“The old template for peace must be updated,” declared Benjamin Netanyahu this week at the United Nations. “It must take into account new realities.” In his speech, Bibi didn’t utter the words “Palestinian state.” That’s passé. Instead he called for Israel and “moderate” Sunni regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia to “recognize the global threat of militant Islam [and] the primacy of dismantling Iran’s nuclear weapons capability.” Once those primary issues are solved, perhaps Jerusalem, Cairo and Riyadh can put their heads together and figure out something for the Palestinians.
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There’s a lot to say about this analysis of the Middle East but one thing is clear: It’s not new. It’s an expression of the same core assumption that has guided Bibi since he entered politics more than two decades ago: The Palestinians don’t matter. They are merely a stalking horse for the forces that do.
Initially, they were a stalking horse for the Arab world’s war on Israel. In his 1993 book, "A Place Among the Nations," Bibi repeatedly compares the “Palestinian people” (his quotes) to the similarly phony Sudeten Germans of the 1930s. As a way of dismembering Czechoslovakia, Netanyahu argued, the Nazis invented a mythical people called the Sudeten Germans, who just happened to live on territory Czechoslovakia desperately needed for its self-defense. Similarly, since Arab countries knew prying away the mountainous and thus militarily essential West Bank would doom Israel, “the Arab regimes have embarked on a campaign to persuade the West that the Arab inhabitants of these mountains (like the Sudeten Germans…) are a separate people that deserve the right of self-determination.”
In other words, the Palestinians don’t exist. They are the creation of an Arab world bent on Israel’s destruction.
In 2000, when he reissued" A Place Among the Nations" under the title "A Durable Peace," Bibi still put “Palestinians” in quotation marks. Since then, he has grown more polite. He now acknowledges that the Palestinians exist. But they still don’t really matter. Today, instead of being a stalking horse for Arab nationalism, they’re a stalking horse for “radical Islam.”
“The issue for me is not the Palestinian problem,” Netanyahu explained while running for prime minister in October 2008. “I think that the conflict has been replaced by the battle between radical Islam and the western world.” Back then, “radical Islam” mostly meant Iran. An Israeli who spoke to him before his first trip to Washington as prime minister told me that Netanyahu said he would push President Obama to focus on the Iranian threat, and defer action on the peace process, because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was peripheral to the real struggle in the Middle East. “There are deep differences between Israel and the United States,” admitted Netanyahu’s national security advisor, Uzi Arad, in July 2009. “Israel is saying, first Iran, then Palestine, whereas the United States is saying, first Palestine, then Iran.”
Bibi dismissed even the struggle against Hamas as mere cover for the struggle against Tehran. Rather than acknowledging that Hamas was an indigenous (if noxious) Palestinian movement, Bibi repeatedly described the group as a “proxy,” “surrogate” and “appendage” of Iran. (That claim grew harder once Hamas broke with Iran over Syria).
Now that America is at war with the Islamic State, Bibi claims that the Palestinian struggle is a stalking horse for it too. “When it comes to their ultimate goals,” he told the UN, “Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas.” And because both “are branches of the same poisonous tree”—militant Islam—Hamas and Islamic State are Iran too.
Having defined the Palestinians as just a branch of militant Islam’s tree (you’d never know listening to Netanyahu that not all Palestinians desire a caliphate), Bibi at the UN proposed that Israel join with Egypt, the Saudis and other Sunni powers to chop the tree down. When Islamic State is destroyed and Iran defanged, they can circle back and deal with the Palestinians. Although what that means is anyone’s guess since Bibi and his top advisors have virtually ruled out the creation of a Palestinian state.
This kind of thinking isn’t new. It’s very old. As George Orwell noted long ago, the best way to justify brutalizing a people is by turning them into a euphemism. Segregationists once claimed that the challenge they faced in Alabama and Mississippi wasn’t African Americans seeking their freedom. It was “communism.” Vladimir Putin calls the Ukrainians resisting foreign invasion “fascists.” For Beijing, the protesters in Hong Kong are “imperialists.”
Benjamin Netanyahu is right to worry about Islamic State, an Iranian nuclear weapon, and Hamas. Each poses real, if distinct, threats. But Israel’s fundamental problem in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is not an abstraction called “militant Islam.” And it cannot be solved in Cairo, Riyadh or Tehran. Israel’s problem is the millions of individual human beings whom it has controlled but refused to grant basic rights for almost fifty years. No matter how much Netanyahu keeps pretending that those people do not matter, they will keep reminding him that they do.