The Fallacy of Netanyahu's Worldview

Netanyahu seems to believe there is no tie between how Israel conducts itself and Arab rejectionism.

During the last two weeks, the media spotlight has focused on the immediate crisis between Benjamin Netanyahu and the Obama administration. Gigabytes have been filled with speculations about whether the crisis initiated during Joe Biden's visit reflects a rift between Israel and the U.S. But behind the immediate crisis there looms a much deeper problem which pertains to a fallacy in Netanyahu's worldview that is reflected in all his actions.

In his speech to AIPAC, Netanyahu has repeated a mantra that has defined his thinking throughout his adult life. He said that hatred of radical Islam for Israel has nothing to do with what Israel does, but stems from the fact that Israel is the West's outpost in the Middle East. Ergo, his reasoning implies, Israel can continue doing whatever it wants: it can build in East Jerusalem, it can expand settlements, because this is not the reason for Arab rejectionism. Furthermore he assumes that time is on Israel's side; that every year in which Israel continues its current policy enhances its status. This has now led him to tell Nancy Pelosi that peace talks with the Palestinians may have to wait another year, because their demand for a complete freeze of settlement construction is unacceptable.

The fallacy in Netanyahu's argument is fateful: He takes a grain of truth and builds the wrong argument around it. While there are indeed deep reasons for some aspects of Arab rejectionism, Netanyahu's way of thinking and his policies have become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and are making peaceful coexistence of Israel with the Arab world impossible in the long run.

An alternative point of view has been defended by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her address to AIPAC: She has pointed out that Israel's security is ever more jeopardized by changes in rocket technology, and that both Hezbollah and, to a lesser extent, Hamas, are being armed with rockets that reach farther into Israel and have more destructive power than ever before. Under these circumstances Israel gains no security by holding on to parts of the West Bank, because the threat now has a longer reach. Hence only striving towards ending the conflict with the Palestinians can give Israel the West's unflinching political backing against any political or military threat, and strengthen Arab moderates.

Let us now look in detail at Netanyahu's fallacy: Historically there were a number of reasons why the Arab world didn't want a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine. Bernard Lewis has argued for a long time that the Arab world is yearning for the times of the Caliphate, in which the Arab world was a united empire, and that the dream of reinstating the historical greatness of ancient times has not lost its grip on the Arab imagination. Israel is the thorn in the vision of a unified, Arab-Muslim Middle East, and this thorn is placed at the one place that, more than any other, symbolizes the conflict of the three monotheistic religions, Jerusalem.

Assuming that Lewis' analysis reflects an important aspect of the Arab psyche, the question is what conclusions need to be drawn from this. Netanyahu's conclusion is: We need to be brash, self-confident and show that we can do whatever we like. In the long run Arabs will accept our existence not because something in their basic mindset has changed, but because they realize that they cannot defeat Israel militarily. In this, Netanyahu continues to be a faithful disciple of Jabotinsky's Iron Wall thesis, which says that only Israel's might will get Arabs to accept Israel's existence.

The question one needs to ask is: At what point would you say that the Arab world has accepted Israel's existence, and can hence change the policy of building Israel's existence exclusively on might? At what point do you try to build more constructive relations with the Arab world? The problem with Jabotinsky's Iron Wall thesis is that it can easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, because no change in the Arab world will be taken as an indication that a cooperative approach is now in order. The result is catastrophic, because Netanyahu actually seems to believe that there is no connection whatsoever between how Israel conducts itself and the Arab world's relation to Israel. And he also seems to think that time is not of the essence and that Israel can stall further without weakening its position.

Moreover, Netanyahu's mantra has had powerful influence on many in world-Jewry who mean to defend Israel's existence. They keep amassing evidence for Arab Anti-Semitism to prove to the world, that Israel must be supported no matter what it does, because it is threatened by Arab Anti-Semitism. But, as the foreign ministry's professional echelon has realized long ago, this strategy doesn't work. Hence it has been working towards a re-branding of Israel as a progressive country. The problem is that such a re-branding needs to be backed up by actions that are consistent with it.

There is an alternative way of looking at the Middle East: yes; the Arab imagination has been under the spell of the dream of restoring the Caliphate for a long time. But there have been developments in other directions: Many Arabs have, for a long time, sought a different relation to the West. They have shaken off the mythic-theological way of thinking that sees the Middle East as belonging exclusively to Islam.

True: Radical Islam has surged in the last decades, and much of it has nothing to do with Israel, as Robert Wistrich's monumental analysis of contemporary anti-Semitism has shown. Al-Qaida emerged for completely different reasons, and only recently has it adopted the Palestinian cause in its rhetoric. But Netanyahu's conclusion is the wrong one. Israel's actions do make a difference; they can either play into the hands of radical Islam, or they can empower Arab moderates and strengthen their stand against radicalism.

Netanyahu's policies are providing radical Islam with the iconic images that consistently weaken moderate Arab positions, both among the Palestinians and elsewhere in the Arab world. This undermines Israel's security rather than enhancing it. It is high time for him to realize that repeating his old position doesn't make his ideas true: It is time to overhaul them radically.