Diplomatic Affairs: Netanyahu and the world

How the prime minister’s victory was received by international leaders and media depended on how they view Israel and its leader.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi (photo credit: ADNAN ABIDI/ REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi
(photo credit: ADNAN ABIDI/ REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won the elections but lost The New York Times.
But both he and the country could be excused for shrugging and saying, “So what?”
The opinion section of Wednesday morning’s New York Times website featured four pieces – the paper’s lead editorial and op-ed pieces by Thomas Friedman, Roger Cohen and Shmuel Rosner – dealing with Tuesday’s elections. With the exception of Rosner – who explained Netanyahu’s security appeal to an Israeli public that might dislike him personally, but appreciates his security strategy and vision – they tore him to shreds.
No surprise there, of course; they detest Netanyahu. There was the usual pontification and hand-wringing about the type of country Israel was becoming, amply sprinkled with quotes from Bernard Avishai, Ari Shavit and Haaretz editors to support that point of view.
There was the usual diatribe about Netanyahu’s disinterest in peace and the slippery slope to apartheid Israel. And, of course, there was not any mention of any responsibility borne by the unrelenting and mind-numbing Palestinian terrorism for the fact that Israel has not voted in a prime minister from the Left since Ehud Barak in 1999.
Since the onset of the Second Intifada in September 2000, a date that historians will look back upon as a watershed moment in Israeli history, the Left has not won an election in this country. Why?
Has Israel, as the Times columnists and editorial board would have their readers believe, been hijacked by the settlers, ethno-nationalists, racists, Russians, Mizrahim and the ultra-Orthodox? Not at all. What has happened is that the country was mugged by reality.
It was traumatized by buses full of people being blown to smithereens on its streets from 2000 to 20004, as well as by the results of the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 that did not lead to quiet, as prime minister Ariel Sharon promised, but to thousands upon thousands of rockets and a continuous nightmare for all who live in the vicinity of the border.
To understand Israel is to understand the trauma that period has left. It is also to understand the real sense of insecurity – real sense of insecurity, not imaginary – that many people labor under here on a daily basis.
Those living near Gaza worry about rockets slamming into their kids’ bedrooms, those on the Lebanese border worry about tunnels propping up in the midst of their communities, those in the settlements worry about getting shot at bus stops, and those in Jerusalem worry about getting stabbed on the streets. It is not Netanyahu’s “fear mongering” that has generated that worry but, rather, reality.
Amazingly, and a testament to this country’s resilience, that sense of insecurity is not paralyzing, it does not stop life – but it is there, it is in the back of many people’s minds. And to understand Israel – what it does and whom it votes for – is to understand that insecurity.
One cannot understand so much of what Israel does that seems inexplicable to many abroad – from building the security fence, to the checkpoints, to the way Israel deals with the rioting at the Gaza fence, to why it votes time and time again for Netanyahu – without understanding this part of the Israeli psyche. Yet this part of the country’s psyche is beyond the reach of so many pundits bewailing the direction Israel has taken.
Take risks, they declare. Be bold. Be brave. Just make peace. All noble sentiments blithely offered by those who don’t have to pay the price for those risks – risks that over the last 26 years have not exactly led to peace flowing like a river, but to the opposite.
Israel took risks with the Oslo Accords in 1993/95, and the country – 26 years later – voted in a way that indicates they think advocating similar risks now is simply reckless. It is no coincidence that Meretz and Labor, the two parties that held 56 of the 62 seats in Yitzhak Rabin’s 1992 coalition that gave birth to the Oslo Accords, won a combined 10 seats – maybe 11, after adjustments from the soldiers’ votes – this time around.
The third part of that coalition, Shas, went from six seats in 1992 to eight on Tuesday, but it has since repudiated the Oslo Accords, and withdrew from the government in 1993 just before the accords were signed (not because of opposition to the accords, but because of the indictment of Arye Deri).
WHILE NETANYAHU’S recent victory was certainly no cakewalk, the hard part for him arguably begins now.
And the hard part is not only going to be trying to cobble together a coalition government, or trying to somehow unite an always divided country, or trying to convince Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit during the upcoming hearing process not to issue indictments on charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery.
The hard part will also be in combating the types of arguments that did appear in Wednesday’s New York Times. It will be in trying to convince the Democratic Party in the US that the merger Netanyahu forged between Bayit Yehudi and Otzma Yehudit – with its Meir Kahane disciples and anti-Arab positions – was the product of political expediency, and not a reflection of his sentiments. It will be in trying to convince those like Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke that the prime minister is not an anti-peace racist, as the former Texas congressman claimed.
The hard part will also be in trying to convince the international community that to come out in favor of annexing the large settlement blocs is not to put the final kibosh on any possible Israel-Palestinian agreement.
This is all a very tall order, but one Netanyahu – supremely confident in his own diplomatic abilities – surely believes he can take on.
Netanyahu forged the Bayit Yehudi-Otzma Yehudit merger, and made his preelection remark about annexing parts of the West Bank, because he felt that this was necessary to get elected. The long-term hurdles that those decisions created – such as these moves now being used in certain circles around the world to castigate him and Israel – are something he believes he can smooth over down the line.
But even if he can’t, even if Western Europe and US Sen. Bernie Sanders and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party are unhappy with his victory, there is more to the world than Sanders and Brussels.
And in that other part of the world, Netanyahu’s victory was not bewailed but, rather, welcomed.
For instance, US President Donald Trump did not lament his victory, nor did India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, nor did Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. On the contrary, they celebrated it.
But here is the catch – they are all on the Right, and for many that does not count for much, because those on the progressive side want Israel to be hailed on the Left. They want legitimization from Sweden, not Austria; from O’Rourke, not from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; from America’s left-leaning Presbyterians, not the Evangelical Baptists.
Netanyahu’s victory will indeed raise eyebrows in parts of the world questioning Israel’s direction. But among others it will be celebrated, and those others are not insignificant.
ON TUESDAY the Israelis spoke, and their voice should be respected. There is a reason the country votes the way it votes, and has done so consistently now for more than a generation. The electorate lives here, faces the daily realities here, and knows what risks it can and cannot afford.
Israelis are also undoubtedly as concerned about their own souls – and the country’s morals, values and democratic character – as those abroad who constantly fret over them. But the electorate seems to have more confidence in the checks and balances that do exist here and have proven effective in guarding the country’s democratic character.
And as for Netanyahu, the criticism in the Times will surely come across his desk, only to be dismissed as tired and irrelevant.
With all the chatter about Israel’s inevitable demise, he may very well say to himself, Israel has unprecedentedly strong ties with Washington, Moscow, New Delhi, Tokyo, Beijing, Brasilia, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo; its economy is – for the most part – humming along nicely; and on Thursday night it was scheduled to land a washing machine-sized spacecraft on the moon. Are there problems with the Palestinians? Certainly, but those problems have been there for the last century, and the country – though it has not found a way to solve the problems – has found a way not only to live with them, but also to thrive.
“Thanks for your deep concern,” Netanyahu might say to the Times editorial board, “but we’re managing.”
And on Tuesday the nation concurred.