(Right to left) Benjamin Netanyahu with Yasser Arafat and Nabil Shaath in Davos, 1997; Copyright World Economic Forum

No friend of Israel should minimize the security threats it faces. Yet no true friend of the Jewish state can pretend that the current right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done much, if anything, to better secure Israel’s future in a region undergoing seismic political and social change.

“Is Israel Over?” asks the Israeli historian Benny Morris in a recent issue of Newsweek. “Israel is a deeply troubled democracy,” he writes. The Jewish state is besieged from without by historical enemies and a spreading sense of popular Arab empowerment. At the same time, it is all but paralyzed by bitter internal divisions. The rift between secular and religious Jews is wider than ever, as is the gap between the very rich and everyone else. Younger, highly educated Israelis are leaving the country for better prospects elsewhere. The West Bank settlements, condemned as an injustice by countries throughout the world, are also an economic and military burden on the Israeli state. Meanwhile, alienation is growing among Israel’s native Arab population, which increasingly identifies with the plight of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. “A profound internal, existential crisis has arrived,” Morris writes. “It stems in part from the changing nature of the country, more right wing, more restrictive, far less liberal, and far less egalitarian.”

That crisis is exacerbated by Netanyahu’s notorious bellicosity, which is driven by the need to hold together his right-wing coalition with its maximalist views regarding “Greater Israel.” He has been obstructionist in negotiations over the “two-state solution,” constantly undermining U.S. efforts to broker a resolution. Playing to right-wing audiences in both Israel and the United States, he has publicly rebuked President Barack Obama’s efforts at mediation. This behavior is more than boorish; it reflects a serious lack of political and diplomatic creativity at a time of perilous instability in the region. Israel faces novel dangers as the “Arab Spring” sweeps away sclerotic authoritarian regimes and awakens dormant democratic hopes. Popular government will no doubt bring more public antipathy toward Israel. There is little Israel can do about much of the anti-Zionist sentiment in the Arab world. What it can do—both to improve its strategic position and to blunt the effort to isolate it internationally—is take substantive steps to accommodate the legitimate national aspirations of the 4 million Arabs now living under Israeli occupation or quarantine in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet Netanyahu and his supporters have only increased Israel’s isolation and weakened its strategic position. Its relations with Turkey, long its staunchest ally in the region and a major economic trading partner, are now in jeopardy. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, has become an outspoken critic of the policies of the Jewish state toward the Palestinians. In Cairo, the Egyptian government failed to protect the Israeli embassy from a mob, and a government spokesman later raised questions about the status of the thirty-two-year-old peace treaty between the two nations.

Nor can the status quo hold with the Palestinians. Frustrated by Netanyahu’s refusal to stop the expansion of West Bank settlements, the Palestinian Authority has decided to take its claims for statehood to the United Nations. This diplomatic offensive is also a slap at the United States, which has been unable to wring the slightest concession from Netanyahu. The Palestinians’ aim is to galvanize international support as well as to open the possibility that grievances could be brought before international tribunals, including the International Criminal Court. The Obama administration warns that a UN declaration of Palestinian statehood would be a futile gesture destined to strengthen the hand of Israeli hardliners, and it has promised to use its veto in the Security Council. Palestinian frustration is justified, but it is a miscalculation to push this initiative, and especially futile to do so just as the United States enters another presidential election cycle. No contender for the American presidency can afford to look “soft” on Israel’s security. Worse, members of Congress are threatening to withhold aid to the Palestinian Authority if it brings its case to the UN. That would be a terrible mistake, because weakening the Palestinian Authority will only strengthen Islamic extremists in Hamas.

A U.S. veto would increase hostility toward both Israel and America, while disrupting America’s diplomatic relations with Arab states. Many predict that a U.S. veto would reignite violence in the West Bank and possibly beyond. At this late hour, the United States is trying to find some way to avoid casting that vote. It deserves some real help, not more self-serving bombast, from Israel’s government.

September 20, 2011

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Published in the 2011-10-21 issue: View Contents
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