Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, L,  and UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, L, and UN General Secretary Ban Ki-moon Photo by Reuters
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Israel’s strategic situation has worsened considerably in the last weeks. Turkey’s Edogan is scoring points in the Arab world for staring down Israel, and making veiled threats that Turkey will no longer tolerate Israel’s hegemony in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin. The attack on Israel’s embassy in Cairo again raises the specter of Egypt’s reneging on the peace agreement with Israel, and the Netanyahu government was sufficiently worried about a similar attack on the embassy in Amman to recall its staff from there. And, of course, the Palestinian Authority will ask for full membership status in the UN, and it is likely to gain observer status as a state.

As Aluf Benn has pointed out, the Netanyahu government has been singularly inept in handling this series of crises. It has come up with nothing more than a rear-guard fight of trying to gain a “moral victory,” hoping that at least the largest EU states will either vote against the recognition of Palestine or avoid it. There could have been a number of better options; in my view, the most promising would have been to engage with the Palestinian initiative and turn it into a vote that would reaffirm Israel’s standing and determine its final internationally recognized borders.

The reason why such a course of action was never even considered is deeply seated in Netanyahu’s worldview, which is at odds with that of most of the international community, as the following shows.

The New York Times carries a discussion entitled “Can Israel Survive without a Palestinian State?” The choice of title, of course shows the editors’ position: Not only is a Palestinian state not a threat to Israel, it is its best bet for long-term survival. The ensuing discussion is quite interesting.

Daniel Gordis, president of the right-leaning Shalem Foundation, and Fellow of the Shalem Center, argues that the recent developments with Turkey and Egypt show that the hatred against Israel has not subsided. Hence there is no reason to believe that establishing a Palestinian state will ensure Israel’s safety in the long run.

Let’s not dwell on the misrepresentation of facts in Gordis’ contribution: He says that Palestinians are capitalizing on developments of the last weeks to turn their vote into “a referendum on Israel.” Palestinians have been pursuing this course of action long before any of these developments, and have not changed their position. Gordis also states that Turkey is “cozying up to Iran,” whereas Turkey is actually establishing itself as the major counterweight to Iran in the Middle East.

These inexactitudes notwithstanding, Gordis’ point is important because it reflects Netanyahu’s worldview: Israel is at the forefront of a war of civilizations; its existence is not about to be accepted by the Islamic world. The Israel-Palestine conflict will not be resolved for generations, hence it needs to hang on to every shred of territory.

At the other end of the spectrum is Columbia Professor of Arab Studies Rashid Khalidi’s statement. He argues that there are two real threats to Israel’s survival. One is the continued subjugation of Palestinians, as it undermines Israel’s legitimacy. The other is Israel’s continued failure to realize that the Middle East has changed dramatically since Herzl’s days. It is no longer dominated by foreign powers, but moving towards the model of popular sovereignty.

Khalidi argues that Israel needs to make a paradigm shift: it needs to stop handling relations with Palestinians from a high-handed position of power, and move towards a stance based of mutual respect. He writes: “More important than whether it comes via the establishment of one or two states is arriving at a sustainable and lasting final outcome based on justice, international law and human rights.“

The professor lives in the paradigm of international law and individual human rights that has progressively come to govern international legal and political discourse. For him the legitimacy of any political arrangement depends exclusively on whether it respects these rights, and he believes that mutual recognition of such rights without regard to religion and ethnicity is the only way to move forward in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Khalidi disregards that the Arab Spring is still very far away from actually establishing Arab liberal democracies. He also conveniently skips the fact human rights discourse has often been used in highly manipulative ways: Israel has been targeted by a majority of resolutions of the UN human rights council (as if Myanmar, China, Iran and North Korea didn’t exist), and the Durban racism conference has turned into an anti-Israel festival, as if racism is not to be found anywhere else in the world. This has led most Israelis to disregard human rights discourse completely, and to see it as a cynical ploy to isolate Israel.

Gordis and Khalidi inhabit two different worlds. Gordis shares Netanyahu’s worldview and thinks in terms of nationalities and civilizations that struggle for hegemony. He has no qualms about generalizing about the Islamic world (with some inexactitude in the basic facts) and to ascribe some primeval hatred against Israel to all of it.

Khalidi thinks in terms of an idealized framework of values that I happen to share. But I also think that this must not be confused with reality. Group identities, religious and religious hatred are, unfortunately, a fact of life, and we must not confuse political and social realities with our ideals.

In the end we must think pragmatically, and be neither imprisoned by myths like Gordis’ nor be blinded by lofty ideals like Khalidi’s. This is precisely what Israeli military and intelligence analyst Ronen Bergman does in his contribution: he points out that Israel will be taking considerable risks by moving towards the two-state solution. Nobody can guarantee that the future Palestinian state will not be governed by Hamas, nor is there certainty that the Arab-Israeli conflict will be ended by the two-state solution. Nevertheless, Bergman concludes that the status quo is untenable, and that Netanyahu is making a huge mistake in stalling progress towards the two-state solution, which stands a reasonable chance of defusing the situation.

Political scientist Daliah Scheindlin takes a similar position, and warns that if Netanyahu doesn’t allow for the emergence of a viable Palestinian state, the Palestinian people will become further alienated from their government. The ping-pong between settler violence and Palestinian retaliation can only lead towards further war. Hence pragmatism, together with respect for human rights emphasized by Lebanese columnist Rami Khouri makes the two-state solution, imperfect and pedestrian as it is, the only step out of the quagmire of this endless conflict.

The problem is that the Netanyahu government is not governed by pragmatism; it continues to be guided by the myths of Masada and Bar Kochba rather than by realistic, cool-headed assessment of international reality. It also shuns the language of human rights. In fact Netanyahu’s coalition partners have already tried to muzzle this language through legislation, thus moving even further away from the international consensus.

Netanyahu has decided to speak at the UN General Assembly and will deliver the message that negotiations are the only way to peace, even as the Palestinians ask for recognition.

I wonder whether the prime minister thinks he will get the standing ovation he received in Congress earlier this year. Given how far removed his worldview is from everybody else’s, and given that nobody believes that he will agree to a viable Palestinian state, Israel is likely to pay the price for his intransigence by ever deepening isolation, leaving us in dire straits indeed.