A man, a plan

by David Remnick, the New Yorker

21.3.2011
via New Yorker (click here)
 
Psychobiography in politics is ordinarily a mug’s game. Sometimes, though, an assessment of inherited traits and ideologies can be telling. For years, Israeli and American commentators have been waiting for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to leave behind the right-wing Revisionist ideology of his father, Benzion, a historian of the Spanish Inquisition, and, like Nixon leaving for China, end the occupation of the Palestinian territories. Just as Nixon set aside decades of Cold War ideology and Red-baiting in the interests of practical global politics, Netanyahu would transcend his own history, and his party’s, to end the suffering of a dispossessed people and regain Israel’s moral standing.
 
This waiting game is a delusion. The stubborn ideological legacy that, in part, blocks such a transformation runs deep. During Netanyahu’s first term as Prime Minister, in the late nineteen-nineties, I met with him in his office, in Jerusalem, and he fondly recalled how his father encountered David Ben Gurion, in 1956, not long after Israel captured the Sinai. Ben Gurion had vowed to keep the Sinai for a thousand years, but Benzion was convinced that he would lose it. Why? Ben Gurion asked.
 
“Because the U.S. will force you to,” the elder Netanyahu said.
 
“Of course, he was right, unfortunately,” the son said. “That was the first and last time an Israeli Prime Minister succumbed to an American diktat.” This ingrained wariness toward Israel’s most stalwart ally and benefactor is just part of Netanyahu’s inheritance. On that same trip to Israel, Benzion, who is now a hundred and one, invited me to his house for lunch, and I am not sure that I have ever heard more outrageously reactionary table talk. The disdain for Arabs, for Israeli liberals, for any Americans to the left of the neoconservatives was chilling. The bitter ideological resentments were deepened by genuine loss: another of Benzion’s sons, Yoni, was the Israeli commando killed in the extraordinary rescue of the hostages at Entebbe, in 1976. In books, speeches, and action, Benjamin Netanyahu has proved himself his father’s son.
 
Now in his second term and ruling in a coalition government that includes anti-democratic, even proto-fascistic ministers, such as Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu has stubbornly refused the appeals of Washington and of the Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, who have shown themselves willing to make the concessions needed for a peace deal. In the midst of a revolution in the Arab world, Netanyahu seems lost, defensive, and unable or unwilling to recognize the changing circumstances in which he finds himself.
 
The occupation—illegal, inhumane, and inconsistent with Jewish values—has lasted forty-four years. Netanyahu thinks that he can keep on going, secure behind a wall. Late last month, he called the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to register his displeasure that Germany had voted for a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Jewish settlements. According to an account in the Israeli daily Haaretz, a German source said that Merkel could hardly contain her outrage. “How dare you?” she said. “You are the one who has disappointed us. You haven’t made a single step to advance peace.” The U.S. vetoed the resolution, but sources in the Administration say that the vote was debated intensely.
 
Netanyahu told Merkel that he intends to give a speech in the next few weeks supporting an interim Palestinian state on about half the territory of the West Bank. If that is his plan, it will be unacceptable to the Palestinians, and he knows it. Smug and lacking in diplomatic creativity, Netanyahu has alienated and undermined the forces of progressivism in the West Bank and is, step by ugly step, deepening Israel’s isolation.
 
It is time for President Obama to speak clearly and firmly. Concentrating solely on the settlements, as he has done in the past, is not enough; he needs a more comprehensive approach. Administration officials talk about “getting it right” in the Middle East, by which they mean finding the right diplomatic levers in order to support the potential democratic elements in such varied countries as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Bahrain, without moving too far ahead of events or becoming engaged militarily in ways that could lead to disaster. Getting Israel and Palestine right must be part of that effort. The old, wishful habit of waiting for Netanyahu is an abdication of American influence and interests.
 
If the Administration has been reluctant to put forward a comprehensive peace plan, it’s not because it has any difficulty imagining such a plan. Inevitably, the parameters of a two-state solution would be like those established at Taba, in 2001, and by Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, in 2008. The greater concern is domestic politics, both in the United States and in Israel.