Dear Mr. President, I write having urged voters to retire Benjamin Netanyahu and having condemned his election demagoguery.
Still, I fear your overreaction to Netanyahu’s legitimate reelection is blinding you to the Middle East’s unpleasant realities. Rumors of revenge and reprimand are unworthy of you, your high office and our magnificent country. Dictators punish out of pique; democratic statesmen lead rationally, strategically, constructively.
Mr. President, please do what is best for America, for Israel, for the world, especially because Israel is not the enemy, nor is Netanyahu.
Let’s tackle the most explosive topic, Netanyahu’s alleged “racism,” and by extension, Israel’s. Despite “racism” being the charge du jour made against Israel, you are too smart – and too sensitive to racism’s toxicity – to be so sloppy. Injecting the racism charge into the national conflict between Jews and Palestinians is an old Soviet propaganda ploy. With dark-skinned Israelis and light-skinned Palestinians, the tribalism displayed may sometimes be bigoted, which is bad enough, but it is not racism. It is not biologically based, which Western culture now particularly abhors.
This is more than wordplay, the power dynamics differ. You should reject pernicious, ahistorical distortions that hijack blacks’ noble struggle for equality. Israelis and Zionists are not the seemingly all-powerful whites of America’s South or South Africa.
Palestinians are not like the long-victimized blacks.
To Israelis, “Arabs” means fellow citizens who deserve respect as well as the enemy who triggers fears. Arabs have murdered thousands of Jews over decades. Not every Arab is a terrorist of course, but almost every anti-Israel terrorist is an Arab – that complicates matters, without justifying hatred. Every day, anti-Semitic calls for Israel’s destruction emanate from the Arab press and especially from Palestinian society, sometimes illustrated with crude racist caricatures of you. Some radical Arabs in Knesset regularly (and freely) slander the country that pays their salaries. And in a society where leftists frequently condemn “the ultra-Orthodox” for acting democratically, including “voting in droves,” Netanyahu’s cry about Arabs was unworthy, ugly, tribal but, again, not racist.
Note what else happened on Election Day, the very day Netanyahu behaved so poorly, that proved that Israeli democracy is far from “lost.” An Israeli Arab, the Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, supervised the elections. This week, Israel’s President Reuben Rivlin requested Justice Joubran’s permission to initiate coalition discussions early. Such everyday occurrences didn’t make headlines in Israel because they are so commonplace and were ignored abroad because they disprove the Bad-Israel narrative.
Last week, Arab voter turnout was 64 percent. You were reelected in 2012 with 57.7% voter turnout. Only 36.4% of registered Americans voted in 2014. Did you call America’s democracy “lost”? As long as we’re comparing, remember the Democratic candidate who dismissed conservative Democrats who disagreed with you, er, I mean him, as “bitter, they cling to guns or religion...to explain their frustrations”? Just as you don’t want to be defined by your most offensive, inflammatory statements, don’t lock Netanyahu into his, especially since he apologized. Our biblically- inflected overlapping Christian, Jewish and American traditions cherish repentance. More pragmatically, we acknowledge politicians’ occasional slipperiness. Allow Netanyahu to make amends, for all our sakes.
And note the good news: Israel did not shift rightward, Israel’s Right reshuffled. Netanyahu won merely 25% of the electorate only by cannibalizing the far-right parties, all of whom shrank, while the yahoo Yahad Party disappeared. The Zionist Union emerged as an effective opposition led by a true leader and committed democrat, Isaac Herzog. The Zionist Union, Yesh Atid and Kulanu combined won 45 seats to Likud’s 30, representing the powerful Israeli center.
I, like, you, regret that right-wing Israelis voted their fears. But frankly, you helped provoke them. Many of your actions have unnerved many Israelis, including centrists. You made it easier for Netanyahu’s demagoguery to work.
Now, you and your administration hit men and women are making things worse. Isolating Israel and punishing Israel at the UN will not just punish Netanyahu. It will hurt the Israeli peace camp and damage American policy goals by encouraging Palestinian recalcitrance not just rightist Israeli resistance. Tough love backfires with Israelis. They are most generous when America offers support.
By contrast, international coddling radicalizes the Palestinians.
The Palestinians use the UN to dodge the compromises they must make accepting Israel’s existence and mollifying Israelis’ reasonable fears after decades of terrorism. Palestinians prefer the UN’s sweeping fantasy declarations. Your one-sided condemnations of Israel encourage all-or-nothing one-staters on both sides, undermining the two-state solution you claim to seek.
True, friends with shared values can sometimes annoy one another, but this is ridiculous. Why do you seem angrier at Netanyahu than at Khameini or Putin? Why don’t you resent Iran’s “Death to America” threats? Where’s your thirst for revenge against Hamas’s bloodthirstiness, the PA’s stubbornness, or Palestinians’ constant calls to exterminate Israel? Unfortunately, this bitter Netanyahu-bashing fits a broader pattern of mollifying adversaries and rewarding enemies.
Mr. President, remember your Nobel Prize speech saying, “I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.” Israel must be similarly realistic. In that spirit, it’s time to rebuild. Accept Netanyahu’s apologies and backtracks. Drop your false “racism” talk and insulting civil rights analogies. Recognize your true friends and genuine foes.
Yes, Netanyahu must rebuild too. He might consider using trusted emissaries like your Ambassador Dan Shapiro and his former ambassador Michael Oren to orchestrate a “reset” and prevent any damaging, precedent-setting, policy-making in the UN and elsewhere. But you should examine why you, “no-drama Obama,” find this prime minister, and this people, so pesky, so irritating. How much of this reflects Netanyahu’s demons – and how much your own?
The author, a professor of history at McGill University, is teaching this semester at Hebrew University’s Rothberg School. His eleventh book, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, will be published this fall by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press.