The PM at Bar-Ilan: A damage assessment

Once again Netanyahu proved he is unequal to the challenge that history assigned him.

netanyahu bar ilan address 248 88 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu bar ilan address 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
In his speech at Bar-Ilan University, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu acquiesced to precisely what he was elected to repudiate. US pressure is no excuse for this. Leaders are elected to resist pressure, not to submit to it; to sidestep it, not succumb to it; to divert it, not to yield to it. A myriad of allegedly "pragmatic" arguments can be raised to justify the tone and the substance of his admirably crafted speech. But none of these carries any durable strategic substance. They reflect a clear preference for the fleeting benefits of short-term cunning rather than the enduring fruits of long-term wisdom. Some might protest at this unbenevolent assessment, claiming that in fact it was a brilliant political maneuver, placing the onus on the Palestinians, exposing their "true face" and cutting the ground away from political rivals such as Kadima. But all this is chaff in the wind. Indeed, if the true face of the Palestinians has not been revealed by the brutal post-Oslo surge in terror, by the murderous response to the far-reaching 2000 Ehud Barak initiative, by vicious fury of their post-disengagement violence, what hope is there that Netanyahu's rehashed version of failed past proposals will drive home this reality? And as for stymieing Kadima and co-opting some or all of its disgruntled MKs, does Netanyahu really want to make his government - already the largest in the nation's history - even larger? Is adopting his adversaries' proposed policy to neutralize their criticism really a sign of inspired and assertive leadership? One can only wonder why Netanyahu would agree to accept an approach he has always refused to accept - just when that approach has been utterly discredited and disproved, and when more and more informed pundits - including among the Palestinians - are realizing that it is unworkable. Indeed, perhaps one of the most astonishing aspects of the ongoing phenomenon of ostensibly "hawkish" politicians adopting, once in power, "dovish" policies they previously repudiated is the fact that these policies have consistently and continuously proved a disastrous failure, thus not only totally vindicating those who rejected them, but making further adherence to them completely incomprehensible. INSTEAD OF SEIZING on these indisputable failures of the land-for-peace/two-states-for two-peoples approach to repudiate it, Netanyahu embraced it - however reluctantly. Instead of enlisting the events of last 15 years to delegitimize the Palestinian narrative, he endorsed it - however unenthusiastically. Instead of confronting today's two-state advocates with their yesteryear rejection of the idea, instead of compelling them to explain their dramatic volte-face, he came to them for counsel and co-optation - however grudgingly (or not). Instead of challenging the US administration to explain its demands that Israel accept a policy the US military itself deemed would gravely undermine its security, he chose to accommodate those demands. For example Netanyahu could have publicly declared that he agreed with Shimon Peres who warned against the notion of a "demilitarized Palestinian state," cautioning that "demilitarization of the West Bank seems a doubtful remedy. The principal problem is not an agreement on demilitarization, but ensuring the actual implementation of the agreement in practice. The number of agreements which the Arabs have violated is no less than number which they have kept" (Tomorrow Is Now, p. 255). He could have publicly echoed Peres's concern when, in his (briefly) feted book, The New Middle East, he asked: "Even if the Palestinians agree that their state have no army or weapons, who can guarantee that a Palestinian army would not be mustered later to encamp at the gates of Jerusalem and the approaches to the lowlands? And if the Palestinian state would be unarmed, how would it block terrorist acts perpetrated by extremists, fundamentalists or irredentists?" Similarly he could have endorsed the caustic comments by the Israel Prize laureate for law and former education minister Amnon Rubinstein regarding Palestinian statehood: "Not since the time of Dr. Goebbels has there ever been a case in which the continual repetition of a lie has born such great fruits... Of all the Palestinian lies, there is no lie greater or more crushing than that which calls for the establishment of a separate Palestinian state in the West Bank." He could have adopted Rubinstein's vehement rejection of demilitarization as a solution, in which he pointed out it would lead to an untenable situation where of all the member-states in the UN, the Palestinian state would be the only one with such limitations on its sovereignty. It would be the only one without an army and an air force. It would be the only one designated a "second-class state" and in essence would resemble the black protectorates once envisaged during the apartheid era in South Africa. Indeed, he could have invoked the former senior Meretz minister's warning that demilitarization was both hazardous and futile: "This kind of [national] inferiority - which will never be accepted, neither by foes nor friends - will bring only a deepening of the Palestinian 'humiliation' and with it the perpetuation of the Jewish-Arab conflict. This is the real pitfall involved in the establishment of a separate Palestinian state between us and the desert." HE COULD HAVE engaged the US public opinion and produced the document drawn up by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff under Gen. Earle Wheeler to advise the US president on Israel's security needs, which stated categorically that most of the territory designated for a Palestinian state was "essential to Israel's defense." He could have cited Eugene Rostow, the senior US diplomat involved in the formulating UN Security Council Resolution 242 who declared that this (Wheeler's) document "is useful in interpreting Resolution 242 because it reveals part of what the US government had in mind in pushing the resolution through" regarding secure and recognized borders for Israel. For according to Rostow: "All the studies of the Israeli security problem reached the same conclusion - from the security point of view, Israel must hold the high points in the West Bank and areas along the Jordan River." He could have driven home the point that the Obama administration cannot profess to be committed to Israel's security and then impose on it a policy that even his own military admits grievously endangers that security. He could have mobilized the leaders of tens of millions of evangelicals, who have a very clear-eyed vision of what the significance of a "two-state solution" would have for their access to places holy to their faith - as events in Bethlehem clearly testify. In the final analysis Netanyahu chose surrender over resistance, and in so doing he put in grave danger not only his country and his people but the very rationale of Zionism itself. SOME MAY OBJECT to this harsh assessment but consider the following: Even if the Palestinians reject his conditions, they still will have attained a huge accomplishment. They have extricated from one of greatest opponents of Palestinian statehood acknowledgment of their right to such statehood. Now the arguments will be only as to the parameters of that state and for further international pressure (and from "enlightened" Israelis) for Israel to forgo its insistence on demilitarization and its recognition as the nation-state of Jewish people. But it would be even worse if the Palestinians agree, and some transient regime accepts Netanyahu's conditions, for, as both Peres and Rubinstein warned, how could Israel guarantee they would be adhered to? There is clearly no way to assure that future regime would honor the commitments of its predecessors, especially it the latter were overthrown precisely because of their "perfidious" accord with hated Zionist entity. There is no way to ascertain that menacing military alliances with Israel's foes will not be made, especially if these are informal. And if they were made, what would Israel do? Attack the Palestinians? Their allies? Both? Moreover, there are likely to a plethora of excuses for vacating the agreement on the grounds of real or imagined violations by Israel which would allegedly free the Palestinians of their restrictive obligations. And should there arise threats (genuine of otherwise) to the security of the Palestinian state that did not exist at the time of the signature, who would be responsible for dealing with those threats? Would it be remotely reasonable to expect it to remain demilitarized, shorn of any means of self-defense? Or would it then be allowed to forge military alliances with other states? Or would Israeli youth be called on to shed blood to defend Palestinians in some internecine intra-Islamic dispute. But perhaps the most damaging aspect of Netanyahu's vision of "two free peoples living side by side in this small land" is the devastating effect it must have on the very foundations of the Zionist rationale. For what is to be the fate of the Jewish settlements in the areas under Palestinian administration. Clearly there can only be two possibilities: they will either be dismantled or not. The precedent of the disengagement - with its enormous social and economic cost - seems to suggest that large-scale dismantling of the settlements will be prohibitively disruptive, divisive and expensive. Accordingly, as some well-meaning and some malevolent voices suggest, they may well be left to exist under the Palestinian regime. Should the latter come about, it will reflect the total and dramatic abandonment of the most fundamental tenets of the Zionist ideal. For the quintessence of Zionism has always been an enduring effort to bring Jews, residing under alien, and certainly hostile, sovereignty to live under Jewish sovereignty. This proposal that Jewish communities be handed over to sovereignty that is not only alien, but also very probably inimical to Jews, constitutes a grotesque reversal of the Zionist ethos. But whether the settlements are to be abandoned or dismantled, the message to the Palestinians is clarion clear: No product of Zionist endeavor is permanent. The clash between the Palestinians and us is a clash of wills. Its outcome will be decided by whose will breaks first. Netanyahu's Bar-Ilan speech went a long way to convincing the Palestinians it will not be them. The writer is academic director of the Jerusalem Summit and lectures in security studies at Tel Aviv University.