Is Netanyahu the Jewish Arafat?

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September 29, 2010

Is Netanyahu the Jewish Arafat? Before you start calling me a self-hating anti-Zionist Jew, let me explain. After many months, even years, of effort, the Israelis and the Palestinians have agreed to sit down and talk again. This time, there really is a chance, against all odds, that an agreement can be reached. This time around, talks not only have the backing of the US, the EU, and Russia but the blessing of the Arab League, the same Arab League that issued its famous four “no’s” in Khartoum in 1967. However, the main reason for hope is Palestinian Authority leader, Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas has made it almost impossible for the Israelis to claim there is “no partner for peace.” His Palestinian Authority has taken control of large enclaves of the West Bank, policing its borders and containing its population quite successfully. Even the IDF admits that. Abbas recently slapped down Iran’s Ahmadinejad, quite a courageous move, telling him, essentially, that Palestinian self-determination is not his business. And Abbas has shown a willingness to continue negotiating, even as Netanyahu lifted the settlement construction freeze.

Abbas cannot continue his side of the talks, however, if Netanyahu keeps building in the West Bank. The Palestinians began these talks with the reasonable condition that the ten-month construction freeze in the settlements be extended. In fact—as both Palestinians and Israelis know—this freeze has not prevented new Israeli construction on the West Bank: Dror Etkes recently used data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics to prove that the freeze has been a sham, as construction has been going on all along (“Settlement Freeze? It was Barely a Slowdown” Ha’aretz September 28, 2010). Abbas knows this, yet has turned a blind eye to continued building on the ground. Abbas is not asking for the dismantling of settlements that even Israel deems “illegal.” All Abbas is really asking for is a political gesture from Israel.

Here is where Netanyahu is acting like an Israeli Arafat. I understand why the settlers are against the freeze. Many settlers don’t want a two-state solution, at least not one that would require any significant dismantling of settlements. The settlers are supported by a number of political parties in Israel, including Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu, which are key to Netanyahu’s governing coalition. If Netanyahu bucks the settlers, he risks losing his governing coalition, and thus his post as primer minister.

However, the essence of peace negotiations is a willingness by both parties to negotiate. One reason the Camp David II process failed was because Israel did not have a negotiating partner. Now, Abbas has come to the table. Abbas has given up the armed struggle as a principle of Palestinian self-determination and has stated unequivocally that he is in favor of a two-state solution–both of which positions Arafat did not, and could not, embrace. Netanyahu, however, is now the one hanging back. Netanyahu is being asked to do something quite insignificant: continue the settlement freeze for another six months, during which time Abbas claims the two sides can reach an agreement. And yet, Netanyahu will not and it seems, cannot, take this small step.

Arafat also was asked to give up something to come to the table. He was asked to do much more than Netanyahu—Arafat was asked to publicly abandon the Palestinian armed struggle. He had much to gain in doing so. But he just couldn’t do it. He had the ability to be a leader, but not the courage to be a hero. He died on the wrong side of history.

Netanyahu has argued that if he concedes to a settlement freeze, his government will fall. Perhaps this is true. But men of courage who want to do what no others have done are not stopped by the trials of political expediency. Begin and Sadat weren’t. Neither was Rabin. They all paid dearly for their efforts. But they remain names that are mentioned with some sense of reverence and even respect. Arafat is not, even among many Palestinians. And right now, neither is Netanyahu.

For such a small gesture, Israel stands to gain a significant pay-off. If Netanyahu faced down the settlers and acted with the courage of his words, the world would respond (even Sharon, no “man of peace,” had the courage to face down his internal opponents). Now every single country that has chimed in has criticized Israel. Every single one. Abbas and the Palestinian cause have benefitted tremendously from Netanyahu’s weakness. It is now Israel who is being suspect of not being a “partner for peace,” notwithstanding Netanyahu’s largely vacuous speech at the UN (a speech that was strikingly reminiscent of Arafat’s “peace of the brave” speeches of old). For example, the day after Netanyahu’s speech, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman addressed the UN Assembly with his proposal of a “land swap” that is different only in degree from Meir Kahane’s 1980’s policy of “transfer,” a policy that resulted in the Knesset determining Kahane’s party to be “racist” and thus illegal. Netanyahu responded that he does not disagree with Lieberman “in principle.” Such a response is reminiscent of Arafat’s double-talk.

To those who say that Israel needs the new housing, well, why doesn’t Netanyahu begin large-scale construction projects inside the Green Line, in the Galilee and the Negev? There is still plenty of room inside Israel.

However, no one outside the Jewish enclaves of the West Bank and their supporters really believes that settlement building is about population growth and the need for housing; it is about a sector of society that doesn’t want a peace deal, not if it means a two-state solution that would require the evacuation of some settlements. Arafat could not face down the more radical and intransigent elements in his constituency. He could not re-think the structure of his cause and enact policies to bring about substantive change. His failure to do so was a personality flaw, a tragic constitutional blemish.

Netanyahu can stand at the podium in the UN and talk about Auschwitz and Israel for the next ten years and it would not matter. He is proving by his action, or in-action, that he does not have what it takes to be a courageous leader. Like Arafat, Netanyahu is on the wrong side of history. Unlike Arafat, he is still alive. The clock ticks.

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