Point: In Israel, little will change; in US-Israeli relations, stay tuned


by Michael Rubin
Foreign and Defense PolicyMiddle East

September 26, 2019

Days appear numbered for Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Arrogance, vendettas and corruption accusations appear to have taken their toll as Benny Gantz, a former Israeli general, squeaked past Netanyahu’s party in the election.

Progressives rejoiced. “Netanyahu is a corrupt authoritarian who tried to control the media, broke laws, and is left with no play other than lying and lashing out to stay out of prison. Israelis deserve better,” Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, tweeted. Sara Leah Whitson, executive director for the Middle East at Human Rights Watch, celebrated, calling Netanyahu’s apparent defeat, “Hopefully a harbinger for the end of racist extremist rulers the world over!”

Netanyahu may be on his way out, but if his American opponents believe that his successors would pursue different policies, they do not understand Israel’s democracy.

Within Israeli society, Netanyahu resolved two-decades-old debates: First as finance minister and then as prime minister, he closed the door on socialism and set the seeds for Israel to become the “start-up nation.” The Israeli economy boomed, bureaucracy shrank, and almost all Israelis benefited. Many left-of-center Israeli parties dug in their heels and refused to acknowledge the debate’s end. Today, their regressive economic philosophy drags down the Israeli left as much as disputes over peace process posture.

The greater issue, however, is that Israelis consider the debate over security policy closed as well. When I taught Iranian history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 2001-2002, attacks interrupted almost every class, as sirens followed by text messages recalled students to hospitals, military bases or forensic units.

Many Israelis recall that period as the nadir of Israeli security. Bombs devastated pizzerias, bars, buses and hotels, killing hundreds of civilians. The West Bank barrier effectively ended the terror campaign. Progressives may conflate it with Donald Trump’s border wall, but there is broad consensus in Israeli society that walls work. Indeed, conservative Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, another lightening rod for the progressive left, might have claimed credit for the wall, but it was actually the idea of Yitzhak Rabin, the left-of-center Israeli prime minister and Nobel laureate who was later assassinated. Neither Israeli left nor right dispute the walls’ success; rather, their main dispute is who gets credit for it.

Israelis, too, are largely of one mind with regard to the futility of the land-for-peace formula. In 2005, Sharon returned the Gaza Strip in its entirety. Palestinians razed the green houses and other economic infrastructure, and transformed Gaza into a launchpad for terrorism, which did more to further cycles of violence than enable peace.

Many Democrats blame Netanyahu for peace process demise after Netanyahu rejected Obama’s 2009 call for a full settlement freeze and hope a new prime minister might reverse course and jumpstart the peace process. This too is naive. Israelis differentiate between isolated outposts and so-called natural growth – adding apartments within existing towns or rooms to existing houses. Many also believe that, since the West Bank is technically disputed rather than occupied, Palestinian construction should likewise be regulated.

The simple reality is that Palestinian rejectionism rather than settlements are the real reason for diplomatic stalemate: First in 2000 and then in 2008, Israeli prime ministers offered the Palestinian Authority independence in exchange for peace. Even Palestinian negotiators acknowledge that Ehud Olmert’s last offer was, in area, more than the entire West Bank. Palestinian leaders rejected both offers without any counteroffer, convincing Israelis that Palestinians simply would accept no peace, no matter how generous. Netanyahu’s departure will not change that.

Netanyahu’s real legacy in U.S.-Israeli ties will be different. Whereas support for Israel was once American consensus, Netanyahu’s arrogance accelerated the progressive tilt away from the Jewish state. Too many transposed hatred of Netanyahu upon Israel. Today, Democrats – especially young ones – are far more hostile to Israel and its partnership with America than their parents or peers across the aisle.

Gantz would never steer Israel away from Netanyahu’s economic or security policies, but he would steer Israel away from Netanyahu. Whether it is too late to reverse the damage the last decade of Netanyahu did in Congress, however, is another question entirely