CENTER FIELD: Even critics should praise Netanyahu’s statesmanship

'I’m happy enough with Netanyahu’s careful statesmanship to betray the Bibi bashers – and today’s all-or-nothing partisans – by cheering what’s cheer-worthy.'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting, May 6th, 2018. (photo credit: EMIL SALMAN/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting, May 6th, 2018.
(photo credit: EMIL SALMAN/POOL)
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu masters the US embassy relocation, the Iranian threat, the Syrian chaos, the Gaza border invaders, the Russian-Vladimir Putin Rubik’s cube, the Donald Trump tsunami, and his new fragile alliance with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, amid the usual media lies, I confess, I’m glad Netanyahu’s in charge. I’m not happy enough to regret my previous calls that he resign. Had he retired gracefully – with a full pardon for himself and his wife – this summer, with his security credibility intact, Israel wouldn’t have a leader in this wobbly world reeking of ethical sloppiness.
Had he retired then, Israel would have a new leader building a reputation by now – and maybe relying on a still-credible Netanyahu for security advice. But I’m happy enough with Netanyahu’s careful statesmanship to betray the Bibi bashers – and today’s all-or-nothing partisans – by cheering what’s cheer-worthy.
The greatest threat Israel faces is the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah menace. Netanyahu’s policy has been clear: you draw red lines and follow through on threats – unlike Barack Obama bowing to chemical weapons in Syria. Iran is scary. Yet since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the regime has had zero capacity for casualties.
With its economy weak, demonstrations spreading, and US pressure growing – finally! – this dictatorship will continue to try extending its influence by sacrificing other pawns – Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, Israelis.
The Israeli intelligence treasure-drove of Iranian documents further weakened the regime, making it a laughingstock. Once a totalitarian state becomes openly mocked by its citizens, its prospects for survival diminish.
Nevertheless, while Golda Meir suggested you cannot be a Zionist and a pessimist, foolish optimism is for fools. The New York Times periodically runs articles predicting the mullahocracy’s collapse because Iran’s middle class is miserable. Beware simplistic predictions from American observers, and beware what you wish for – Middle Eastern upheavals rarely produce progress.
In that context, Netanyahu shrewdly confronts the Iranians, Syrians and Hezbollah terrorists – while wooing Russian President Vladimir Putin. I wish America’s presidents had shown the skill to contain Putin, because he is only a thuggish poseur. Alas, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump have all failed to manage Russian’s strongman effectively.
In the ensuing Made-in-America vacuum, Netanyahu wisely proceeds cautiously.
Images of Russian-Israeli friendship broadcast worldwide at this critical time provide an important insurance policy for Israel.
Similarly, Netanyahu knows he must absorb the disappointment of liberal American Jews to manage two other volatile files effectively. It’s unfair for American Jews to blame Israel’s prime minister for wooing Trump: blame Hillary, America’s voters, or the Electoral College; blame Democrats’ over-confidence in 2016, James Comey, or the Russians. But Netanyahu’s job is to do what he failed to do with Trump’s predecessor – play nice with America’s president. The far-more-liberal Justin Trudeau also tiptoes around Trump, to protect Canadian interests – as he should.
True, Trudeau seems to be enjoying it less – and Netanyahu’s enjoying it far too much, given how frustrated most American Jews are with Trump and his yo-yo and Yahoo presidency. But just as most American Jewish liberals are more pro-choice than pro-Israel in the voting booth – voting on mostly domestic concerns – Israel’s prime minister and people logically judge America’s president on one central criterion – is he friendly toward Israel or not? On that, Trump’s warmth toward Israel – and his shrewd approach of no longer wooing Palestinians and Iranians but pressuring them to become more reasonable – justify warmth in return.
Finally, Netanyahu and the Israeli army must be resolute in resisting Palestinians propaganda and taking seriously the (often-armed) Gaza rioters’s war cries: “on to Jerusalem.” Calling an inflamed mob threatening to mass across your border “protesters” is like calling a hit man a life coach – both want you to change, but only one approaches the issue peacefully, constructively.
The word “protesters” most suits situations of domestic civil conflict when people in the same polity make demands on others or on the government. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 to make the lines clearer – Israel has no designs on Gaza. It is now foreign territory. Gazans are hostile outsiders seeking vengeance, not injured insiders seeking justice. The word “protesters” evokes the heroic, disciplined, civil disobedience of Martin Luther King, the Soviet Jewish movement, and millions of others. Swarming an internationally recognized border with threats to destroy your neighbor is an attempted invasion, not a noble protest – even if you cower behind women and children. Finally, the word “protesters” implies peaceful tactics – and the overwhelming majority of the people shot at the Gaza border have been Hamas terrorists not Gandhian pacifists.
Clearly, I must apologize for this column.
It’s not PC or CC (Conservatively Correct). It’s not reading from the mandated Upper West Side or Confederate State political hymnal. It’s too nuanced.
It’s not shrill enough about Trump and too tough on Palestinians while not being adoring enough of Trump and still too tough on Netanyahu. It doesn’t feed our black-and-white doctrines but acknowledges the world’s messes. It goes beyond moralizing cartoons and tries assessing the realpolitik choices.
Voters are forced to make binary choices.
Analysts are supposed to be more nuanced, and so, a homework assignment: for Trump-and-Netanyahu-philes, find one thing to critique about each; for Trump-and-Netanyahu-phobes, find one thing to praise. Remember Ed Koch’s challenge: “If you agree with me on nine out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist.”
The author’s latest book, The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society, will have its Israel launch this Wednesday, May 23, at the Begin Center in Jerusalem at 7 p.m.