We Need to Talk About Bibi

Cathartic it may be, but as long as our analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains in this form of arrested development, childishly blaming Bibi for all ills, it only masks the deeper problems and perpetuates a danger for us all - that we learn no lessons and so heighten the probability of making further mistakes. And that none of us can afford.

"The search for a scapegoat is the easiest of all hunting expeditions", said the US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Writing in the Independent yesterday, Avi Shlaim, went a-hunting, and his quarry was the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Here is his case. The central thread of Netanyahu's policy, he argues, is "outright hatred towards the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular." Bibi "does not believe in peaceful co-existence" but in the "never-ending struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness" - hence his war-mongering over Iran. Netanyahu leads "the most...diplomatically intransigent, and overtly racist government in Israel's history" and under his watch "settlement expansion has gone ahead at full tilt," making negotiations with the Palestinians impossible. After a career spent denying the possibility of Arab democracy, "the Arab Spring has proved him wrong," but this "jim-crack politician from a small country" can't seize the moment.

There are a host of problems with Shlaim's caricature.

Far from inciting hatred against Arabs, Netanyahu has repeatedly spoke of his vision of Israel as "a mosaic composed of Jews and Arabs, secular and ultra-orthodox, and until today we have agreed on peaceful coexistence and mutual respect among all sectors." He opposes attempts to unravel this coexistence. "For example, today I heard about a case of moving a woman on a bus. I strongly oppose this. I think that marginal groups cannot be allowed to dismantle our common denominator and we must maintain the public space as an open and safe for all Israelis. We need to look for what unites and bridges, not what divides and separates."

Nor is Bibi a war-monger. In fact he has never taken Israel into a war in either term of office. He has accepted a two-state solution and he has done meaningful work on movement and access on the West Bank. He stood before the US Congress and said this: "I stood before my people, and I told you it wasn't easy for me, and I said...'I will accept a Palestinian state.' It is time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say...'I will accept a Jewish state.' Those six words will change history."

As for Bibi leading Israel to 'fascism' - Shlaim's most ridiculous claim - what did Bibi do when faced with controversial bills to cap foreign government funding for NGOs, tax NGOs 45% on foreign government funding, limit access of judicial review from third parties, and in choosing judges? He rejected every one of them.

Indeed, one may cite against Shlaim a raft of liberal measures undertaken by even the right-wing coalition: from a vocal defence of gay rights (Netanyahu visited a gay centre after hate crime shootings), to the approval of a NIS, five million per annum for its project to promote sports for women; from measures to reduce the level of inequality and social gaps among the Arab, Druze and Circassian populations to increasing the employment rate of people with disabilities; from stepping up the enforcement of labour laws to encouragement for the employment of single parents.

Or how about the work of Minister Limor Livnat who chairs the Ministerial Committee on the Advancement of the Status of Women, in tackling violence against women and the exclusion of, and discrimination against, women in the public sphere? What of the five-year plan (2012-16) to promote the greater integration of Negev Bedouin citizens in the Israeli economy and society?

Netanyahu has spoken powerfully of his hatred of war. "I know the terror of war, I participated in battles, I lost good friends who fell [in battle], I lost a brother. I saw the pain of bereaved families from up close - very many times. I do not want war. No one in Israel wants war." He has called upon Arab leaders and Palestinian leaders to "go in the path of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein."

To that end in June 2009, in a speech at Bar-Ilan University he accepted the principle of a Palestinian state. And in November 2009 he made his most significant gesture in attempt to kick start the process, by announcing a 10 month moratorium on all new settlement construction in the West Bank. Though this did not include East Jerusalem (which is part of sovereign Israeli territory under Israeli law, and therefore beyond the legal authority of the government to stop construction by military order) and did not stop work continuing on homes that were already under construction, or the construction of public buildings like classrooms, it was nonetheless a significant move, correctly described by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton as "unprecedented."

Shlaim claims that under Netanyahu settlement building has been at "full-tilt". That is not so. Bibi made this pledge at Bar Illan. "The territorial issues will be discussed in a permanent agreement. Until then we have no intention to build new settlements or set aside land for new settlements." For much of his term Netanyahu has quietly held back new construction in east Jerusalem, especially after the embarrassing Biden incident in 2009. Between two thirds and four fifths of the population growth in West Bank settlements since between 2005 and 2010 was within settlement blocks which Israel can expect to keep in a final status agreement.

From March 2011, Netanyahu made clear he wanted to negotiate with the Palestinians without preconditions. A further step, first made in private, then hinted at in Netanyahu's UN address of 23 September 2011, was tentatively accepting Obama's proposal that 1967 borders plus land swaps be the basis for a territorial agreement, albeit taking into account demographic changes on the ground.

Sometimes, Bibi is hated for the inconvenient truths he tells.

Here is one. "The greatest danger to Israel, to the Middle East, and to all of humanity, is the encounter between extremist Islam and nuclear weapons." Even if Shlaim was right about Bibi's malevolence, this terrible truth would stand.

Is he wrong to find it hard to trust others with Israel's security? Would we put our fate in others hands? The IRA was not an existential threat to the UK but we didn't let anyone tell us what to do in Northern Ireland, not even the US. If Bibi let's Iran's nuclear programme develop past Israel's lesser military capability to stop it, he will have lost the ability to protect his people. He is then in the hands of the world, and the Jewish people have been there before. Look back at Rwanda, or look at Homs today - too often the world is incapable of action.

And here is another inconvenient truth Bibi tells. There has indeed been an "Islamisation of the Arab Spring movement" and this has placed "enormous pressure" on Israeli defenses and progress in the peace process. That a serious historian like Shlaim can treat the Arab awakening as a simple story of Arab democratic advance is sure indicator of animus driving, and distorting, argument. Bibi has tracked the facts: "We looked at it with sober eyes and we said it might go to the Google generation, but it might not. It might go to the Islamist direction. And by and large it has."

The fact is that Bibi is a complicated person and politician. One Bibi is steeped in the historical imperative of the Jewish people to return to the Land of Israel. That Bibi is obsessed with confronting (real) threats to the survival of the Jewish people. Another Bibi is a party manager mostly concerned with political survival and coalition juggling. But there is also the Bibi who led his Likud party into new political territory by explicitly acknowledging that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will include the creation of a Palestinian state. This forward-looking Netanyahu might yet see fixing the permanent borders of the State of Israel would be a fitting contribution to the future of the Jewish people. The Shalit deal indicates that he, and his right hand man Yitzhak Molcho, know how to close a deal.

Cathartic it may be, but as long as our analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains in this form of arrested development, childishly blaming Bibi for all ills, it only masks the deeper problems and perpetuates a danger for us all - that we learn no lessons and so heighten the probability of making further mistakes. And that none of us can afford.


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