Netanyahu Can Be Good for Palestine, but only if Palestine lets him

Netanyahu’s Win is Good for Palestine is the title of an editorial in the New York Times, and the author seems to mean it. As for me, I think he’s right in general but wrong in his conclusion.

The basic thesis is about what you’d expect: Israel will never change policy on its own; the only way we’ll see real action on a two-state solution is if the international community forces Israel’s hand. That is more likely to happen with an unapologetic, nationalist Netanyahu in office than a mild and compromising Herzog. So far so good. In a way, it’s a variant on Malcolm X’s wolf and fox theme.

The white conservatives aren’t friends of the Negro either, but they at least don’t try to hide it. They are like wolves; they show their teeth in a snarl that keeps the Negro always aware of where he stands with them. But the white liberals are foxes, who also show their teeth to the Negro but pretend that they are smiling. The white liberals are more dangerous than the conservatives; they lure the Negro, and as the Negro runs from the growling wolf, he flees into the open jaws of the "smiling" fox.

There’s a crucial difference in that the author of this piece isn’t outright accusing the Israeli left of acting in bad faith, but he does seem to think that the peace process will never be enough of a priority for them that they’ll do much more than pay lip service to it. The thesis is basically just that the status quo is so entrenched in Israel that it’s better to have someone actually defending it be the face of the country internationally than someone who is nominally, but not really, commited to change.

That much I agree with.

But I have two related questions for the author.

First, what makes you think sufficient international pressure is ever coming? Second, isn’t it true that the reason Israel doesn’t have much incentive to change is that the Palestinians have as good as never negotiated in good faith?

In the case of South Africa, with which the author draws a parallel, it was a lot easier to have sympathy with the ANC. For one thing, there was no ambiguity about any historical claims to the land. White people had settled in areas to which they had no historical claim and in doing so displaced people who very much did. Palestinians like to argue that the same is true with Israel, but the situation is somewhat murkier. There is a historical Jewish claim to that land. Now, it’s not a very good one, because it’s so old, and it’s been so long since that area of the world was considered Jewish, and the land was inhabited by others in that time. But however weak the claim is in reality, it’s a step above the white claim to South Africa, which was right of conquest and nothing more. For another thing, where blacks were systematically oppressed in South Africa, it’s not clear that the same is true of Arabs in Israel, and it’s certainly not true to the same degree. Arabs are not segregated by official policy into Bantustans, they vote in elections, the operate businesses, etc. There are Israeli politicians who want to drive all Arabs out of Israel, but the official position is that Arabs who were in Israel at the state’s founding have full citizenship. But the most important difference is that there is no Palestinian Nelson Mandela. It is this point, as much as Israel’s intransigence, that keeps the process from moving along.

None of this justifies Israel’s policies. But it does speak to how much stock one should put in the idea that the rest of the world will one day draw the line with Israel and demand a serious try at a two-state solution. It’s true that international frustration with the situation is growing. But it’s not clear that that frustration will ever reach critical mass. After all, Israel did unilaterally withdraw from Gaza with only a facefull of rocket attacks to show for it. And there was a Second Intifadah right in the middle of the Oslo Peace Accords. And the Palestinians really did elect Hamas. These things set limits on how deep the well of sympathy Palestinians have to draw from is.

The editorial presents international sympathy as though it were influenced always and only by what goes on in Israel. It isn’t, though. What the Palestinians do matters a lot too. It’s true enough that Netanyahu’s win means there will be less sympathy going forward for Israel. But to maximally shift sympathy to their cause, the Palestinians have to change as well. Because the only thing that brings more sympathy to the Palestinian cause than a Netanyahu election win is a Netanyahu election win coupled with real commitment by Palestinians to building a peaceful state. It’s hard to wave Netanyahu away when rocket and terrorist attacks are a near-daily reality. And while the Palestinian cause has won pretty solidly with academics, it’s hard to see it gaining much ground with the politicians who actually make the actual decisions so long as any peace process is a big shot in the dark.

That said, there’s no point in an et tu quoque, and this isn’t intended to be one. Rather, it’s just to agree, albeit in a way the author didn’t intend, that Netanyahu’s win can actually be good for the Palestinians. His win really does set up an opportunity for them to hit the reset button and start over. The Palestinian problem has always been that their leaders argued as though they had the moral high ground while acting like the bad guys. They’ve never really tried making that claim and following through on it. How ’bout now? Because it might be a while before you get another Israeli leader that the international community loves to hate quite as much. Make hay while the sun shines.

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