is that Israel’s position has steadily eroded. Its relationship with Europe is under serious question. Egypt is unlikely to abrogate its peace treaty, but the de facto alliance is no more. Turkey has dramatically repositioned itself—a repositioning hastened by Israel’s disastrous decision to storm a Turkish ship seeking to break the Gaza blockade. Iran is on its way to developing nuclear capability and to unprecedented regional reach. Hamas is entrenched in Gaza. Palestinians seem to be turning away from a discredited peace process. The power of Israel’s patron, the United States, has visibly eroded. The Arab Spring’s broad and deep populist anger against Israel poses new dangers. The relative demography has continued to move.

Israel has tangibly lost some moral and political standing within the United States. Yitzhak Rabin was a genuinely revered figure. Bibi Netanyahu…is not. Some of this slippage is generational. I remember sitting anxiously with my parents by the radio hearing tough battle reports from the Yom Kippur war. Nobody needed to argue that Israel was a small nation besieged by hostile neighbors who rejected its very existence. That was an obvious fact. The founding of Israel in the wake of the Holocaust was a living memory among most adult Americans, too.

Politicians still make pilgramages to AIPAC, but it’s different now. Many of these recitations seem dutiful rather than heartfelt, akin to a speech made to Archer Daniels Midland or some other special interest groups. Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans are emerging as important political constituencies with their own legitimate perspectives. This, too, will tell.

Israel’s standing within the American and European Jewish communities has fallen too. I’ve met few Jews under the age of 40 who are unapologetic supporters of Israel in the way my friends and I were raised to be. Liberal and moderate Jewish opinion leaders are increasingly alienated from Israeli policy. Read virtually any column these days on the Middle East by David Remnick, Jeffrey Goldberg, Thomas Friedman, Leon Wieseltier, or Peter Beinert. Compare to what they are saying today to what these same people were writing ten or fifteen years ago. Even the Onion is chiming in.

The Prime Minister gambles dangerously by bluntly allying himself with American conservatives against a sitting president. Christian conservatives and neoconservatives will support Netanyahu. So, for the moment, will partisan Republicans, but President Obama’s policy views are widely shared within the Republican policy elite. Netanyahu’s on-the-ground policies and his efforts to play American domestic politics are generating real ill-will among American diplomats and the American military fighting two wars within the Arab and Muslim worlds.

If America loses control of the peace process, for example through a General Assembly vote on a Palestinian state, Netanyahu will bear considerable blame for this humiliation. There is growing global momentum for precisely this outcome. President Obama made these points clear in his non-applause-line comments to AIPAC this morning.

President Obama is more popular among American Jews than Netanyahu is, especially over the settlement issue. The American Jewish community will split if Netanyahu confronts the Palestinians or the United States over continued expansion of these settlements. Israel will find itself in a terrible position if it defies the United States and then Palestinians wage a politically sophisticated nonviolent intifada. Israel will be in an impossible position if things keep drifting the way they are now.

Netanyahu may believe that President Obama holds naïve views of the peace process. I think Bibi has a pretty naïve view himself.

[Cross-posted at Same Facts]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.