Put aside for a moment all of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption, evasions and lies. I know it’s hard. Disregard his divisiveness, incitement and racist insinuations. Forget all the many reasons the man who is trying to push Israel into yet another disastrously unnecessary election totally unworthy to be Israel’s leader, and just focus on one key aspect of his career.
I’m talking about the core ideological argument he has been making for nearly four decades, since his appointment as Israel’s deputy ambassador in Washington throughout all his diplomatic and political positions. If you go back to his earliest appearances as a hasbara freelancer in and around Boston, you can hear the echoes of it even then.
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Watch videos of any of those thousands of speeches and interviews over the years. Read Netanyahu’s voluminous book from 1993, “A Place Among the Nations” (or its updated 2000 edition, “A Durable Peace”). It’s all there – the denial, not only of the real existence of the Palestinians as a separate nation but of the existence of a problem for Israel in the existence of millions of Palestinians under its military occupation. At least not a major problem when put in context of Israel’s broader confrontation as an outpost of the Western world with the hostile Arab and Islamic Middle East.
Netanyahu’s thinking hasn’t evolved. He emerged into the world as a young diplomat with his beliefs fully formed. Israel is facing the entire Arab world and within that world, the Palestinians are an inconvenient but ultimately insignificant nuisance. As long as Israel was at war with the Arabs, any concessions to the Palestinians would just weaken it. One day, when the Arab world accepts that fighting Israel is futile and its interests lay in peaceful relations with the tech hub of creativity and innovation on the shore of the Mediterranean, the Arabs would take care of the Palestinians. Or abandon them. And the rest of the world would accept that outcome.
Revisiting his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, in which he seemed to accept the two-state solution, shows it was just a tactical diversion made under pressure from the newly-elected Barack Obama. The Palestinian state Netanyahu envisaged at Bar-Ilan was coupled with so many caveats and conditions as to render it impossible.
Last Thursday, when Netanyahu sealed the agreement to establish diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates, it became harder to argue that he was wrong. Where are the politicians who promised that only a historic compromise with the Palestinians could lead to a new Middle East? Ehud Barak warned that Israel would face a “diplomatic tsunami” if the occupation continued. Ariel Sharon said that if it didn’t act, Israel would be like the bull about to be slaughtered in the corrals. Activists and pundits on the left in Israel and abroad have been promising us for years that the occupation was “unsustainable” and would ultimately transform Israel into a pariah state.
Netanyahu said they were wrong and that if Israel just brazened it out long enough, the world – even the Arab world – would come around to his way of thinking. Last Thursday has proven him right. Back in 1979, when Egypt made peace with Israel in exchange for all its territory in Sinai, it was kicked out of the Arab League. Last week, the UAE agreed to establish full ties with Israel in exchange for nothing more than Netanyahu’s promise to suspend the annexation of part of the West Bank, and the reaction from other Arab states ranged from congratulations to bemused silence. More of them are planning to follow suit.
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It’s easy to belittle Netanyahu’s achievement by saying that these are just dictatorial regimes and “the people” in the Arab world are still against normalization. But who would the critics of the agreement be dealing with in their preferred version of a peace process if not with the same unelected autocrats?
The trend is clear. Netanyahu correctly predicted that Israel could withstand the pressure and that eventually the Arabs would come to terms with it. He’s not a prophet, and no one could have foreseen the particular combination of weariness, cynicism and fear of Iran on the part of the Arab leaders and the populism, nationalism and isolationism in the West that greatly contributed, but the bottom line is that conventional wisdom has failed. And by the way, did you notice that this agreement totally abandons the Palestinian and was brokered by the Trump administration, yet still received the full-throated approval of the Democratic Party’s Biden-Harris campaign?
Saying that, at least for now, it’s a historic victory for Netanyahu’s strategy doesn’t mean it’s also a moral vindication. The disenfranchisement of millions of Palestinians under Israeli occupation does not become more justifiable just because it now seems even more permanent. But recognizing that decades of trying to frighten Israeli leaders and voters that an enduring occupation would lead to dire consequences for them has failed both as a political strategy and now foundered on the rocks of reality. What’s left of the Israeli left and Jewish organizations in the Diaspora who have campaigned for a just solution now need to fundamentally rethink their entire argument.
Some say, let’s change the paradigm and instead of advocating for a two-state solution, let’s call for one binational state, or a binational federation or some other futuristic utopia. That will shake things up. But these are all nice ideas to play with in think tanks on Western campuses, which fail in the same way the two-state solution has. You can’t convince Israelis to choose a solution if they don’t feel there’s an urgent problem that needs to be solved.
For some, the answer is to double down. Let’s continue to believe that future Western governments will exert unbearable pressure on Israel, that the boycott movement will prove to be more than a phantom menace and that the International Criminal Court will issue war crimes warrants against senior Israeli officers and officials. I’m willing to accept that if this were to be the case, Israel would capitulate and end the occupation.
But you can seriously believe this will be the case in the foreseeable future only if you live on Twitter and think your echo chamber is the real world. Any clear assessment of the actual political trends in individual countries and across the world show that if anything, we are moving farther from such an outcome. And no, the election of a handful of progressive U.S. Congress members prepared to countenance limiting the subsidies to the American arms industry for sales to Israel doesn’t prove the contrary, it just shows where the ceiling is for at least a decade to come. No major government anywhere is about to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict central to its foreign policy.
That doesn’t mean all is lost. Polling still shows that a majority of Israelis and a larger majority of Diaspora Jews prefer a two-state solution in principle. The overwhelming majority of Israelis were not in favor of annexation. But only a small minority in either of the largest Jewish communities to ever exist feels any urgency for solving the conflict.
The challenge is generating that sense of urgency, and that is only getting harder. Threatening Israel with isolation and sanctions has failed and trying to create a sense of solidarity with the suffering of occupied Palestinians seems to have worked only with relatively small groups, most of whom are already convinced.
There will be new strategies and campaigns. Israelis and Diaspora Jews who believe in ending this deep injustice will not give up. But to be successful, there first needs to be a reckoning of the failed methods used in the past and an honest acknowledgment that for now, Netanyahu has won the argument.