Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered an aggressive, seemingly petulant speech Sunday night at Bar-Ilan University. Between Holocaust references and criticism of Palestinian leaders past and present, he demanded that the Palestinian Authority recognize not only the unassailable fact of Israel’s existence, but the historic right of the Jews to have their own sovereign state in this land.
As one critic suggested derisively, he demanded that the Palestinians become Zionists before peace can be achieved.
Only then will the current round of peace talks be “significant” and have “a real chance at success,” Netanyahu explained.
It is tempting to side with the prevailing view of the global punditocracy that suggests Netanyahu is digging his heels in against the advance of the peace talks, creating artificial stumbling blocks to avoid the painful compromises that he will likely have to deliver for peace.
But that view is wrong. Whether Netanyahu, deep in his heart, wants a peace deal with the Palestinians is a question beyond the ken of any commentator – and is perhaps unknown to Netanyahu himself.
But his demand for Palestinian recognition of the Jewishness of Israel is no cheap tactic. It is the key to understanding his theory of the conflict, his view as to why the Oslo process 20 years ago failed, and his distrust of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the new round of talks.
When Israeli hawks complain about PA incitement, doves are fond of replying, “You make peace with enemies.”
But Netanyahu has a different view, not about PA incitement, but about the nature of peacemaking.
When a Western leader once sought to make peace with his enemy, he found himself undermined politically and transformed into a laughingstock of history. That leader was Neville Chamberlain – and the enemy was Adolf Hitler. When another leader sought to unite a fractured society riven by racial discord, his efforts transformed him into a revered figure and his peacemaking efforts continue to heal and unify long after his death. That leader was Martin Luther King, and his enemy was the white racism that had tormented American blacks through centuries of slavery and inequality.
The difference between Chamberlain’s failure and King’s success lay, in part, in their constituents’ view of the enemy. Soon after Munich, Britons came to view Hitler as implacably evil, and Chamberlain’s peacemaking efforts as accommodation with that unspeakable evil. (That this view of Hitler was correct is beside the point; the issue here is psychological. )
On the other hand, King did not call on American blacks to make peace with Ku Klux Klan murderers or the racist governors of southern states. He called on them to make peace with the just aspects of white America, its promise of freedom, no matter how long denied, its belief in its moral mission, no matter how hypocritical American moralizing may have seemed to suffering blacks. There is good in our enemy, King told his followers, and a peace can be struck with that good.
The point here goes to the psychology of leadership: If the enemy is viewed as implacably evil, peacemaking necessarily becomes politically ruinous. It is only when the enemy is seen as possessing some justice on their side that a leader’s efforts to accommodate that enemy become legitimate and politically palatable.
This difference in the perception of the enemy has arguably played an oversized role in recent Israeli history. During the 1990s, those Israelis who believed the Oslo peace process was addressing the Palestinians’ just demand for self-determination often saw the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin as a national hero, “a warrior for peace.” Those who saw the Palestinians as an implacable, illegitimate enemy viewed Rabin as either a dangerous fool or a traitor.
Netanyahu’s demand for recognition has its roots in this Israeli experience. The Palestinians cannot bring themselves to end the conflict, Netanyahu believes, because they cannot bring themselves to compromise with an enemy they view as completely evil.
They have not yet shifted from perceiving their enemy as absolutely evil to perceiving him as possessing some justice on his side, however limited. Israel remains a categorical foe, and see Israelis as interlopers robbing another people of their national home. Even Palestinian moderates share this basic view of Israel: it is an evil, but an evil too well entrenched to remove. Israel does not have even a modicum of justice on its side, only brute force, they believe.
Thus, any Palestinian leader who seeks peace with Israel falls into the “Chamberlain trap,” finding himself undermined by the perception among his own people that he is accommodating evil rather than pursuing justice.
This analysis has become a key plank of Netanyahu’s policy toward the Palestinians, and has led to some of his most misunderstood speeches and demands. It is the reason he never fails to discuss the millennia-old Jewish attachment to the land of Israel in his speeches before a United Nations General Assembly that could care less.
The Palestinians don’t need to become Zionists, Netanyahu believes, but they need to perceive that Jewish demands, too, are rooted in justice. Only then will their domestic constituencies and political systems be capable of engaging in peacemaking.
It is a mistake to view Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan 2 speech as indicating he is withdrawing, even in tone, from the peace talks. In fact, the renewed urgency of his demand for recognition — which he believes to be critical to peacemaking — might suggest that the talks are, at long last, getting serious.