Over the weekend, the Brookings Institution held its annual Saban Forum, designed to better facilitate the practice of American think-tankers lecturing Israelis on their own country. The forum heard from high-ranking American and Israeli officials, such as Vice President Joe Biden, professional speech-giver Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the main event was surely the “conversation” between Israeli economy minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party and Middle East arsonist extraordinaire Martin Indyk.
Bennett’s challenge was twofold. First, he had to exhibit restraint and treat Indyk as a legitimate interlocutor. Indyk, of course, has spent the past decade and a half representing Democratic U.S. governments in the peace process intent on undermining the sitting Israeli prime minister, subverting Israeli democracy, and poisoning the well by badmouthing Israeli officials to the press behind their backs. The current violent turmoil in and around Jerusalem is a hangover from the failed peace talks. And the failed peace talks were due in large part to Kerry’s team, led by Indyk.
The second part of Bennett’s challenge was to recognize that amid current or former Obama administration officials, he had a tough crowd. That was only exacerbated by the upcoming Israeli elections. Before the last elections liberal American journalists and commentators, whose opinions are considered fringe in Israel but who live in a bubble of unearned self-righteousness here in the States, engaged in a collective freakout over the prospect of Naftali Bennett succeeding. He was projected to win as many as fifteen seats; they projected the end of the world.
Both were wrong: Bennett fell to a late surge by Yair Lapid, and the earth didn’t open up and swallow humanity whole as punishment for the electoral success of religious Zionists. Now there is another Israeli election looming; Bennett is projected to fare rather well; and liberal American commentators and journalists are once again, like the late Harold Camping, marking their calendars for the reckoning.
It was into this atmosphere that Bennett sat down for his on-the-record discussion with Indyk, after which he took questions from the audience. The transcript is here, and I recommend the full discussion, but there are a couple of points worth highlighting.
Bennett’s strategy was to be a forceful defender of Israel without lapsing into humorlessness. He succeeded, and at no point in this discussion was that success more impressive than when Indyk–who took potshots at the Israeli government after the talks’ collapse and was later found to be rambling at a bar to all who would listen about Israel’s perfidy–accused Bennett of being disrespectful to the U.S. government. It was milestone in the annals of hypocrisy, a particular talent of Indyk’s that repeated failure has only sharpened.
But Bennett was unafraid to hit back. He repeatedly made an important point that generally goes ignored in the Western press: Israel’s citizens make their own decisions. He knew his audience, he just refused to kowtow to it. When Indyk kept badgering him about global opinion, Bennett said:
Now, it’s the people of Israel — I want to point something out. The audience here and, you know, these sort of conferences does not at all — if I put a poll here probably Zahava Gal-On would be prime minister and maybe Tzipi Livni number two. The only problem with Israel is that for some strange reason they put the polling booths all across Israel and they actually let the public speak up. And the public, which is a very healthy public, does not think that Jerusalem should be split. It does not think that our land is occupied. It does not want to commit suicide.
Later, Bennett pressed Indyk on the fact that the peace process was supposed to bring, you know, peace. And yet, everyone wants to continue without learning from those failures. When Indyk told Bennett “I just think you live in another reality,” Bennett responded:
How many missiles need to fall on Ashkelon until you’ll wake up? How many? How many people need to die in our country until you wake up from this illusion? You know, the Oslo process took more than a thousand lives in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, and I didn’t hear anyone say, you know what, I made a mistake. When are you going to wake up? When is Tzipi Livni going to wake up?
This will not endear him to his critics on the left, especially in America. But it will be seen as a breath of fresh air to the reality-based community. And when Indyk foolishly propagated the long-debunked myth of the so-called root causes of terrorism that put the blame on Israel, Bennett shot back: “Right, because that’s why ISIS is cutting off heads because of Judea and Samaria. Come on, give me a break.”
One of the most important comments Bennett made was an otherwise unremarkable line about Israel’s reputation. In response to Indyk’s warning of Israel’s isolation, Bennett said that Israel’s government has to learn to change the conversation and challenge the false accusations leveled against its democracy: “if something is false and it’s repeated enough times, it becomes sort of common wisdom. We have to undo that.”
And in this Bennett was also revealing something else: one reason for the rise of Bennett and others on the right is the fact that the international community–including now the Obama administration–pulls the conversation so far to the left that Israel must defend itself. The more the world delegitimizes Israel’s rights, the more Israel will need to put those like Naftali Bennett front and center, to pull the conversation back closer to sanity. It’s ironic that the Martin Indyks of the world lament the rise of people like Naftali Bennett, when they do so much to bring it about.