Israelis are stunned by the fact that the world has grown to think of Hamas as the righteous victim and of Israel as the evil aggressor. This perception of Israel is false and malicious, but it does not mean that Israel bears no responsibility for it. Yes, there is a lot of anti-Semitism in the world. Yes, there are unfair biases against the Jewish state. But Israel has been feeding them. So long as Israel’s government continues to settle in the West Bank, no one—not even Israel’s American friends—will believe that Netanyahu seeks peace. So long as Israel seems to be bent on making its occupation permanent, on holding a whole population under military rule without basic political rights indefinitely, it will be increasingly ostracized by the international community.
Today, Israel is not the belligerent party in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is Israel that has offered partition, and the Palestinians who have consistently refused it. Netanyahu inherited a winning hand. He could have put a peace plan on the table, leaving the Palestinians to refuse it. He could have declared that Israel wanted to withdraw from the West Bank and would do so if its security was guaranteed by an agreement with the Palestinians or a third party. He could have offered state housing help for those who would leave the settlements even before an agreement. Instead, he mumbled something half-heartedly about two states, and then moved on to fight for enlarging settlements.
As far as it goes, this is great stuff. But I think Chait’s enthusiasm for the analysis reflects the main pathology of mainstream American Jewish thinking on the subject—a bizarre willingness to believe that Israeli politicians are bafflingly stupid. I mean, yes of course nobody will believe that Netanyahu seeks peace as long as his top priority is to expand settlements. Yes of course if Israel wants the world to believe that Israel holds the moral high ground it should unambiguously offer to renounce occupation. Yes of course if it’s really true that the Palestinians are hell-bent on refusing reasonable peace offers Israel should expose this fact. But that’s just to say that the current Israeli government isn’t seeking peace—it’s seeking settlements.
These aren’t tactical blunders, they’re substantive commitments. And they’re appalling ones. We just had a nice nationwide Two Minute Hate over Helen Thomas’ desire to purge Israel/Palestine of its Jewish population, but her vision and Netanyahu’s are nearly mirror images.
For domestic consumption in Israel, it’s fine to see Taub-style narratives. Progress is made by letting people align “doing the right thing” with their own nationalistic mythologies, and his piece works in that regard. But in terms of America’s policy in the region, it’s necessary for policymakers to be clear-eyed about what’s happening and not have the White House and State Department hamstrung by congress and external pressure groups demanding that Netanyahu be treated with kid gloves or that we all participate in a myth about a sincere search for peace. If Israel’s leaders would rather have the West Bank than have peace, then there’s only so much we can do about that. But it would be foolish of us not to readjust our relationship accordingly.
Chait responds here and seems to agree that we should regard Netanyahu as ill-intentioned. My followup question is what follows from that? Shouldn’t it have some implications for American policy if the government of Israel prefers seizing West Bank land to making peace?