The Benjamin Netanyahu on display in the days before and after Tuesday's Israeli election is the same one who has been in power all these years. Right along, he was there for all to see, so no one should have been surprised by his performance. I seriously doubt that anyone really is surprised. Americans who slavishly toe the Israeli and Israel Lobby line may act surprised, but that's really just their embarrassment at having to answer for the prime minister of the "State of the Jewish People."
Democrats especially are in a bind. They can't afford to distance themselves from Netanyahu and alienate Jewish sources of campaign donations, yet they are visibly uncomfortable with his so openly racist fear-mongering about Israeli Arab voters—"The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses." The Democrats' defense of that ugly appeal as merely a way to get the vote out is disgraceful. (Imagine something equivalent happening in the United States.)
Democrats are also nervous about Netanyahu's declaration that no Palestinian state will be established as long as he heads the Israeli government. (His post-election attempt to walk it back somewhat was not well-received.) Life was so much simpler for people like Hillary Clinton when Netanyahu didn't say things like that in public. Meanwhile, hawkish Republicans—that's redundant— are unfazed.
For anyone paying close attention, Netanyahu's racism and ruthless opportunism are not news at all. A few years ago a candid video from 2001 surfaced in which he cynically described Americans as "easily moved," i.e., manipulated. The Israelis, he said, can do what they want with the Palestinians because the Americans "won't get in their way." These are the same Americans who are forced to send Israel $3 billion a year in military assistance so that it can regularly bomb and embargo Palestinians in the Gaza Strip prison camp and oppress Palestinians in a slightly more subtle manner in the shrinking West Bank and East Jerusalem.
With Netanyahu, you really do know what you get, which arguably makes him a better choice to run Israel than the left-of-center Zionist Union because the Laborites share most of Likud's beliefs about the Palestinians; they're just more circumspect and therefore more comforting to so-called Americans "liberals." Saying you support negotiations toward a Palestinian state is not the same as actually being for a viable Palestinian state. Palestinians have little left of the walled-off West Bank and East Jerusalem because of Jewish-only towns built over the years by the two dominant parties, Likud and Labor. And Gaza is a bombed-out disaster area. (Even for many two-state advocates, justice is not the concern. Rather, demographic circumstances make one state untenable for these pragmatists because out-and-out apartheid, which the world would frown on, would be seen as the only alternative to a genuinely democratic state with a Jewish minority. The one-staters have their own solution to the Palestinian problem, the one used in 1948: transfer.)
The prime minister is a sophist extraordinaire; he says whatever he needs to say to gain his objective of the moment. When he ruled out a Palestinian state before the election, in a bid to shore up his right-wing base, he was interpreted as reversing a commitment he made in 2009, after he had returned to power, the same year that Barack Obama took office. The campaign reversal put Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry in a most uncomfortable position, since they had made the fraudulent "peace process" a top priority, until talks broke down last spring, a failure they pinned at least in part on Netanyahu. Once the election was over and some reconciliation with the U.S. government was required, Netanyahu "clarified" his remarks, saying his 2009 position had not really changed; only the environment has.
I don't want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that, circumstances have to change. I was talking about what is achievable and what is not achievable. To make it achievable, then you have to have real negotiations with people who are committed to peace.
I never changed my speech in Bar Ilan University six years ago calling for a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state. What has changed is the reality.
What has changed? Netanyahu probably has a few things in mind. The Palestinians reject a new demand that they formally recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people (everywhere). Decades ago the Palestinian leadership accepted Israel's existence within the pre-1967-war borders—that is, it relinquished claim to 78 percent of pre-1948 Palestine. (Even Hamas has said it was willing to defer to the secular Fatah and the Palestinian Authority). But in a goalpost-moving action, Netanyahu recently added the new demand, something he knows the Palestinian leadership cannot accept if it is to maintain legitimacy (or whatever legitimacy it still has). Such a concession would be prejudicial to Israel's non-Jewish Arab citizens and would favor Jews who have never set foot in the country over native-born Palestinian Arabs who were driven out of their ancestral home and who are forbidden to return.
In other words, Netanyahu knowingly placed an impossible precondition on the negotiations. But it is he who has insisted there be no preconditions whatever. When the Palestinians demanded that Israel stop seizing Palestinian-owned land on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem to make room for Jewish-only neighborhoods, Netanyahu refused on the grounds that this was a precondition. (The Palestinians relented and gave talks a chance, no doubt under American pressure.) But it was not so much a precondition as a recognition that the land being seized was precisely the subject of the negotiation. In what universe is it reasonable for two parties to negotiate over territory while one is busy annexing it and building permanent settlements?
It is this sort of thing that exposes Netanyahu's bad faith regarding the Palestinians. He sabotages the "peace process," then blames the Palestinians for failing to be an earnest partner for peace. (Now he's trying to sabotage multilateral talks with Iran. See a pattern?)
Netanyahu may also be saying the timing is wrong for a Palestinian state—which would be a rump state completely at the Israeli government's mercy—because ISIS is creating turmoil in nearby Iraq and Syria, and Iran is expanding its influence in the region. The sophistry here is that much trouble in the Middle East can be traced to Israel's injustice against the Palestinians and belligerence toward its neighbors, especially the repeated devastating invasions of southern Lebanon. Ethnic-cleansing, massacres perpetrated by Zionist militias at the time of independence, unrelenting occupation of the West Bank since 1967, the repression and impoverishment of the Gazans, and the routine humiliation of Israel's Arab second-class citizens have created deep grievances that are only made worse by Netanyahu and those who support him.
This of course has spilled over onto the United States, since Democratic and Republican regimes stand by Israel no matter what and no matter how many times its government humiliates American rulers. When former Gen. David Petraeus told a Senate Armed Services Committee in 2010 that the U.S.-Israeli relationship "foments anti-American sentiment," he was merely repeating what many other officials had acknowledged before. "Meanwhile," Petraeus added, "al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas…" The attacks of 9/11 were in part motivated by anger over America's relationship with Israel. Osama bin Laden's 1996 declaration of war makes clear that this relationship was at the heart of his hostility toward the United States. Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, joined the cause after Israel's 1996 assault on Lebanon, James Bamford writes in The Shadow Factory. (Open discussion of these facts is discouraged by spurious charges of antisemitism against anyone who raises it.)
So, again, Netanyahu cites reasons for not making peace that he himself helped create or is now perpetuating. That he is taken seriously in American politics is a testament to the power of the Israel Lobby.
Netanyahu's apparent reelection and the egregious circumstances under which it was accomplished should prompt a reconsideration of the special relationship. Although it should have happened long ago, now would be a good time for the U.S. government to end the relationship and start seeing Israel as a rogue and aggressor nuclear power. (Of course the United States is hardly one to talk.) No more excuses. The Palestinians had nothing to do with the Holocaust. Let's have one moral standard for all.
Not that I think it has a chance of happening, but the U.S. government should cease all taxpayer aid to the Israeli government, stop vetoing UN Security Council resolutions that condemn Israel for its daily violations of human rights, and stop impeding Palestinian efforts to set up an independent country (with membership in the International Criminal Court, etc.). The United States should withdraw from the Middle East and enter into a detente with Iran (which is not developing a nuclear weapon). This would have an immediate dividend: we would not be driven to war with Iran by Netanyahu, the Lobby, and its neoconservative Republican and Democratic stooges in Congress.
Maybe Israeli politicians will act more responsibly if they don't have the American people to fall back on. Probably not. But we know the Palestinians will get no justice under the status quo. Meanwhile, U.S. policy puts Americans at risk. This must stop.
This piece was originally published at Sheldon Richman's "Free Association" blog.