It is a bitter irony that Israel's international image has plummeted so low precisely during the term of Benjamin Netanyahu, that well-known "Mr. Public Relations," the diligent reader of biographies who is convinced that with a polished speech of the Winston Churchill or John F. Kennedy variety (but without their deeds), he can change the zeitgeist and reverse historic trends.
The irony is even more bitter because Netanyahu today cannot even capitalize on those traits that normally redound to his credit: his indecision, his ability to correct himself and his vacillation - traits that his predecessors, from Shimon Peres through Ehud Barak to Ehud Olmert, lacked, and whose lack caused them to become embroiled in brutal military operations whose bitter fruits we are now harvesting.
Moreover, during the terms of those brutal men, who spoke broken English with a terrible accent, Israel was welcomed throughout the world with open arms - whereas today, despite relative quiet on the security front, an American accent and rhetorical talent, Israel has become ostracized and is under attack in almost every international forum.
Of course it is possible to place all the blame on the dramatic change in the White House, which has removed the umbrella of the "total war on terror" from over Israel's head. Under this umbrella, Israel received a free hand with regard to the army and the settlements even as it cultivated and reaped the fruits of victimization. It is thus an irony of fate that Netanyahu, the most obvious personification of this mentality, has been punished by achieving his dream of returning to the premiership just at the moment when this approach lost its relevance and legitimacy, at least in the eyes of the world and the spirit of the times.
But if the irony of history has a strange and frightening tendency to laugh mainly at Israel's expense, perhaps it is because we never take it into consideration. Israel's basic point of departure is maintaining the status quo at any price, unless forced to shatter it by external compulsion or a round of fighting. This being the case, any global change is considered a temporary disturbance of our permanent doctrine: In another moment, Barack Obama will grasp with whom he is dealing; in another moment, with the correct kind of PR, the world will wake up and once again understand who the victim is and who is correct from a historic standpoint; in another moment, a terrorist attack or some other event will occur to "prove we are right" - that is, in the approach we have always taken - and then we can go on our merry way with creeping annexation peppered from time to time with military assaults.
One of the main elements on which this approach rests was once summed up by one of our more blunt officers and leaders - who later paid for this approach with his life - in the words "Ishmael tembel" ("the Arabs are idiots"). We generally phrase it in terms that are more diplomatic, but no less haughty: "The Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity." And that - said in a tone of disappointment to which an overtone of relief has been added over the years - means we have exempted ourselves from having to change our conception, since we assume that in any case nothing about the Arabs will change: neither their hostility nor their military capabilities nor their general level of sophistication (at least relative to the "Jewish genius" that expresses itself in smart bombs).
Therefore, we once again prepared for the previous round, and were once again hit by an intelligence surprise: Ishmael is no longer such an idiot. He not only blows himself up and fires guns, but also knows how to operate cameras and third-generation cell phones, to juggle his propaganda and activate the long arms of the law all over the world in the most sophisticated fashion. The "electronic intifada," which appears to be more effective than any of its predecessors, has caught us with our pants down. Suddenly, even our most senior officers and cabinet ministers, who are holed up inside the country for fear of lawsuits abroad, have begun to realize that it is not possible to respond to everything with fire.
There used to be an idee fixe here: We thought we could "explain" our way to remaining in the territories and continuing the settlements. But - as in some past actual wars - it has once again turned out that our explanatory gears grew rusty in their warehouses, that we did not move the correct guns to the front. It turns out that a Jabotinsky-inspired conservative Republican, who wishes to annex territory and explains our historic right to the rocks of our existence with the aid of the Holocaust, not only cannot constitute an effective and suitable response to the electronic intifada of the 21st century, but is even forcing us to retreat - from our defensive lines against accusations about the occupation to the green lines of having to justify our very existence.
So who is the idiot here - Ishmael or Israel? Even after 100 years, it is too soon to decide.
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