Barack and Bibi won't mix

All Netanyahu offers Israel is a return to the days of diplomatic isolation and no prospect of peace.

bibi 298 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
bibi 298 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
In a recent article on these pages, I suggested that if Barack Obama was elected president of the United States - which he was - and Binyamin Netanyahu became this country's next prime minister - which, unfortunately, seems the case - then Washington and Jerusalem were set on a collision course. The response from Talkbackland was unanimous: I was nothing more than a self-hating Jew for having the temerity to suggest such a development. This attack on the messenger rather than the message is a long-standing tradition of those on the Right, for they are unable to provide a compelling argument as to how Israel can remain a Jewish and democratic country while still occupying the West Bank and ruling over the 2 million-plus Palestinians who live there. Wrapping themselves in the flag and ignoring reality because it is too inconvenient, right-wingers prefers to slander their opponents - remember Netanyahu's "the Left have forgotten what it is to be Jews" in 1999 - rather than provide a convincing road map to secure Israel's future. With just more than two months to go before polling day, and the parties busy choosing their Knesset lists, the election campaign has not yet begun in earnest. In part, this explains why Netanyahu is riding so high in the polls: So far, he hasn't had to open his mouth and defend his policies. By keeping largely silent, he is able to avoid making mistakes. When he does speak, as in the recent Knesset session in memory of Rehavam Ze'evi, the blood rushes to his head and he behaves inappropriately. While Dan Meridor and Bennie Begin might have deluded themselves that Netanyahu has matured as a leader over the past decade since they left the Likud, there is little objective evidence to support their view. But with an unpopular Ehud Barak, who even failed to garner the credit due him for forcing Kadima to depose Ehud Olmert, and an empty Tzipi Livni as his opponents, these elections are there for Netanyahu's taking. THE ONLY chance for either Livni or Barak to challenge Netanyahu and foil his return to the Prime Minister's Office is to ensure that these elections are fought on real issues, and not around empty sloganeering in which Netanyahu excels. There are three central problems facing the country: the peace process with the Palestinians, the economy and Iran, and on all three issues Netanyahu is vulnerable, providing Barak and Livni take the challenge to the Likud leader and show the public just how little he really has to offer. On the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu's talk of "economic peace" is simply Orwellian. Improving the economic life of the Palestinians is, indeed, a worthy goal, but it has nothing to do with the peace process. Netanyahu's argument that he would not negotiate any territorial concessions until the economic situation has improved in the West Bank is simply a more refined way of saying he does not intend to hold any peace talks with the Palestinians. As Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, himself a former International Monetary Fund economist, has pointed out, the conflict is not an economic one, but a political one that requires a political solution. Interlinked with this issue and Iran is the Arab League peace plan of 2002. When the Arab League first adopted this Saudi-led plan - under which if Israel returned to the 1967 borders, a just solution was found to the Palestinian refugee problem and a Palestinian state was created with its capital in east Jerusalem, then all the members of the Arab League would sign a peace agreement with Israel - it was ignored by Israel. The problem was not just one of the content of the plan - the Arab League was insisting on a take it or leave it approach, with no room for negotiations on the issues - but also one of timing: It was released at the height of the second intifada when there was no appetite in Jerusalem for negotiations. Now that circumstances have changed, there is suddenly a renewed interest in the plan, particularly given its possibility to place Israel and the Sunni Moslem world on the same side against Shi'ite Iran. Peace with Syria and Lebanon, for example, would marginalize the Iranian-backed Hizbullah and Hamas's ties with Teheran would also undergo a sharp change. With a new American president about to take office, seeking a way to neutralize both the Israel-Palestinian question and the growing threat of Iran, the dust might soon be blown off this plan. But with the Likud's new star Moshe Ya'alon irresponsibly talking of the need to assassinate Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, without being slapped down by his party's leader, one can assume that Netanyahu, if elected, will do all in his power to undermine the Saudi peace plan just as he did the Oslo Accords. And as for the economy, now is not the time for a free-market ideologue to be in control of the country's purse strings. While it would be unfair to blame Netanyahu's pension reforms alone for the present state they are in, his enthusiasm for deregulation and as little government involvement in the economy as possible is simply not what is called for right now. This present economic crisis will only be solved by massive government intervention, and not through increasing child allotments just to keep Shas happy. If Barak and Livni can force Netanyahu to come out of hiding to address these issues then maybe, just maybe, today's opinion polls will be proved wrong. Voters, after the failure of the Second Lebanon War and the corruption charges surrounding Ehud Olmert, are right to want a change. It is up to Barak and Livni to remind the electorate that rather than offer change, all Netanyahu offers is a return to the days of diplomatic isolation and no prospect of peace. The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.