Ashamed of Netanyahu, infuriated with Obama
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Ashamed of Netanyahu, infuriated with Obama

Op-Ed: Why the PM must urgently seek to fix the damage he's caused to relations with Israel's Arabs, and why the president should internalize how widely Israelis share Netanyahu's concerns on the Palestinians and Iran

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Friday, May 20, 2011. (photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Friday, May 20, 2011. (photo credit: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Usually, I like to think, I’m a relatively measured, temperate commentator on Israeli current affairs, the Israel-US relationship, and the state of the global Jewish nation. Today, forgive me, I’m just ashamed, infuriated and worried.

I’m ashamed of my prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for the depths to which he stooped in maximizing his election victory. I’ve watched those 20 seconds of incendiary rhetoric he posted on election day over and over again: “The rule of the political right is in danger. The Arab voters are moving in vast numbers to the polling stations. The left-wing NGOs are busing them in…”

What if someone were to substitute “Jews” for “Arab voters”? How would we all feel about that?

Or put it in the American context. Just substitute “African-American voters” for “Arab voters.”

That’s what he chose to post on his Facebook page, 10 days after Barack Obama, the first African-American president, had walked with his family at the head of a march in Selma, Alabama, highlighting the decades of struggle and the sacrifices made in the cause of full equality for all Americans?

Our divisive prime minister

Netanyahu has always been a divisive politician. He has always whipped up sectors of the population against each other, scorning the left, patronizing the doves, mocking his political rivals — all the way from Yitzhak Rabin (for having ostensibly fallen on his head in lumping Hamas and Likud together as opponents of the peace process) to Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni (for their ostensible readiness to capitulate to all Arab demands).

Benjamin Netanyahu in an election day message, March 17, 2015 (YouTube Screenshot)
Benjamin Netanyahu in an election day message, March 17, 2015 (YouTube Screenshot)

But this was a new low, an implied disenfranchising of a fifth of the electorate, an assault with dire potential consequences for the fragile mosaic of internal Israeli relations. And it was only partially corrected by his elaboration, later in the day, that “there is nothing illegitimate with citizens voting, Jewish or Arab, as they see fit” and that “what is not legitimate is the funding — the fact that money comes from abroad from NGOs and foreign governments, brings them en masse to the ballot box in an organized fashion, in favor of the left, gives undue power to the extremist Arab list, and weakens the right bloc in such a way that we will be unable to build a government — despite the fact that most citizens of Israel support the national camp and support me as the prime minister from Likud.”

Victory assured, Netanyahu promised during a visit to the Western Wall on Wednesday that he would strive to ensure “the welfare and security of all Israeli citizens.” Really? Even those who moved in their vast numbers to the polling stations in their failed effort to oust him? If so, he now faces an immense uphill battle to convince them of his good intentions, a battle we all share an interest in his winning.

Our reliable US ally?

My shame at Netanyahu’s no-holds-barred electoral tactics, however, still leaves plenty of room for fury with Obama — the president who has always assured us Israelis that he has our back. “Our commitment to the security of Israel is rock solid,” he promised Netanyahu at one of their doubtless delightful White House sessions three years ago. “As I’ve said to the prime minister in every single one of our meetings, the United States will always have Israel’s back when it comes to Israel’s security. This is a bond that is based not only on our mutual security interests and economic interests, but is also based on common values and the incredible people-to-people contacts that we have between our two countries.”

It’s hard to reconcile that assurance with an emerging US-led deal with Iran that would leave the ayatollahs — declaredly bent on the elimination of Israel — with thousands of centrifuges spinning, an inadequate inspections framework, and a demonstrable lack of international will to respond to the inevitable violations of the accord.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech in Tehran (photo credit: AP/Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/File)
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech in Tehran (photo credit: AP/Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/File)

The president might be understandably aggrieved by Netanyahu’s decision to publicly lobby against the deal in Congress. The president might be horrified that the most potent opposition to his bid to woo Iran — which he pursues undeterred by the frequent slaps in the face delivered to him by Ayatollah Ali “Death to America” Khamenei — is being mustered by the arrogant prime minister of that tiny Middle East ally/irritant. But the president who promised that containment was not an option is presiding over an effort to contain an unrepentant, unreformed Iran. And Israel is not the only country that faces a consequent grave danger.

Furthermore, for all that Netanyahu took the wrong steps to try to encourage Palestinian moderation — releasing dozens of murderous terrorists, rather than agreeing to negotiate on the basis of the 1967 lines and to at least declare a freeze on the expansion of isolated settlements — the president’s response to Netanyahu’s latest flip-flopping on Palestinian statehood is also infuriating.

Is it truly so outrageous, so unacceptable to assert that now and the foreseeable future might not be the best time for a country nine miles wide at its narrowest point, on the western edge of this hostile land mass, to relinquish the contested territory from which it has been relentlessly attacked in the past?

Just like his counter-those-Arab-voters comment on Tuesday, Netanahyu’s “indeed” I won’t preside over the establishment of a Palestinian state remark a day earlier was plainly an electoral tactic, and a similarly effective one, at that. But unlike the incendiary Arab voters statement, there was legitimate substance behind it, substance that Netanyahu has repeatedly detailed and that Obama has insistently failed to internalize.

The Hebrew exchange with his NRG website interviewer actually ran as follows: Netanyahu: “I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state today, and to evacuate [Israelis from] territory, is giving radical Islam an area from which to attack the State of Israel. This is the true reality that has been created in this area in the past few years. Those who ignore that are burying their heads in the sand. The left does this, buries its head in the sand, time and again. We’re realists and we understand…”

Question: “If you’re [re-elected as] prime minister, there’ll be no Palestinian state?”

Netanyahu: “Indeed.”

The Middle East is reeling under an onslaught of Islamic extremism, with Iran the chief state patron of terrorism, and a dizzying number of organizations competing to out-horrify with mass killings, beheadings, and every conceivable abuse. Is it truly so outrageous, so unacceptable to assert that now and the foreseeable future might not be the best time for a country nine miles wide at its narrowest point, on the western edge of this hostile land mass, to relinquish the contested territory from which it has been relentlessly attacked in the past?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being interviewed by MSNBC on Thursday, March 19, 2015. (photo credit: Screen capture, MSNBC)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being interviewed by MSNBC on Thursday, March 19, 2015. (photo credit: Screen capture, MSNBC)

In contrast with his mealy-mouthed Arab votes are not illegitimate backtrack, Netanyahu’s post-victory walk back/clarification on the Palestinian issue was sensible, coherent and plainly reflects the mindset of the Israeli majority. It’s worth quoting at some length:

“I haven’t changed my policy,” Netanyahu insisted in a television interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Thursday. “I never changed my speech in Bar-Ilan University six years ago calling for a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state. What has changed is the reality. Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], the Palestinian leader, refuses to recognize the Jewish state and has made a pact with Hamas that calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. And every territory that is vacated in the Middle East is taken up by Islamist forces… We want that to change, so we can realize a vision of real, sustained peace. And I don’t want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution. But for that, circumstances have to change.”

A Palestinian state today, Netanyahu continued, “would become a terrorist state. Iran says that they will arm the West Bank the way they arm Gaza. We withdrew from Gaza. We got — just a few months ago; not ancient history, but a few months ago — thousands of rockets, Andrea, on our heads… We don’t want it to happen again. And I think the administration has said time and time again that the only way to achieve peace is a negotiated solution. You can’t impose peace. And in any case, if you want to get peace, you’ve got to get the Palestinian leadership to abandon their pact with Hamas and engage in genuine negotiations with Israel for an achievable peace. We also have to make sure that we don’t have ISIS coming into that territory. [Islamic State is] only two dozen miles from our borders, thousands of miles away from yours. So we need the conditions of recognition of a Jewish state and real security in order to have a realistic two-state solution.

“I was talking about what is achievable and what is not achievable,” Netanyahu made plain. “To make it achievable, then, you have to have real negotiations with people who are committed to peace. We are. It’s time that we saw the pressure on the Palestinians to show that they are committed too.”

Palestinian gunmen of Fatah's al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades march during a military parade to mark the 50th anniversary of the Fatah movement in the Qalandia refugee camp near the West Bank city of Ramallah, Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015. (photo credit: AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
Palestinian gunmen of Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades march during a military parade to mark the 50th anniversary of the Fatah movement in the Qalandia refugee camp near the West Bank city of Ramallah, Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015. (photo credit: AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

These are not outlandish arguments. Abbas has not offered or accepted peace terms that would guarantee military and demographic security for Israel, and is formally partnered in government with Hamas, which seeks to destroy Israel. Hamas did oust Abbas from Gaza in 2007 after Israel, under international pressure, withdrew in 2005. Hamas built a war machine there, relentlessly attacks Israel, and seeks to take over the West Bank. Iran is vowing to arm West Bank Palestinians. Hezbollah took over south Lebanon after Israel, under international pressure, withdrew in 2000. Islamic extremist groups are fighting on the Syrian side of the Golan border.

Yet Obama’s response to these arguments, the response of a president who assured us he had our back, is to warn nastily, testily, that he’ll now have to “evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don’t see a chaotic situation in the region.” In the light of Netanyahu’s comments, he says he told the prime minister on the phone Thursday, “It is going to be hard to find a path where people are seriously believing that negotiations are possible.”

Has Obama spent the last few years telling the world, in light of Abbas’s alliance with Hamas, in light of Abbas’s failure to respond to former prime minister Ehud Olmert’s 2008 peace offer, in light of Abbas’s despicable charge of genocide against Israel from the UN General Assembly podium last fall, in light of Abbas’s repeated denial of Israel’s historic connection to the Temple Mount, and in light of the relentless encouragement of terrorism by Abbas’s Fatah group, that the US will have to “evaluate what other options are available” because “it is going to be hard to find a path where people are seriously believing that negotiations are possible”?

Has he? Not that I’ve noticed.

The inept opposition

One last vent, before I attempt to return to a more constructive mode.

Isaac Herzog can lick his wounds and moan that Netanyahu fought dirty. He might usefully reflect on his failure, in real time, to muster a robust riposte to Netanyahu’s last-minute tactics. Herzog might ask himself where was a comparable outpouring of passion and energy from his camp — a fiery defense of Israeli democracy on election day, an impassioned assertion of Israeli Arab voting rights, conveyed in an endless stream of media interviews to match Netanyahu’s blitz? (Netanyahu’s camp reached out to The Times of Israel; Herzog’s people promised they’d make him available, but didn’t.)

Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog (center) and Tzipi Livni (right) during a campaign tour at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, March 12, 2015 (photo credit: Amir Levy/Flash90)
Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog (center) and Tzipi Livni (right) during a campaign tour at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, March 12, 2015 (photo credit: Amir Levy/Flash90)

Where, the day before, was the determined use of all of modern technology’s means of communication to counter Netanyahu’s rejection of Palestinian statehood with the reminder that some kind of accommodation with the Palestinians is crucial to Israel’s future as both a Jewish and a democratic state? Where was the vehement voice of the Israeli center-left, pledging to do its utmost to create conditions in which progress might eventually be possible with the Palestinians, while simultaneously maintaining an iron commitment to Israel’s security?

Herzog might ask himself all of that, but it’s beside the point now. He proved no match for Netanyahu. The center-left’s search for a new Yitzhak Rabin will have to start over.

The post-election imperative

What is relevant, what is urgent, is rebuilding ties with the United States.

Netanyahu may be delighting in the knowledge that, barring the always possible political surprise, he’s going to outlast Obama. But the president has two full years to pursue his misguided course with Iran, and to take forward those “other options” with the Palestinians. A lot of harm can come to Israel in those two years.

Netanyahu owes it to all Israelis to ensure that our concerns are effectively conveyed to our most vital ally — via any and every means available, including the astute deployment of personnel who will get a fair hearing in the current toxic climate of relations.

And Obama owes it to all Israelis to listen closely to those concerns, and to internalize that while Netanyahu ran a cynically effective campaign, he didn’t fool Israelis into re-electing him. Netanyahu’s win was the will of a deeply riven electorate, with all kinds of priorities, fears and biases — some troubling, most entirely legitimate. His win was a case of democracy in robust action — a process that, in the entire anarchic, violent, ruthless Middle East, could only have played out in the island of true democracy that is Israel.

Which is why America, and even its testy president, should want to have our back.

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