The Bibi-Barack Chess Game

May 21 2011 @ 2:32pm

GT_ISRAELACTIVIST_110521 Rick Hertzberg offers us a graceful, if pessimistic, guide. Money quote:

The President wants to make peace and presumably knows that it won’t happen without a huge and politically brutal American effort. Such an effort would probably provoke the Israel lobby (a better name for which would be the Likud lobby) into an all-out fight against his reëlection. Netanyahu may not be personally and psychologically capable of making the necessary concessions. In any case he couldn’t make them without bringing down his own government, which relies on the extreme revanchist right for its survival, and forming a new coalition with opposition parties like the center-left/center-right Kadima. The rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas, though probably a precondition for an eventual settlement, makes it harder for the Palestinian side to make their own necessary concessions, at least in the short term. Meanwhile, this week’s mass marches along the borders suggest that the Arab Spring has finally come knocking at Israel’s door.

It has indeed been a remarkable week, and as the blog has shown, one that took me by surprise. I saw nothing that new in the president’s speech on Israel-Palestine – just a minimal request directed to both sides based on a settlement everyone knows is the only equitable one, and that has been the cornerstone of US policy for a very long time. But the rank hysteria that immediately sprang from Jerusalem and quickly enveloped the far-right-wing-media-industrial-complex, revealed far more plainly than before that the gulf between Israel and the rest of the world is simply vast. It appears that the maximum Netanyahu would allow in any two state solution are some kind of autonomous bantustans in the West Bank, surrounded by Israeli military and security forces and buffered at the Jordan border with IDF troops. Forget about Jerusalem and the right of return. If this is Israel’s bottom line, there will be no peace, and there should be no peace, because of the rank injustice of this non-solution. More to the point, Netanyahu is no longer on the Israeli fringe. As we’ve tried to document in our series of posts “An Epidemic Of Not Watching”, there is very solid and wide support in Israel for such a maximalist position, and in America, this is what most of the American Jewish Establishment has fatefully backed. What strikes me is the visceral and emotional power behind the AIPAC line, displayed in Netanyahu’s contemptuous, disgraceful, desperate public dressing down of the American president in the White House. Just observe the tone of Netanyahu’s voice, and the Cheney-like determination to impose his will on the world, regardless of anyone else, and certainly without the slightest concern for his ally’s wider foreign policy and security needs. It seems clear to me that he believes that an American president, backed by the Quartet, must simply bow toward Israel’s own needs, as he perceives them, rather than the other way round. Has Netanyahu ever asked, one wonders, what he could actually do to help Obama, president of Israel’s oldest, and strongest ally in an era of enormous social and political change? That, it seems, is not how this alliance works. Moroever, an alliance in which one party is acting in direct conflict with the needs and goals of the other is an unstable one. Yes, there are unshakeable, powerful bonds between the two countries, and rightly so. But emotional bonds are not enough if, in the end, core national interests collide – and no compromise is possible. The logic of this seems rather dark to me.

Netanyahu’s current position means that the US is supposed to sacrifice its broader goals of reconciliation with an emergent democratic Arab world, potentially jeopardize its relations with a democratic Egypt, isolate itself from every other ally, and identify the US permanently with a state that, in its current configuration and with its current behavior, deepens and inflames the global conflict with Jihadist Islam. Netanyahu, in other words, wants the US to clasp itself to Israel’s total distrust of every Arab state and population in an era where it is vital for the US to do exactly the opposite.

And it is absurd not to notice Obama’s even-handedness. It’s clear he won’t legitimize Hamas until Hamas legitimizes itself by acknowledging Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and dropping its virulent, violent anti-Semitism. He rebuked Abbas for going the UN route. Like any US president, he is committed to Israel’s security and is, indeed, vital to it. But all he asks is a good faith attempt by the Israelis to acknowledge that their future state has to be based on the 1967 lines with landswaps. Indefensible? Says who? With a regional monopoly of over a hundred nuclear warheads and the best intelligence and military in its neigborhood, and a vibrant economy, Israel is not vulnerable. And in so far as it may be vulnerable – to Iran’s nuclear gambit – its government is alienating the indispensable ally in this deserved quest for security. This is panic and paranoia, not reason and self-interest.

And no one seems to appreciate Obama’s political courage in all this. Obama seems to understand that an equitable two-state solution is a key crucible for the change he is seeking with respect to the Muslim world, the minimum necessary to advance US interests in the region and against Jihadism abroad. With each month in office, he has pursued this, through humiliation after humiliation from the Israelis, who are openly trying to lobby the press, media, political parties and Congress to isolate this president and destroy his vision for peace and the historic and generational potential his presidency still promises. To achieve this, he has to face down the apocalyptic Christianist right, the entire FNC-RNC media machine, a sizable chunk of his party’s financial base, and the US Congress. And yet on he pushes – civilly, rationally, patiently.

This really is a titanic struggle between fear and hope. What has changed since Gaza is the context. The Arab Spring has, in my view, made fear more dangerous and hope more necessary. The democratic spring – from Tehran to Tunis – is the opposite force to the logic of the dead-end Gaza war, as to the mindset of Assad and Qaddafi.

If Israelis refuse to rise to this occasion, however fraught with risk, then they will cede moral authority, even more than they already have, to those they are still seeking to control. And if they persist in this, they risk bringing about the very existential conflict they say they fear so much. It is the task of a true ally to tell this truth. And to persevere.

(Photo: Jewish activists protest in front of the Israeli Consulate to denounce a speech made by U.S. President Barack Obama on May 20, 2011 in New York City. By Spencer Platt/Getty Images.)

(Wrong caption now fixed.)