Netanyahu Is Shaping Israel in His Own Dark Image

Even though many Israelis are willing to explore new options, their wary prime minister is deepening the country’s isolation.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Benjamin Netanyahu, the new prince of darkness. Credit: Moti Milrod
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Terabytes of commentary have been written on the chain of events over the past week. Fatah and Hamas held reconciliation talks and plan to form a unity government. In turn, the Netanyahu government called off the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, claiming that PA President Mahmoud Abbas couldn’t have both peace with Israel and unity with Hamas.

First I’d like to summarize some of the commentary in Haaretz. David Landau wrote that Israel’s reaction to the Fatah-Hamas rapprochement shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s true face. After all, the moderate right has argued that there’s no point to a deal with Fatah because Hamas wouldn’t recognize it. Hence the reaction to the rapprochement should be positive, but Netanyahu isn’t capable of that.

The right’s reaction is that Hamas is a murderous, anti-Semitic terror organization, and that the rapprochement only signals that Fatah was never serious about peace. Blessed are those whose minds are made up so strongly that they’re never confused by the facts.

Otherwise, they might have noted that, as Zvi Bar’el has pointed out, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal has repeatedly stated since 2007 that Hamas does not seek to destroy Israel. Rather, it simply won’t recognize Israel until the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders.

In no way do I idealize Hamas; I’ve written many times that its role in the Israel-Palestine conflict is catastrophic. But how can Netanyahu be so sure that Hamas isn’t changing, particularly now when it’s more isolated than ever in the Arab world?

I’m certainly not suggesting that Isaiah’s prophecy that the wolf shall dwell with the lamb and peace will reign on earth is about to come true. But it would have been reasonable to take a month or so to see how the platform of the Palestinian unity government evolved. If indeed it were based on recognizing Israel and accepting earlier agreements between Israel and Palestine, we would have grounds to go forward with the peace talks, knowing that any agreement with the Palestinians would be endorsed by Hamas — a situation Israel could only wish for.

But Netanyahu seemed only too eager to find a pretext to end the talks. His state of mind is also reflected in his reaction to Abbas’ statement that the Holocaust was the most heinous crime against humanity in modern history. Netanyahu’s immediate reaction was to call Abbas’ reaction a PR stunt.

It’s certainly true that Abbas’ 1982 doctoral dissertation claimed that the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust was vastly exaggerated and that the Zionists collaborated with the Nazis to increase the number of Jews emigrating to Palestine. This position put Abbas in the category of Holocaust deniers, but does it mean there’s no way Abbas could change his views on the matter?

I have no direct access to Abbas’ heart and mind, but neither does Netanyahu. Still, we have very good reasons to believe that Abbas has changed his mind on a number of issues.

In 1982 he presumably viewed the PLO’s goal as wiping Israel off the face of the earth. In the last two decades he has reliably shown that he thinks Israel and Palestine should coexist. It might well be that Abbas realizes how ludicrous and abominable his views on the Holocaust were and that he genuinely thinks differently today.

Hard-core Likud

This shouldn’t surprise us. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and current Justice Minister Tzipi Livni grew up as hard-core Likudniks and believed for much of their careers that Israel had an eternal right to the West Bank. But Olmert went on to make the most far-reaching offer Israel has ever made to the Palestinians, and Livni’s core agenda today is to reach a peace agreement with Palestine.

Interestingly, it’s the other way around for Israeli historian Benny Morris. He used to be on the far left and was jailed for refusing to serve in the territories in the 1980s. But he turned into a hard-core right-winger after the second intifada.

People change in many ways, and there’s no reason to believe that this is less true for Palestinians than for Jews. This doesn’t mean Israel-Palestine peace is around the corner. But it’s in Israel’s interest to keep an open mind and follow developments among the Palestinians closely. We have no less to gain from a peace agreement than the Palestinians, after all.

Unfortunately, one factor in the equation never seems to change: Netanyahu’s character. There have been many signs that Netanyahu realizes that the consequences of continuing the occupation will be catastrophic. The country will be further isolated, and the economic success Netanyahu justly takes pride in might dissipate quickly if Israel is boycotted and suffers sanctions by some of its largest trading partners.

Of course, Netanyahu is in dire straits politically: 17 of 21 of his Likud MKs favor Israel’s annexation of the West Bank and won’t even consider a Palestinian state. His coalition depends in part on Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, whom he despises. Bennett represents the settlers and threatens to leave the government if an agreement with Palestinians is reached.

Netanyahu would have the option to let Bennett go and replace him with Isaac Herzog’s Labor Party, but Netanyahu is afraid of breaking ranks with his so-called natural allies, the settlers. He’s naturally risk-averse, and such a move goes against his character.

Netanyahu is ultimately a man governed by fears and suspicions. Over the years I’ve heard from many who have worked with him that he’s the most isolated person they’ve ever met. He doesn’t trust anyone and his modus operandi is to play people off against each other.

It seems Netanyahu’s instincts are stronger than any rational consideration. He believes that the Israelis — and Jews in general — are isolated, threatened and shouldn’t rely on anyone. Off the record, most European politicians and diplomats find him impossible to deal with, as did U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – and now Secretary of State John Kerry. The silent majority of American Jews sees Netanyahu as a strange relic of the past, a man droning on about fears of extinction, incapable of forward-looking moves and far removed from the values of American Jewish liberals.

Ultimately, Netanyahu is shaping Israel in his own image. The United States and Europe no longer feel they can trust Israel; they expect to be tricked and outmaneuvered. They no longer believe they can take the Israeli government’s word at face value. Thus Israel, like Netanyahu, is sliding into ever-deepening isolation.

The disparity between Netanyahu and large parts of Israel’s elite – including its security establishment – is incredible. Unlike Netanyahu, many Israelis are open-minded, curious and willing to explore new options. But Netanyahu is about to become the country’s longest-serving prime minister — one imposing his character on the country. This doesn’t bode well for Israel.