Until this week, the question posed by “neutral observers” about Binyamin Netanyahu was whether he was going to follow the examples of Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, or that of Yitzhak Shamir. Would he transform himself into a peacemaker like Begin and Sharon by uprooting settlements and relinquishing occupied territory, or would he be an immovable object like Shamir, aiming only to keep things “quiet” so he could build more settlements and close the door on Palestinian statehood?
After the start of this week, though, would-be neutral observers are no longer asking this question, at least not with a straight face. Now that Netanyahu has supported the loyalty oath, a referendum on any likely peace agreement and demanded Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state in return for another two months of settlement freeze, the question isn’t whether Netanyahu will become a peacemaker or remain an obstructionist. It’s whether he’ll go back to being merely an obstructionist, or go forward in his new identity as a confrontation-seeker, a national leader who picks fights with enemies and allies alike.
After the start of this week, the idea that Netanyahu will be another Shamir is the optimistic view. The more realistic expectation, the one based on recent evidence and trends, is that he will be another Avigdor Lieberman, only as prime minister.
I don’t know why so many people think Netanyahu keeps Lieberman in the cabinet against his will, that Lieberman is this loose cannon that the moderate Netanyahu has to put up with because of political realities. Netanyahu made
Lieberman. No one outside of right-wing political circles ever heard of him until 1996 when Netanyahu, starting his first term as prime minister, appointed him director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office. Lieberman became Netanyahu’s right-hand man, his alter ego. They saw eye-to-eye then; what ideological transformation has either one gone through to change that?
I never believed for a second that Netanyahu was serious about peace with a genuinely independent Palestine; he’s willing to throw the Palestinians a bone or two, nothing more. For him, a Palestinian state worth the name is tantamount to personal and national surrender, humiliation – he’d much rather die than go down in history as Israel’s Petain, as he would see it.
STILL, I thought that as a man of the world, someone who wants Israel to have “a place among the nations,” he wouldn’t suddenly overturn the chessboard, he wouldn’t deliberately blow the peace process out of the water, he wouldn’t knowingly alienate the world. I thought he would end up doing all that unintentionally, out of arrogance, but not by design.
For instance, I went along with the popular idea that he was supporting the loyalty oath as a sop to the settlers and Lieberman, and that right afterward, he would give the Obama administration its two months of settlement freeze to carry it through the November 2 congressional elections. I expected to be writing a column this week about how Netanyahu had fatally miscalculated – that by backing a law that requires Arab immigrants, but not Jewish immigrants, to swear allegiance to Israel as a Jewish state, he had made such a belligerently anti-Arab move that no one could even give him the benefit of the doubt anymore. He’d let the last bit of air out of the peace process, he’d demoralized the Palestinians once too often, and now a measly twomonth settlement freeze wouldn’t fix things. This time, I was planning to write, he’d gone too far – he wanted quiet so he could do his Shamir number, but he blew it.
That was Sunday, when he backed the loyalty oath. But then on Monday, he went and killed the chance for a two-month settlement freeze by making the Palestinians an offer he knew they’d refuse – he’d agree to it only if they’d recognize Israel as a Jewish state. (With 1.5 million Arab citizens in Israel, the Palestinians shouldn’t be asked to do that, anymore than Israel should be asked to recognize the US, Canada, Britain, France and other countries of the Jewish Diaspora as Christian states.)
Also on Monday, Netanyahu gave his support to a proposed law that would make it all but impossible for Israel to swap territory with the Palestinians – a crucial element of any conceivable peace agreement – by requiring the public’s approval in a national referendum. (Israel has never held a national referendum on any decision, certainly not on the annexation of land, so why should there be one on the exchange of land? This is an old settlers’ scam; they know they can intimidate the public into voting with them.)
So that’s it. This latest international attempt to breathe life into the peace process is finished – and Netanyahu doesn’t seem to care that the world is likely, rightfully, to blame him. He doesn’t care that Lieberman went out of his way to publicly insult the French and Spanish foreign ministers. He doesn’t care that he’s hung another failure on Barack Obama on the eve of the congressional elections, something an Israeli prime minister is really not supposed to do to an American president.
THIS WEEK, Netanyahu reaffirmed his ideological covenant with Lieberman, the settlers and the rest of the far right – and they are riding high. They’ve got a slew of other anti-Arab, authoritarian laws to pass – and who’s going to stop them? The Labor Party? Kadima? Diaspora Jewry? Washington? The media?
Bibi and friends to the world: We don’t care.
And the future looks even brighter: In less than three weeks, the
Democrats are going to get their heads handed to them, and Obama,
barring a political miracle, will become a lame duck. Netanyahu’s only
ideological ally in the world, the Republican Party, will effectively
return to power while his only real opposition, the Obama
administration, will not be able to lay a glove on him anymore.
This government, together with the settlers, will be free to do whatever
they want. Nobody and nothing will stand in their way. Meanwhile,
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is already finished, and
so is moderation in the West Bank.
However polarized the situation has been until now – between Israel and
the Palestinians, between Israel and its Arab citizens, between the
Jewish right and Jewish left – the polarization is going to get worse.
Where is it leading? Without trying to be too original, I think it’s
leading to Netanyahu bombing Iran. He wants to; he’s made that clear
enough over the years. Who’s going to stop him? The Republicans will
cheer him on. Afterward, after the big war, we’ll see if there’s
anything left to salvage.
It’s been a hell of a week. Historic.