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Carlo Strenger Headshot

It's the Settlements, Stupid!

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Two recent polls show the Netanyahu government's cumulative impact on Israel's standing in the world. In the BBC's poll, Iran took the flattering last place with 55 percent of respondents seeing its influence on the world as negative. After that comes Pakistan with 51 percent and then North Korea and Israel tie for third place (from the bottom) with 50 percent. We are in lovely company, are we not?

The German magazine Stern conducted a poll on Germans' perceptions of Israel in preparation of German President Joachim Gauck's visit here last week. 59 percent of the respondents think that Israel is aggressive, and 70 percent think that it pursues its interests without consideration for other nations.

If you'll ask Netanyahu, Lieberman et al. how this comes about, they'll start their usual mantra: they hate us, no matter what we do; Israel's existence is being delegitimized; these attitudes reflect anti-Semitic attitudes, and nothing Israel does has any impact on this.

Let me start with Germany. I follow the German press closely; I often speak with Germany's political class and regularly give interviews in German media. Listening to the Netanyahu crowd's mantras, I come to the conclusion that we must be living in different universes.

My experience is, first of all, that Germany's political class is not only well informed about Israel. For many, the special relationship that Angela Merkel has emphasized repeatedly is genuinely felt, and they are true friends of Israel. Many of them are also deeply concerned: not only by Israel's settlement policy, but by the anti-liberal laws this Knesset has proposed and partially passed, as well as the attempts of certain ultra-orthodox communities to push women out of the public sphere.

I do my best to explain Israel's complex situation, not only in Germany but in other countries, as well; how Israel's citizens are traumatized by the second intifada and the shelling of Southern Israel; and that they are wary of taking risks for peace after these events. I encounter deep understanding. As opposed to what Netanyahu, Lieberman, Dannon et al. want to make you believe, Germans and most Europeans are quite aware of Israel's genuine concerns and have empathy for them.

They just have one simple question: how exactly will expropriating Palestinian land and building isolated settlements protect Israel? There has never been a good answer to this, and there isn't one now. Netanyahu has done everything in his power to divert attention from the settlements and the occupation; hence his constant claims that Israel is hated, no matter what it does.

The facts don't square with Netanyahu's mantra. The popular travel guide Lonely Planet voted Tel Aviv the third best city in the world, and called it a "truly diverse 21st-century Mediterranean hub." It has also been voted one of the world's most creative cities by Canada's Globe and Mail, and the most gay-friendly city on earth. This didn't surprise me: research data collected in the last years show that Tel Aviv is perceived as overwhelmingly positive.

If it were true that Israel is delegitimized wholesale, this wouldn't happen. Israel, it turns out, is perceived in a much more differentiated manner than Netanyahu wants to make us believe.

Why the phenomenal disparity between Tel Aviv's image and that of Israel as a whole -- particularly considering that Tel Aviv is not the only liberal and open-minded place in Israel. Remember James Carville's immortal saying when he ran Bill Clinton's campaign "It's the economy, stupid"? Well: the answer to the question of why Israel's image is negative is very simple: "It's the settlements, stupid!"

Netanyahu gave Israelis the impression that his speech at the UN in September 2011 was a resounding success; and that the ovations he received at the U.S. Congress showed that he could make the Palestinian issue go away. It hasn't gone away, and it won't. Opinion makers around the world are deeply unimpressed by Bibi's good English and his suave demeanor. No diplomat and no journalist I've spoken to believes Bibi's adage that Abbas is the peace-refusenik. They think Netanyahu is unreliable and manipulative, and that his declaration of commitment to the two state solution is just an attempt to gain time.

To make things worse, his MKs from the Likud party make a catastrophic impression when they speak in the media. Watching deputy speaker of the Knesset Danny Danon's interview with Al-Jazeera is a truly dismaying experience: he stumbles through twenty five minutes contradicting himself time and again; trying to depict Israel as a bona fide democracy while defending the most anti-democratic positions. If you add Netanyahu's catastrophic appointment of Lieberman as Israel's foreign minister, you cannot really be surprised that Israel's international standing is plummeting.

Can this be changed? In the past I have voiced my fears that Netanyahu is burying the two state solution for good, and that we have to prepare for the eventuality of one state West of the Jordan River. But I am willing to heed my colleague Bradley Burston's call to give Netanyahu a chance.

Now that Kadima is part of his coalition, he has the political muscle to go for a big move with the Palestinians, whose leadership would make far-reaching concessions in a renewed peace process, as Ha'aretz columnist Akiva Eldar has reported.

Such concessions include the option of Israel's two-phased retreat from the West Bank, along the line of Netanyahu's new deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz's peace plan. This, as I have pointed out a number of times, would have the advantage of immediately liberating more than 99 percent of Palestinians from Israeli rule without compromising Israel's security.

Netanyahu is indeed in a position to make history, but I am less sanguine than Bradley Burston in my assessment of Netanyahu's character. Despite trying to don a Churchillian image, Netanyahu is more of a tactician than a strategist. He shies away from confronting the right wing of the Likud party, and he is likely to preserve good relations with the right wing of his own coalition, because he thinks he'll need them after the next elections. This makes a historical move unlikely.

I'm sorry to be pessimistic. But I'll be more than happy to be proven wrong this time, and I'll be the first to hail Netanyahu if, indeed, he will turn out to be capable for more leadership than I believe.

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