Netanyahu Doesn't Have What It Takes to Make a Bold Move

Benjamin Netanyahu’s history shows that he's incapable of processing information that contradicts his bleak worldview formed in the 1980s.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Bill Clinton has been one of Israel’s staunchest friends ever. He invested more time and energy than any U.S. president in trying to help Israel reach peace with its neighbors, and even skeptics will admit that his concern for Israel is genuine. As Haaretz's Chemi Shalev has pointed out, Clinton’s speech at Shimon Peres’ birthday party was a semi-humorous way of making clear to Israelis that their captains are steering the country into the iceberg Titanic-style. Clinton repeats what all of Israel’s friends, including Barack Obama and John Kerry, keep saying: “Don’t you see that you’re ruining the future of your country with your occupation policy?”

Of course, many Israeli leaders say, “What do you guys [Americans, Europeans] know about the Middle East? You have no idea what the Middle East is really like. You have the luxury of using lofty terms like peace, harmony and prosperity. And you are charmed by Peres’ rosy visions of a New Middle East, whereas we realistically look at the so-called Arab Spring that threatens to throw the whole Middle East into protracted chaos and bring Jihadist elements to Israel’s borders. We don’t have the luxury for grand phrases. We need to protect Israelis from catastrophic security risks.”

This argument is shortsighted and wrong. Not only Israel’s friends abroad think the occupation is a catastrophe. Most of Israel’s security establishment largely agrees with Clinton, Obama and Kerry. In Dror Moreh’s Oscar-nominated documentary "The Gatekeepers," six former chiefs of Israel’s Shin Bet security service scathingly criticize the policies of Israel’s governments since 1977. They decry the missed chances for peace, they deplore the lack of strategic vision and they speak about the price the occupation exacts, in terms of its impact on both Israel’s society and Israel's long-term standing in the world.

And then there is Meir Dagan, the former Chief of the Mossad, a man legendary for his daring. At the President’s Conference he said that this is a moment where Israel can create new alliances in the Arab world, and that this opportunity must not be missed – implicitly criticizing Netanyahu’s paralysis.

None of these men can be accused of ignorance about the Middle East or the nature of radical Islam. When they urge ending the occupation, they are certainly not blind to the security risks Israel is facing. And they are not alone. Today, most high-level Israeli security officials agree with the protagonists in "The Gatekeepers," but they cannot speak on the record, of course.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s office has stated that the prime minister does not intend to watch "The Gatekeepers." This is certainly a very mature way of dealing with information that doesn’t suit his worldview. Netanyahu’s answer is basically “don’t confuse me with the facts, I’ve made up my mind.”

It also did not matter that he recently met a group of Israeli business leaders, some of them Netanyahu’s close friends, who warned him about the impact of the continuing occupation on Israel’s economy. In psychological parlance, this defense mechanism against information that contradicts a person’s belief system is called denial. Still, it's important not to personalize Israel’s difficulties in changing course and ascribe them to Netanyahu exclusively, even though Netanyahu’s role in destroying the peace process since his first term from 1996 to 1999 has been substantial.

Israel has a long history of states of denial. In the early 1970s, Anwar Sadat approached Golda Meir four times through reliable channels and offered her a peace agreement that would have left Israel with a substantial part of Sinai. She wouldn’t even listen to the proposals. She simply could not take in what she was told – that the Arab world’s largest state was offering Israel peace. The price of Meir’s incapacity to open her mind was the terrible trauma of the Yom Kippur War.

Another example is the Arab Peace Initiative, which, in various forms, has been on the table since 2002. It offers Israel full recognition by the entire Arab League – and by the overwhelming majority of the Islamic world – in return for retreating to the 1967 borders. Not a single Israeli government has even addressed this initiative. And, as recent research has shown, 72 percent of Israelis don’t even know of its existence, and only 6 percent are acquainted with its details.

In other words, Israelis are simply incapable of dealing with a piece of information that contradicts their belief that the Arab world has nothing in mind but to destroy Israel. This is reflected by Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon’s recent characterization of the Arab Peace Initiative as nothing but spin. And thus the state of denial persists: Meir couldn’t take in Sadat’s peace offer, Netanyahu won’t watch "The Gatekeepers," and Israelis can’t deal with the fact that the Arab world is willing to accept Israel into the Middle East.

In this respect, Israel isn't different from other states and organizations – and indeed individuals – that tend to make drastic changes only after major crises, as is well demonstrated in Israel’s history. Only the Yom Kippur War opened Israel to the option of peace with Sadat. Only the first intifada made Yitzhak Rabin understand that the occupation was untenable in the long run. If this pattern persists, we're left with the bleak prospect of waiting for a major crisis that will change Israel’s inertia, and we can only hope that it will not cost too many lives and not exact a terrible price.

Sometimes, very rarely, a leadership sees far enough ahead to initiate change without a major crisis. Netanyahu’s history indicates that he just doesn’t have what it takes to make a bold move, and that he is incapable of processing information that contradicts his bleak worldview formed in the 1980s.

I will be more than happy to be proved wrong in my assessment of his character, because we just may not have time until he finally exits the stage of Israeli politics. By that time, the dream of Israel as the democratic homeland of the Jews may be destroyed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Emil Salman / Haaretz Archive
Peres, Streisand, Clinton and Netanyahu in J'lem.Credit: AP

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