In today’s New York Times, op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman tries to come to grips with reality when he acknowledges that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vanquished all of his domestic foes and has built a government with an overwhelming majority and the support of the country’s electorate. Friedman can’t help but be snide about what is to him a disheartening turn of events. He notes that “there are Arab dictators who didn’t have majorities that big after rigged elections.” But at least he has the sense to admit “Bibi is prime minister for a reason. He was elected because many Israelis lost faith in the peace process and see chaos all around them.”
The prime minister’s priority will be to keep the country unified in the face of the nuclear threat from Iran. And rather than spend too much time chasing after the fantasy that the Palestinians will agree to make peace, most Israelis hope he will use his huge majority to enact electoral reform, an idea that has the potential to diminish the influence of the ultra-Orthodox and thereby resolve the problem caused by that sector of the population not doing their fair share of military service. However, Friedman and other Netanyahu critics have other ideas. Not surprisingly, they want Netanyahu to use his power not to pursue his own ideas but to implement an unrealistic peace scheme of their devising.
The bait that Friedman wishes to use to catch Netanyahu is the prospect that he will become a historic figure. Friedman backs the idea promoted by Ami Ayalon in a recent Times op-ed that Netanyahu will join Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion as the most significant figures in modern Jewish history. I’m sure Netanyahu wouldn’t mind the comparison, but he’s too smart to be flattered into doing something foolish.
Ayalon’s scheme is a reconfigured version of Ariel Sharon’s unilateralism experiment in which he thought he could bypass a hopelessly stalled peace process by simply withdrawing from territories that Israel didn’t want to keep and thereby ridding the country of the burden of governing the Palestinians against their will. It sounded like a good idea at the time in part because Sharon’s toughness gave him some credibility when he warned that if the land given up were used to attack Israel, he would undo the measure.
But after Israel withdrew every single settlement, soldier and Jew from Gaza, the Palestinians turned the place into one big missile launching pad that pounded southern Israel for years. With Sharon incapacitated by a stroke and replaced by the ineffectual Ehud Olmert, Israel waited years before responding to the attacks. But the problem was not just that the Israelis waited too long before hitting back. It was that, contrary to Sharon’s formulation, not only did the Palestinians not keep the quiet; the international community gave Israel little or no credit for the withdrawal.
Far from the move undermining criticisms of Israel, like the Oslo Accords more than a decade earlier, the withdrawal only seemed to legitimize attacks on the Israelis as the possessors of “stolen property.” Nor did the pullout create more support for Israel’s right to self-defense even after territory they gave up was used for attacks.
That’s why Ayalon’s plan, endorsed by Friedman, to duplicate the Gaza withdrawal in the West Bank has no support among Israelis. Granted, Ayalon says after stating it will not keep any land on the wrong side of the security fence and starting to remove settlers, Israel should keep its army in the West Bank until a peace deal with the Palestinians is signed. Friedman claims this “would radically change Israel’s image in the world” and “dramatically increase Palestinian incentives to negotiate.” But it would do nothing of the kind.
So long as Israeli troops are in the West Bank, the international chorus of critics will continue to assail the “occupation” and declare that Jews have no right to live in the heart of their ancestral homeland. And rather than serve as an incentive for the Palestinians, unilateral withdrawals will merely confirm their opinion that if they wait long enough the Israelis will either lose heart and surrender, or the West will hand them their victory on a silver platter without any effort.
The vast majority of Israelis would gladly trade most of the West Bank for a real peace, but the Netanyahu majority is the product of a widespread realization that until there is a sea change in the political culture of the Palestinians, there isn’t going to be peace. Until that sea change happens, Israelis are prepared to hunker down and wait while continuing to build their own economy and hopefully resolve some other tricky domestic problems. Friedman may deprecate that as merely “doing nothing,” but Netanyahu was elected to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors, not to duplicate them.