Netanyahu Shows D.C. Liberals Why He’s the 'Armor-plated Bullshitter’

Instead of admitting his opposition to a Palestinian state, Netanyahu twisted the concept beyond recognition.

Peter Beinart
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Center for American Progress, November 10, 2015, in Washington.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Center for American Progress, November 10, 2015, in Washington. Credit: AP
Peter Beinart

This week, the staff at the Center for American Progress learned why Tony Blair’s foreign ministry nicknamed Benjamin Netanyahu “the armor-plated bullshitter.” And why former French President Nicolas Sarkozy called him a “liar." And why former Clinton administration spokesperson Joe Lockhart said, “He could open his mouth and you could have no confidence that anything that came out of it was the truth.” 

CAP, an influential progressive think tank in Washington, D.C., invited Netanyahu to speak, and again and again, Israel’s prime minister said things that just aren’t true.

It began when CAP President Neera Tanden asked Bibi about his statement, on the eve of Israel’s election earlier this year, that, “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls.” Netanyahu responded that, “You should know that Arab voted for me they voted for me in considerably larger numbers than they voted for the Labor Party. I was not referring to going to vote, I was speaking about a specific list that was opposed” to my policies.

The implication is that Netanyahu wasn’t vilifying Israeli Arabs (more accurately termed “Palestinian citizens of Israel”) as a whole, but only those militant few who oppose him. But the entire reason Netanyahu referred to “Arab voters” in general was that they overwhelmingly oppose him. Eighty-two percent of Arab voters backed the Joint List, composed of four mostly Arab parties, compared to roughly three percent who backed Netanyahu’s Likud. (Labor, running as the “Zionist Union,” won about four percent). It’s as if Mitt Romney had warned that, “African Americans are coming out in droves” and then explained that he was only referring to those African Americans planning to vote for Barack Obama and not for him.

Bibi added that when it comes to Israel’s Arab citizens, progressives should judge him not on his words but his “deeds.” Fine. Upon becoming prime minister in 2009, Netanyahu named as his foreign minister and deputy prime minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who had proposed requiring Israeli Arabs to vow allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state or else lose their citizenship, called for barring Arab parties from participating in elections and suggested redrawing Israel’s border so as to exile Arab citizens from the country. How exactly were Arab Israelis supposed to respond to those “deeds?”

Then the conversation at CAP turned to a Palestinian state. Netanyahu rejected the idea that settlement growth makes one harder. “There have there have been no new settlements built in the last 20 years,” he declared. That’s a sleight of hand. Just last month, the Israeli government declared that it would legalize an “illegal outpost” called Adei Ad, built without government permission, east of the settlement of Shiloh. In fact, Israel has legalized illegal outposts repeatedly during Netanyahu’s time in office, as well as expanding existing ones.

The fact that Netanyahu doesn’t call these new settlements is irrelevant. What matters it that between 2009 and 2014, according to Haaretz, during Netanyahu’s first five years in office, the settler population expanded at double the rate of the population inside Israel proper, and that’s partly because between 2009 and 2012, the percentage of Israel’s budget devoted to the settlements doubled

At CAP, Netanyahu implied that this doesn’t matter because the “total amount of built up land [in the settlements] is just a few percent” of the West Bank. But as Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now has explained, this is disingenuous too. The territory Israel allocates for settlements far exceeds the “built up” area, in part because of the large network of roads it has established for settler use, and in part so the settlements can continue to grow. In fact, the “municipal area” of settlements comprises almost 10 percent of the West Bank and another 34 percent falls under the authority of settler “regional councils.” 

And it’s not just the size of settlements. It’s their location. Ariel, for instance, cuts deep into the West Bank, thus seriously impeding access between northern Palestinian cities like Qalqilya and Tulkarem and the rest of the West Bank. As former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami has acknowledged, “There is no doubt that settlements like Maale Adumim and Ariel makes the problem of contiguity of the Palestinian state something that is very, very difficult to imagine.”

After insisting that settlements don’t impede a Palestinian state, Netanyahu said the real problem is that Israel’s evacuation from the Gaza Strip shows that Palestinians can’t be trusted with one. But Israel didn’t create a Palestinian state in Gaza. In 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew Israel’s more than 8,000 settlers there but Gaza never gained control of its own borders. As the Israeli human rights group Gisha has detailed, even before the election of Hamas, Israel determined whether Gazans could enter or exit the Strip (In conjunction with Egypt, which controlled the Rafah checkpoint in Gaza's south). Israel controlled the population registry through which Gazans were issued identification cards. Upon evacuating its settlers and soldiers from Gaza, Israel even created a security perimeter inside the Strip from which Gazans were barred from entry. (Unfortunately for Gazans, this perimeter included some of the Strip’s best farmland).

Netanyahu may believe all this was necessary on security grounds but to use the Gaza disengagement as a template for Palestinian statehood is deeply ironic. It’s ironic because Sharon withdrew Israel’s settlers in Gaza in large measure because he didn’t want a Palestinian state, and was seeking to relieve the pressure to create one arising from the 2002 Saudi Peace Initiative and the 2003 Geneva Accords. As Sharon’s own chief of staff said, “The significance of the [Gaza] disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem.” Now Netanyahu is saying the unhappy legacy of Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal is the reason we can’t create a Palestinian state now.

But unilateral disengagements, especially ones that maintain occupation in a different form, are very different from peace agreements. The former are imposed; the latter are negotiated. The former obligate the Palestinians to nothing; the latter require them to make commitments in front of their own people and the world. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Israel’s experiences with unilateral withdrawals—from Gaza and also Lebanon—has been bad but that it’s experience with peace agreements—with Egypt and Jordan—has been good.

So why is Netanyahu conflating them? To justify his own opposition to a Palestinian state worth the name. Ever since the Clinton Parameters in 2001, the general parameters for a two state deal have been fairly clear.  Former negotiators used them to hammer out a model agreement in Geneva in 2003. And these parameters guided the negotiations between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas in 2007 and 2008. Abbas has said the two leaders were “months away” from a deal when Olmert left officeOlmert has said “we were very close.” 

Olmert has also said that Netanyahu’s views “are a vast distance from what everybody understands is the basis on which an accord can be reached.” That’s because Netanyahu demands that Abbas recognize not merely Israel, which the PLO did in 1993, but Israel as a “Jewish state,” even though that requirement is absent from the Clinton parameters. Netanyahu also demands that Israel maintain security control of the West Bank indefinitely. That’s a blatant violation of the Clinton parameters, which envision Israel leaving within three years.

Were Netanyahu more honest, he’d admit that he doesn’t support a Palestinian state. But he doesn’t want to do that, at least not in Washington, DC. So he told the audience at CAP that he really, really wants a Palestinian state. It just needs to remain under Israeli military control. It’s like saying you really, really want to give someone your car; you just need to hold on to the keys. The very definition of a state, going back to Max Weber, is a “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” At CAP, Netanyahu noted that Japan, Germany and South Korea are still states despite having US troops on their soil. But there’s a key difference: those countries can kick the US troops out.

That’s precisely what Netanyahu would deny Palestinians the right to do.

Netanyahu is fine giving Palestinians autonomy over education, health care and the like, but he wants one state between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River under Israeli control. He claims it’s the Gaza experience, and rising instability in the Middle East, that has led him to this view. But that’s nonsense. Notwithstanding his 2009 Bar Ilan speech supposedly endorsing Palestinian statehood—a speech that even his own father admitted was insincere—this has been Netanyahu’s position since he entered politics more than two decades ago. “Would the Palestinian Arabs accept autonomy?” he asked in a 1994 Jerusalem Post op-ed. “My answer is that they would accept it if they knew Israel wouldn’t give them an independent state.”

Netanyahu doesn’t speak so bluntly anymore, at least not in front of the liberals at CAP. Perhaps he fears that admitting he wants Israel to indefinitely rule millions of West Bank Palestinians who lack basic rights would isolate Israel internationally. Perhaps he fears it would empower those anti-Zionists who want one secular binational state divested of its Jewish character.

So, at CAP, instead of admitting that he doesn’t support a Palestinian state as envisaged in past negotiations, Bibi twisted the concept beyond recognition and then attacked Mahmoud Abbas for not supporting it. “The armor-plated bullshitter” strikes again.

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