Obama, Netanyahu, human rights and Barbie

The impossibility of an Israeli military withdrawal from the West Bank is part of the reality in which we live.

 US President Barack Obama delivers remarks on Jewish American History Month at the Adas Israel Congregation synagogue in Washington May 22, 2015.  (photo credit: REUTERS / JONATHAN ERNST)
US President Barack Obama delivers remarks on Jewish American History Month at the Adas Israel Congregation synagogue in Washington May 22, 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS / JONATHAN ERNST)
The war of words between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is nothing new. But in the past several weeks it has reached new heights. In President Obama’s televised address to Israelis, he framed the dispute as one over values, doubting Netanyahu’s sincerity in creating a Palestinian state. He expressed his concern for the Palestinian child in Ramallah whose rights are denied by the lack of such a state. In arguing for the hearts of minds of Israelis and American Jews, President Obama positions himself as the defender of values. Given the supreme importance that the Jewish experience accords to human rights, American Jews seem inclined to agree with this position, and wonder why Israelis would support a prime minister who seems opposed to human rights.
A look into my house on a recent Tuesday night (May 26) might explain why so many of us support Netanyahu’s government. We live in Beersheba, a city of 180,000 about 50 km from the Gaza fence. At 9 p.m., I saw the news that rockets had fallen in Gan Yavne, a smaller city about 40 km northwest.
“The Barbies need to go,” I told my 10-year-old daughter.
“Why?” she understandably asked.
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She’d done her homework, why couldn’t she play Barbie? My two daughters’ bedroom is our house’s “safe room,” a 12 square meter addition at the back of the house made out of reinforced concrete on pillars reaching bedrock. The safe room is designed to withstand rocket attacks, even if the rest of the house collapses.
“Because we may all need to sleep in here tonight and we can’t sleep on top of the Barbies,” I explained.
She protested. I let my wife handle the discussion, while I tried to seal the heavy steel shutters on the window.
In a rocket attack, we have 60 seconds to get the girls, the baby and ourselves into the safe room and seal the windows and the door. Those 60 seconds are our luxury – cities closer to Gaza only have 30 seconds, and the towns close to the fence have virtually no warning.
The shutters stuck, and wouldn’t move, even with WD-40. I began to panic – we might be next in line after Gan Yavne. My wife is better at mechanical things than I am so I asked her to try moving the window while I spoke to our daughter.
By 9:15, the Barbies were in a heap in the corner, the window was closed and my daughter was not happy. We were lucky – no rockets that night.
But then on June 3, more rockets landed about 40 km west of us, the result of an internal dispute between various jihadi groups in Gaza. And another volley was fired June 6. We don’t know when we’ll get hit, or whether the window will stick again.
And we’re lucky: most families in Beersheba don’t have $30,000 to build a “safe room,” and live without one. As do most kindergartens in Beersheba and in dozens of other towns throughout Israel’s south.
Netanyahu’s defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, has adamantly declared that “Israel will not tolerate a drizzle of rockets.” It’s because of statements like this, and the actions that stand behind them, that we voted for Netanyahu.
The result of taking the rocket threat seriously is Netanyahu’s pre-election statement, which elicited President Obama’s ire: No Palestinian state can be established because jihadi elements will operate in any territory from which Israel withdraws. This statement represents the reality in which we live. Israel withdrew from Gaza, handed it to the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas took control.
Another aspect of that reality is Netanyahu’s statements on May 28 to the effect that in any agreement, an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley and in other areas of the West Bank would be necessary.
In his recent interview with Israeli television, President Obama panned these statements as creating conditions which make a Palestinian state impossible. But a similar point of view was expressed during the recent elections by former general Amos Yadlin, the candidate of Israel’s left-leaning Labor Party for defense minister, and represents a broad Israeli consensus.
The impossibility of an Israeli military withdrawal from the West Bank is part of the reality in which we live.
Our experience in Gaza has taught us that indeed, an Israeli military withdrawal from the West Bank will result in rockets being fired from the West Bank.
President Obama has spoken extensively in praise of the efforts of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to control violent extremists in the West Bank, much of which is under Abbas’ control. And indeed, no rockets have been fired from the West Bank. But all military analysts agree that despite extensive efforts by US Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton to train Abbas’ forces, Hamas is becoming more popular in the West Bank.
They agree that an Israeli withdrawal would likely lead to a Hamas takeover, and to Israel receiving rocket fire both from the West Bank and from Gaza.
During last year’s negotiations between Netanyahu and Abbas, brokered by the Americans, an American official was quoted as saying that “Israel has no security problems.” But this ignores the asymmetric nature of the threat that rockets pose. They are not a threat to Israel’s well-equipped military, and are unlikely to result in a quick collapse of the country.
But they pose a constant and real threat to civilians, to hundreds and thousands of regular families like ours, and to the peace and serenity of everyday life.
They scare us because the threats are real. Despite the American-funded Iron Dome missile defense program, which shoots down 90 percent of incoming rockets, civilians in rural areas outside Beersheba were killed by rockets in the last Gaza war (July 2014). In the previous war (November 2012), a couple from Kiryat Malachi, 30 km north, were killed when they didn’t make it to the safe room in time. We have gone through countless moments of terror, wondering if we can get the kids into the room and the doors and window closed in the 60 seconds we have. When we hear the siren, we know that chances are that we won’t get killed because the rocket will be shot down or land somewhere else. But there’s a real chance that we or our children will be killed.
Shaped by a common Jewish experience, we share American Jewry’s concern for human rights. We would like the Palestinian child in Ramallah to enjoy the right to self-determination.
But our more recent experience teaches us that there is a zero-sum game between Palestinian self-determination and the life, safety and sanity of our children. And in that zerosum game, we unreservedly back the life, safety and sanity of our children, and postpone Palestinian self-determination to some future time. And we therefore unreservedly back Netanyahu against Obama.
If American Jews want to advance that time, they need to think about a realistic deal in which Palestinian self-determination is balanced against the very real threats we face.
Such a deal would recognize that an Israeli military withdrawal from the West Bank is not a reasonable possibility in the foreseeable future. That is not a position that Palestinian leaders like Abbas have been willing to tolerate, and President Obama supports Abbas in this respect. Maybe it’s time for American Jews to engage their president and political leaders on creating a realistic agreement in which limited Palestinian autonomy will co-exist with Israeli military control of much of the West Bank. Such an agreement doesn’t ignore Palestinian human rights, but balances the right to self-determination against other historical American values, like the right of Palestinian and Israeli children to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of Barbie.
The author is a senior lecturer in Land of Israel Studies at a major Israeli university.