His newly minted deputy foreign minister might want Israel’s diplomats around the world to proudly assert the Jewish state’s historic right to all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. But does Benjamin Netanyahu seriously believe that Israel is going to be able to annex the West Bank, to bring the biblical Judea and Samaria under long-term Israeli sovereignty? Does he even want to?
The answer to both those questions is no.
Never mind that Netanyahu has placed a pro-annexation firebrand in temporary charge of Israeli diplomacy. Tzipi Hotovely is just one of the many ridiculous, damaging appointments in the new Netanyahu government imposed as a consequence of Israel’s problematic coalition realities and the prime minister’s efforts to keep potential rivals away from key ministries. Deep down, he knows full well that the international community would not tolerate an Israeli declaration of full sovereignty between the river and the sea — that the diplomatic, economic and military consequences would be devastating. And in any case he has also made clear, time and again, that he has no desire to bring millions of Palestinians under Israeli rule, turning Israel into a bi-national state in which the Jews would quickly lose either their majority or their democracy.
So what’s to stop him from championing a diplomatic initiative that reflects his own conclusions and convictions?
What’s to stop him, for a start, from making a speech endorsing the Arab Peace Initiative, hitherto dismissed, as a basis for negotiations on the Palestinian conflict and for an improvement of relations where possible with others in the region — not accepting the Arab initiative in its current form, but affirming the desire to widen the circle of normalization?
Even the Vatican, with its philo-Semitic pope, is backing Palestine and its apparently angelic leader
And what’s to stop him from then following the words with deeds — by declaring a freeze in building outside the major settlement blocs and making compensation available to those Israelis who live in areas of the West Bank that Israel does not envision retaining in any permanent accord? It’s an open secret that Netanyahu has for years been reluctant to sanction much building outside those blocs, to the intense frustration of a series of more hawkish and pro-annexation political colleagues. So why not make a regional and international virtue out of a policy he is quietly following anyway? Why not put the intransigent Mahmoud Abbas under pressure?
The prime minister talks endlessly about the opportunities for partnerships with the Saudis and others in the region who share Israel’s concern over Iran’s nuclear drive. Upbeat rhetoric on the Arab Peace Initiative, given credibility by a freeze in building outside the settlement blocs, would offer potential for the realization of those partnerships.
It would also delight Israel’s most important ally, the United States, whose president has chosen to believe the election eve Netanyahu who promised no Palestinian state, rather than the Netanyahu of two days after the election who insisted he supports a “sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.”
At a stroke, concerns over damaging United Nations Security Council resolutions, designed to impose binding timetables for a West Bank withdrawal, would disappear. The US would be back firmly in Israel’s corner. The Europeans — whom Netanyahu is reportedly now attempting to fob off with an offer to begin talking with the Palestinians about the dimensions of the settlement blocs — would be exultant.
Today’s Israel is engaged in a relentless battle for its survival and its legitimacy
Rather than being dragged toward terms and timetables it regards as untenable, Israel would be setting the agenda. And having made plain its readiness for compromise, Israel would enjoy far greater credibility in invoking its worries about the dangers of relinquishing territory in this violent, unpredictable region and era. Israel’s fears that Hamas would take over the West Bank were the IDF to withdraw, precisely as Hamas took over Gaza, would have to be seriously addressed. After all, rather than being widely dismissed by the international community as an excuse for Israeli inaction, as is the case today, the concern over an Islamist coup in the West Bank would be recognized for what it is: alarm over a genuine danger that, until it is resolved, prevents the sought-after sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.
In the absence of a Netanyahu initiative, the deterioration of Israel’s status worldwide should be plain to see. Not all the attempts at warfare and lawfare, demonization and misrepresentation, are successful. But today’s Israel is engaged in a relentless battle for its survival and its legitimacy.
The US is championing a deal with Iran that is almost universally regarded in Israel as disastrous — as paving the ayatollahs’ path to the bomb, and cementing them in power to use it — but that even Netanyahu’s direct appeal to Congress, at the risk of harming Israel’s bipartisan status in the US, was unable to derail. On our borders, Hamas is restocking and refining its rocket arsenals, and tunneling to the border again. Hezbollah is now one of the world’s most potent armed forces, with years of battle experience in Syria, and 100,000 rockets and missiles trained on Israel.
World parliaments are lining up to recognize a Palestinian state. Obama is lecturing us about how our Jewish values require us to grant the Palestinians freedom in their land. Even the Vatican, with its philo-Semitic pope, is backing Palestine and its apparently angelic leader. Mahmoud Abbas sees a world that wants to grant his people full independence no matter how unbending his positions. And he sees an adversary in defensive, even paralyzed mode. He feels zero compulsion to compromise. That adds up to the opposite of Israel’s interests.
The danger is that we’re not muddling through but, rather, inexorably declining: that Israel is that frog in the pan of water on the stove, fatally impervious as the temperature gradually rises to boiling point
The Palestinians are awaiting the opportunity to haul Israel before the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is no raging success yet it is chipping away at Israel’s legitimacy, making minor economic headway but major ideological inroads among impressionable young people on Western university campuses. It’s no longer a surprise when the likes of Lauryn Hill give in to pressure and cancel concerts here. The world’s soccer authorities will be voting in a few days’ time on whether to ban Israel from all international involvement in the globe’s most popular sport.
It’s not all bleak, of course. And that’s precisely the point. Israel has generally been able to convince itself that it is managing to muddle through — that the new reality of intermittent war with Gaza is sustainable; that Iran can yet be faced down; that Hezbollah is preoccupied; that those parliamentary votes in country after country on Palestinian statehood don’t really matter; that the UN Security Council can be defied; that there’ll be life after that lecturing Obama; that the Rolling Stones and Robbie Williams showed there are plenty who’ll defy boycott pressure; that FIFA will likely resist the Palestinians’ efforts to politicize world football; and that we’ll ultimately manage to calm all our domestic frictions too — the economic inequalities, the tensions with the ultra-Orthodox, the Arabs, the Ethiopians…
The danger, though, is that we’re not muddling through but, rather, inexorably declining: that Israel is that frog in the pan of water on the stove, fatally impervious as the temperature gradually rises to boiling point.
What’s to stop Netanyahu from turning the heat back down by taking the initiative? What’s to stop him clearly advocating and actually introducing polices that he himself has already indicated he favors — policies that would help Israel abroad and might even strengthen his own political standing at home? Only his own proven disinclination to do any such thing.
But then why did he want to be prime minister again?