Headlines today are focused on the announcement yesterday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu of early Knesset elections. Rather than add to the feeding frenzy of speculation, today I want to weigh in, belatedly, on Bibi himself.
Writing two weeks ago in Foreign Policy, Aaron David Miller was right: it's unfair to lay all the blame for the failure of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts at the feet of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Even if Bibi were totally committed to Israeli-Palestinian peace and acting in ways reflecting this commitment, peace efforts might still be stymied. On the Palestinian side, lack of leadership and intransigence are undeniable problems. Regional political upheaval and legitimate concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions are significant competing and complicating factors, as is Israel's own fractious democracy.
And yet, none of this diminishes Bibi's responsibilities as a leader or erases his culpability for policies and actions that have caused immense harm.
Blame Bibi for jeopardizing the two-state solution. With Bibi pursuing his pro-settlement, expansionist agenda, many people are arguing - with increasing resonance - that the two-state solution is dead. The supposed death of the two-state solution, however, doesn't magically generate alternatives for resolving the conflict. Rather, Bibi's policies will only sentence Israelis to a future as perpetual occupiers - a future in which Israeli democracy will be a distant memory and it will no longer be possible to debate whether "apartheid" comparisons apply.
Blame Bibi for laying the groundwork for more violence. Absent even the possibility of a two-state solution, there will be ever-greater conflict and violence, as Palestinians struggle to throw off the yoke of what the entire world will recognize as Israeli oppression. By exploiting every advantage to expand Israel's hold on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Bibi is sending a message that he views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in zero-sum terms, and bolstering those on the Palestinian and Arab side who embrace a similar outlook - but who envision, ultimately, a very different outcome. His policies discredit Palestinians who oppose violence and strengthen those who argue that the only language Israelis understand is force.
Blame Bibi for undermining Israeli democracy and the rule of law. In its zeal to defend settlements and the occupation, Bibi has demonstrated his readiness to twist and trample Israel's own laws and engage in tactics - like targeting civil society non-governmental organizations that promote human rights, civil rights, and peace, and even academia - that are embraced by authoritarian regimes around the world.
Blame Bibi for the growth of the BDS movement. Even as he has ceaselessly sounded the alarm over international efforts to "delegitimize" Israel, Bibi's policies have fueled such efforts. Israeli policies that send a message, "we are utterly unaccountable for our actions in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem," do more to feed boycott-divestment-sanctions (BDS) efforts than any anti-Israel tropes or anti-Semitic calumnies. Support for BDS today is no longer confined to Israel haters, anti-Semites, or far-left-wing activists. As the conviction grows, even among many who love Israel, that Bibi is immune to all other forms of pressure, support for BDS will continue to grow.
Blame Bibi for undermining Israel's alliances. Israel's relationships with Turkey and Jordan have fallen apart. This in part reflects domestic developments in Turkey and Jordan, but, more importantly, reflects the unsustainability of good relations with Arab/Muslim states while Bibi pursues policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians that no Arab or Muslim leader can defend or ignore.
Blame Bibi for squandering the chance to improve relations with the people of the region. The Arab Spring presented Bibi with the opportunity to build new relations with Arabs across the region, founded not on alliances with dictators but on shared values of democracy and freedom. The starting point of such a recalibration of relations should have been found in Israel's policies toward the Palestinians. Instead, Bibi showed the Arab peoples the face of an Israeli government that is more arrogant and land-hungry than any of its predecessors - a government determined to irrevocably alter the facts on the ground in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, at the expense of the Palestinians and of Arab, Muslim and Christian equities there.
Blame Bibi for manufacturing a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations. Almost since his first day in office, Bibi has appeared determined to undermine a U.S. president who won the votes of the overwhelming majority of American Jews (not to mention the majority of Americans overall). Prior Israeli leaders have clashed with U.S. presidents, but Bibi is the first Israeli leader who has repeatedly embarrassed and defied the U.S. president and actively contributed to an overtly partisan effort to portray the President as anti-Israel and untrustworthy. Bibi is the first Israeli leader to take things so far as to be viewed both in Israel and the U.S. as intervening in U.S. politics and trying to affect the outcome of U.S. elections.
Blame Bibi for politicizing efforts to address the Iranian challenge. The Obama Administration has made preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons a top foreign policy priority. Bibi has undermined this goal by treating Iran less as a shared foreign policy challenge and more as a weapon to use to undermine Obama, as well as to marginalize the Palestinians and give cover to his own anti-peace policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In the process, Bibi has recklessly politicized and cheapened the debate surround a vitally important issue and undermined the credibility of Israel's own concerns.
Blame Bibi, because what Bibi does matters. It is possible to imagine a reality in which Bibi had embraced the Obama Administration's peace efforts - freezing settlements completely and entering immediately into substantive peace negotiations, starting from where previous negotiations left off. Maybe this credible peace effort, backed by a popular U.S. president and welcomed by the entire world, would have changed the Palestinian and Israeli political calculations such that a two-state solution would have been in reach. Maybe the existence of such a peace track would have strengthened Israel's relations with longtime allies and become the basis for a positive new interface between Israel and post-Arab Spring peoples and leaders. Or maybe not.
The truth is, nobody can know to what extent things might be different today if Bibi had acted differently over the past three years. But, equally, nobody can seriously argue that Bibi's policies haven't been tremendously harmful to Israel and to the cause of peace. For this, it is absolutely right to blame Bibi, and to approach the possibility of a new Bibi-led government with serious concerns.
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