Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bedtime for Bibi?

As a stalwart supporter of Israel, with many Israeli friends and relatives (and who actually lived there for 12 months) I have to say this: I'm extremely relieved that President Obama is coming down very hard on Bibi Netanyahu on the issue of the settlements.

I admit that part of this comes from a personal revulsion for Bibi.

For a thorough discussion of Bibi's numerous diplomatic errors and lapses in judgment, I recommend Dennis Ross' great book The Missing Peace. (I've never quite understood why this book wasn't more widely appreciated. It's a big book -- but it's really well done.)

And more than just his mistakes in governing, I always thought that Bibi was among the more venal and self-interested politicians on the planet.

Shortly before Yitzhak Rabin was killed, it was Bibi who was leading the rallies against the peace process -- rallies which were filled with the kind of bile and venom that eventually coaxed Yigal Amir into murdering Rabin. (For more on this, read Murder in the Name of God.)

Of course, it's ludicrous to blame Bibi for the actions of Yigal Amir. But there were hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of trigger-happy yahoos at those rallies. Bibi happily stoked those fires. And unlike other disgraced Israeli politicians -- Menachem Begin, who left the public sphere awash in guilt; or Arik Sharon who actually put the Israelis and Palestinians back on the path to a two state solution -- Bibi never seemed to learn from this episode or even feel bad about it.

But more than my own personal dislike for Bibi, I also happen to think that the administration's approach is the correct one.

Look, Israel has many intractable problems, most of which will probably not go away simply by dismantling the settlements. I've often thought that the settlements were a club the rest of the world used to bash Israel and not confront the numerous political failures of the Palestinians. But that doesn't change the fact that the settlements are a cancer on Israeli society.

The numbers won't change, no matter how much the Israelis wish they would: Jews will not be in the majority in that land if they hold onto the West Bank for another decade. At that point, Israel will have to decide between being a democracy and being a Jewish state. They won't be able to do both.

And I'm not sure Israel can get rid themselves of this land without outside intervention.

Like every democracy on earth, a single significant constituency (in this case the settlers) has the power to do great damage. The "facts on the ground" make it extremely difficult to reverse course without a big national consensus.

Right now that consensus doesn't exist. (It did, back in 2000. No more.)

I think the only country that has the sway to force Israel into this kind of confrontation with its own political forces is the United States. We can think of it as an intervention: Israel is not strong enough to do this on its own. It needs our help. I'm glad we're helping.