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The GOP’s Bibi-Backing Could Backfire

The only viable path forward for Israel remains a peaceful, if not amicable, two-state solution.

Washington,Dc,,Usa,-,September,15,,2020:,Pm,Benjamin,Netanyahu

Last month it was reported that the Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson planned to invite Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu to address Congress. Details were vague, but the move was clearly timed as a rebuke to the Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who in a highly remarked speech days earlier called Netanyahu a disaster for Israel and the United States and asked the Israelis to vote him out of office. In a ringing endorsement of the two-state solution, he called on the United States to “use its leverage” to move Israel in that direction. 

In response to Schumer, the former President Donald Trump asserted that the New York senator used to be pro-Israel but now sees where voters in his party are heading and has become “anti-Israel.” The Democrats now “hate Israel,” according to the former president.  

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In a tactical sense, it’s easy to see why Republicans like to stir this pot. Democrats are profoundly divided between their “donor class”—nominally progressive, disproportionately Jewish, and very pro-Israel—and much of their progressive activist class, which, after trending anti-Israel for years, has lurched towards an increasingly hardcore anti-Zionism after the Hamas attack and Israel’s response. Of course Trump’s claim that Schumer is anti-Israel is ludicrous, as Trump certainly knows; one doesn’t have to go back far to recall that Schumer sided with Netanyahu over President Obama when the latter was trying to negotiate a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. 

The problem with the Republicans playing their Netanyahu card is that Schumer’s position is essentially correct and Netanyahu’s woefully wrong. While the Republican party is certainly wiser on most contentious issues right now, it would make a grievous error by embracing Netanyahu. It’s precisely what the GOP did in 2002 when it decided that Netanyahu was the man to listen to in the “war on terror” and embraced completely the Israelis' position on Iraq, for the invasion of which he was an influential and seemingly ubiquitous cheerleader. (To be fair, he had a lot of company.) 

An interesting window into Netanyahu’s worldview comes not from his public statements, but from a private talk he gave to Israeli West Bank settlers in 2001; he did not know he was being recorded. The settlers were worried about the Oslo peace process, which, if it led as anticipated to a Palestinian a state on the West Bank, would terminate their freedom to seize land there. 

Not to worry, Bibi told them: “I know what America is. America is a thing you can move very easily.” He went on to explain how he had undercut the peace process during the Clinton administration when serving his first term as prime minister. “I said I would [honor the Oslo accords], but I’m going to  interpret them in such a way that would allow me to put an end to this galloping forward to the ’67 borders,” Bibi explained. 

Netanyahu now states his opposition to a Palestinian state openly; less certain is whether he remains as confident as ever about moving America in his preferred direction. But Speaker Johnson certainly shouldn’t help him. 

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The Gaza war isn’t about the two-state solution, of course, but the peace process failure looms heavily in its background. Hamas is a terrorist organization, which has opposed dealing with Israel in any form and calls explicitly for its elimination. It did shockingly well in Palestinian elections in 2006, capitalizing on Palestinian discontent with Fatah, the main Palestinian nationalist organization, which, under Yasser Arafat, had played the Palestinians’ main card—a willingness to  recognize Israel and make peace with it—and had nothing to show for it: No Palestinian state, and seemingly little possibility of a state, 13 years after the historic handshake on the White House lawn. This is not the place to parse the failure of the various negotiations that came close to finalizing a two state solution—except to say that an accurate reading of record shows that the blame does not, contrary to Washington conventional wisdom and Israeli propaganda, lie exclusively with Arafat and his successors. 

My two visits to Israel-Palestine came shortly after this initial Hamas victory, which after various coups and counter-coups led to Hamas being left in control of Gaza. The Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah on the West Bank remained committed to a two-state solution; there the center of gravity was Salam Fayyad, who served as finance minister and later prime minister of the Palestinian Authority in the 2000s. A University of Texas PhD in economics and a former IMF official, his mandate was transforming the Palestinian Authority from a political/resistance organization into an entity that could efficiently govern. 

It was a daunting task, state-building without sovereignty. I was traveling with an American-based Christian peace group (then, but apparently no longer, strongly and openly committed to a two-state solution, an evolution which mirrors much of the left). On one trip, we spent quite a bit of time with members of Fayyad’s well-educated team, sub-cabinet officials of a government-in-waiting that had very limited authority. Were these people happy that Israel had won a war against their ancestors sixty years prior? No, of course not. But they recognized Israel’s strengths, admired its economic dynamism and freedoms, and were ready to make the best of the situation to improve the lives of their own people. I don’t doubt that they believed if things went well for a few decades—and they were determined that it would—their kids would be able to visit the beaches of Tel Aviv.  

Fayyad and the PA were formally and genuinely committed to non-violence; Hamas is quite obviously not—which explains why Bibi Netanyahu has long preferred Hamas to the PA, helping to ensure the former was fully-funded while exacerbating the weakness and dependence of the latter. So long as the Palestinians were divided, any peacemaking could be kept far from the agenda. 

The Hamas attack of October 7 exposed that absurdity of the Netanyahu strategy and was understandably perceived by Israel as an existential threat. But while almost all of Israel is committed to Hamas’s destruction, Netanyahu and much of his government seem to be seeking more ambitious war aims—an ethnic cleansing of the Gaza strip, and possibly the expansion of Israeli settlements there. Israel is finding that you can’t kills tens of thousands of innocent civilians in the age of modern internet communications without being accused of genocide, a reality that the American strategic air corps never had to confront during the Second World War. 

That comparison raises another: Are the residents of Gaza more or less responsible for their government than the citizens of wartime Germany and Japan? Were there—are there—Gazans who took note of their attractive beach-front property domicile and the great material progress made in the last decades by some of the Arab Gulf states and thought, “Maybe we could do better than being the dupes of violence-celebrating Islamist cult?”

Israel’s war in Gaza and the heavy concomitant civilian casualties are considered woefully excessive by much of the world, so in pursuing this tactic Netanyahu risks turning Israel into a kind of global pariah. This may be the single greatest threat to Israel’s existence: Most of the diplomatic progress Israel has made in the past half century is due to the fact that it is, among other things, an economically dynamic and modern, scientifically advanced and genuinely attractive state, which is due in great part to its most talented tenth of citizens. But these are Israelis who would be desirable citizens virtually anywhere in the world. Many would not raise their families in a pariah Israel. An Israel without them—an Israel more dominated than it is now by religious zealots who believe Israel has no need of friendship from the world’s democracies—would not fare well. 

Israel is not, however, only economically dynamic and scientifically advanced; its occupation of the West Bank legitimately brings into play another word, “apartheid.” A visitor to the West Bank, noting the system of controls put on Palestinian movement, the dual system of laws that govern Jews and Arabs, cannot help but be aware of the relevance of the word. At the same time, as Israeli propagandists rightly point out, the Arab citizens of Israel proper are the only Arabs in the Mideast who can vote in free and fair and contested elections. During the first weeks of the war, many Israelis were moved and perhaps surprised by how readily Israel’s Arab citizens rallied to their state’s flag, although, as the war drags on with increasing civilian casualties and Israel’s government and so-called friends (Jared Kushner recently mooted possibility that Gaza could be turned into  into a nice resort area if only its inhabitants could be removed), reports of that goodwill seem to be diminishing. 

In the end, it is hard to see a viable path forward for Israel that does not involve genuine political empowerment followed by genuine statehood for the Palestinians. Republicans used to recognize this; George H.W. Bush in part lost his re-election bid because he tried to pressure Israel not to build settlements on the West Bank. (The Israel lobby turned on him.) The Republicans who now embrace Netanyahu—and, at this point, that includes most of them—are doing Israel no favors, and, by tying American prestige to the most extremist government Israel has ever had, are doing the United States no favors either.

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