Into the fray: The bitter fruits of Bibi’s Bar-Ilan blunder

Obama’s recent interview clearly shows Netanyahu’s continued concessions have earned him only condemnation, not commendation; and produced pressures, not praise.

Netanyahu and Abbas (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Abbas
(photo credit: REUTERS)
With each successive year, the window is closing for a peace deal that both the Israelis… and the Palestinians can accept… because Abbas is getting older… [He] has proven himself to be… committed to nonviolence and diplomatic efforts... We do not know what a successor to Abbas will look like.
– Barack Obama, in interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Bloomberg, March 2, 2014
What is really disturbing is that the international community seems less worried about Iran threatening to destroy Israel and more worried about the possibility of Israel stopping Iran from doing so…
– the Dry Bones comic strip, November 22, 2013
On June 14, 2009, at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Binyamin Netanyahu, who just over three months previously was reelected for a second term as prime minister, reneged on an electoral pledge, and agreed to accept what he had vowed to prevent: The establishment of a Palestinian state.
Transformed structure of discourse
True, he had made such acceptance conditional on stringent – indeed, unrealistic, unattainable – conditions, declaring: “If we receive this guarantee regarding demilitarization and Israel’s security needs, and if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, then we will be ready… to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.”
But this is cold comfort. For in the discourse on the Arab-Israel conflict, words once uttered have a dynamic of their own, and their impact frequently extends well beyond the control – and intentions – of those who uttered them.
Thus, by his reversal on the acceptability of Palestinian statehood, Netanyahu dramatically transformed the strategic structure of the discourse. The debate was now no longer over whether there should be a Palestinian state, but, irretrievably, became one over what the characteristics of that state should be.
Whatever Netanyahu might have meant – or hoped – the principle was indelibly established in the public consciousness: Even Bibi recognized that a Palestinian state was inevitable.
What features that state would eventually assume was a matter of detail to be settled in subsequent negotiations.
Genie out of the bottle…
For example: What could be legitimately deemed as demilitarized? What could Israel reasonably demand to ensure its security needs? Who would be responsible for the Palestinians external security? The IDF? Arab military forces? As long as Israel adhered to the long-held Likud position of opposing Palestinian statehood, all these issues were irrelevant.
It is only once establishment of a Palestinian state is conceded that they acquire significance – and their discussion, political pertinence.
Accordingly, once Netanahyu, considered (perhaps, inappropriately) a hardline hawk, gave way on this matter, the genie, was so to speak, out of the bottle.
After all, resistance to conceding sovereignty (as opposed to limited autonomy) over significant portions of Judea-Samaria to an Arab regime had long been the defining hallmark of the Likud party – if not its raison d’etre. Even Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin, well after signing of the Oslo Accords, opposed the establishment of a Palestinian state, prescribing that in any permanent resolution, the Palestinian entity should be an “entity which is less than a state.”
Once the resolve of a Likud-led government on this cardinal principle was perceived to be broken, the flood gates were open for an inexorable torrent of additional demands for unprecedented Israeli concessions, each one more outrageous and outlandish than the previous one.
Pressure, not praise
Netanyahu’s volte-face at Bar-Ilan brought him little praise from the international community or the Obama administration.
Quite the opposite.
Once exposed, his weakness precipitated mounting pressures to give way again and again. And each time he did, rather than receiving any commendation for his “moderation,” all Netanyahu got was continuing condemnation for not complying with the next emerging demand.
Thus, barely five months after the Bar-Ilan fiasco, he capitulated once again.
In November 2009, he announced an unprecedented 10-month building freeze in Jewish communities across the pre-1967 lines. Forlornly, he declared: “I hope this decision will help launch meaningful negotiations… that would finally end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians,” adding, even more forlornly, “We have been told by many of our friends once Israel takes the first meaningful steps toward peace, the Palestinians and Arab states would respond” – as if Israel had not taken a myriad of “meaningful steps” in the preceding decade and a half since the Oslo Accords.
Significantly, he was at pains to stipulate that the freeze did not apply to Jerusalem, stating “We do not put any restrictions on building in our sovereign capital.”
Irrelevance of fine print
This did nothing to save him from being viciously excoriated by the Obama administration because of a routine bureaucratic decision made during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden to Israel, approving an interim planning stage for future construction in an existing Jerusalem neighborhood.
The fundamental lesson that emerged from the Biden-Bibi brouhaha is that the fine print is meaningless. Once the building freeze was conceded, the details of any reservations as to its applicability became inconsequential. So it is with acknowledging the possibility of Palestinian statehood.
Once the principle of is conceded, details are of no interest. Any appended restrictions regarding that acceptability are brusquely swept aside.
Netanyahu appears to have failed to grasp this crucial aspect of the Mideast diplomatic process.
Rather than being feted for daring to forsake long-held positions and risking the ire of his political base, he found himself beset by increasingly strident demands for increasingly perilous or demeaning concessions, and increasingly castigated for not capitulating to them.
No matter how resolute his initial rejection, time after time, he eventually complied – creating greater incentive for the next round of implausible demands and the impatient expectation of continued compliance.
Cavalcade of concessions
During the half-decade since that fateful lapse at Bar- Ilan, Netanyahu has consented to a series of far-reaching, previously inconceivable concessions – conveying that once any issue, no matter how pernicious or perilous, is raised, Israel will eventually give way.
His dramatic about-face on Palestinian statehood was soon followed by his aforementioned, unprecedented, and largely futile decision to freeze construction in Judea-Samaria – which was unreciprocated by the Palestinians, and unappreciated by the US and the international community.
This was merely a harbinger of things to come.
For instance, regarding the release of abducted IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, Netanyahu proclaimed resolutely in July 2010: “I understand the campaigns to free Schalit, but not at the price of the children, elderly and others who will die if the terrorists freed return to commit terror attacks.” But barely a year later, he did precisely that, releasing almost 1,030 Palestinian prisoners, including 280 sentenced to life imprisonment for terror attacks, and collectively responsible for the deaths of 569 Israelis.
Then came the Turkish debacle.
Cavalcade (cont.)
In an news item headlined “PM: No compensation to Turkey” (July 2, 2010), The Jerusalem Post reported: “Netanyahu rejected the notion that Israel would pay any form of compensation… to Turkey for the nine Turkish citizens who were killed in the boarding of the Mavi Marmara as it sought to break the IDF blockade on Gaza.” In early September 2011, numerous media sources quoted Netanyahu’s defiant declaration: “We don’t have to apologize [to Turkey] for acting to defend our civilians, our children and our communities.”
Yet, on March 22, 2013, apparently in response to pressure from Obama on his visit to Israel, Netanyahu again gave way – not only apologizing to the abusive anti-Israel Turkish premier Recep Erdogan for IDF naval commandos defending themselves against disembowelment by frenzied Islamists, but engaging in negotiations for payment of generous compensation to the “victims” of their defensive actions.
The most heinous act of surrender was yet to come: The decision to bow to pressure from Secretary of State, John Kerry, and release scores of murderers convicted for brutal acts of terror, in return for no more than the doubtful privilege of coaxing the Palestinians to enter into reluctant negotiations, aimed at achieving what they purport to aspire to: statehood.
In light of this dismal record of spineless climb-downs, it is difficult to see how anyone – ally or adversary – could take any Israeli position seriously.
Cost of unbounded malleability
The manifest lack of Israeli resolve and seemingly boundless malleability has cost the country dear, gravely undermining vital national interests on both the Palestinian issue and the Iranian nuclear program.
Regarding the former, it is increasingly clear that by bowing to each implausible demand, Netanyahu has made the next implausible demand inevitable – like, for example, Obama’s wildly implausible demand, conveyed via his blatantly biased interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg this month.
As Commentary blogger Rick Richman astutely observes, Obama urged Netanyahu to rush into an agreement with Mahmoud Abbas, “an aging ‘president’ more than five years past the end of his stated term – someone with no known successor, no process for choosing one, no institutions for holding elections… presiding over a society steeped in anti-Semitic incitement, unwilling to endorse even the concept of ‘two states for two peoples’ (much less explicitly recognize a Jewish state).”
And the reason proffered by Obama for such ill-considered haste – i.e., “We do not know what a successor to Abbas will look like” – is of course precisely the reason to resist it.
There are, however, alarmingly signs that Netanyahu will not.
Palestinian-Iranian nexus
Israeli flaccidity in dealing with the Palestinian issue has gravely undermined its credibility, in terms of the credence that can be attributed to its declared positions at any given moment, and its resolve to back them up with assertive action. This, in turn, has severely curtailed Israel’s ability to marshal effective international action against the Iranian nuclear program, particularly in the wake of the fateful P5+1 interim agreement reached in Geneva last November.
Over a good number of years, Israel and, to his credit, Netanyahu, have mounted an assertive campaign to mobilize the international community to prevent Iran from attaining weaponized nuclear capability. In so doing, he has attempted to decouple the Iran issue from the Palestinian problem.
In this he has been right. And he has been wrong.
He has been right in insisting that progress toward resolving the Palestinian problem will not assist in preventing Iran’s nuclear drive – which is fueled more by desires to attain Persian hegemony than to address Palestinian statelessness.
But he has been wrong in failing to recognize that there is an entirely different Iranian-Palestinian nexus.
The Palestinian national narrative and Jewish national narrative are – despite what naïve peace addicts believe – demonstrably mutually exclusive. The validity of one negates the validity of the other.
And the continual Israeli concessions convey a message that validates the perceived legitimacy of the Palestinian narrative – for otherwise why would Israel, as the stronger party, make them? The inevitable consequence is an ongoing erosion of the perceived legitimacy of the Zionist narrative.
Dry Bones and bitter fruits
This clearly affects world sentiment toward Israel and the motivation to help remove any threats facing it. An increasingly delegitimized Israel is seen more and more as an increasingly legitimate target – resulting in increasing international reluctance to contend effectively with dangers perceived (incorrectly) as primarily menacing Israel.
The result has been, as the Dry Bones comic strip wryly quips, that “the international community seems less worried about Iran threatening to destroy Israel and more worried about the possibility of Israel stopping Iran from doing so…” These, then, are the bitter fruits that grew out of the seed sown by Bibi’s blunder at Bar-Ilan.
Martin Sherman is founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.