by Mitchell Plitnick
After Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stirred up some controversy by terming Israel’s recent bombardment of Gaza a “war of genocide” at the UN General Assembly last week, there was some speculation that the Israeli prime minister would come in breathing fire. But all Benjamin Netanyahu presented in his Monday address was the same old smoke.
Netanyahu was expected to rail against the Palestinian Authority leader, but he merely said he was “refuting” Abbas’ “lies” and instead focused on bringing his two favorite themes together: the Islamic State (IS) and Hamas are the same thing, and Iran is trying to fool the world with a moderate president while trying to acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Netanyahu addressed a largely empty hall, with mostly junior diplomats sitting through his speech, though billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and lawyer Alan Dershowitz, both staunch pro-Israel advocates, were also spotted in the hall. There was occasional applause but it mostly came from the Israeli delegation, a stark contrast to the kind of reception Bibi gets in the halls of Congress. Adelson apparently hosted Netanyahu for lunch following his speech.
Bibi has routinely made a fool of himself on the international stage. But what he says often plays fairly well in Israel, and it is always greeted with fawning adoration on Capitol Hill, though that means little—the response would be the same if he read from a phone book. Two years ago his Iranian cartoon bomb visual aid was ridiculed. This time he presented a blurry, unconvincing photo of children playing near what he claimed to be a rocket launcher. Few were impressed.
In fact, Bibi’s speech reeked of a desperation that has been a long time coming. True, the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program are struggling along right now, but not for the reasons he had hoped for. Both sides are stuck on the details of Iran’s future capacity for nuclear enrichment, but both sides are also still committed to finding a resolution. That may or may not happen, but even if talks fail, that desire will remain and no one, absolutely no one, is interested in Bibi’s ludicrous and illegitimate standard of preventing Iran from maintaining any enrichment program at all.
On Gaza, Bibi knows full well that even the Obama administration was displeased by the obviously illegal Israeli actions in the strip this summer. Yes, the US can probably still be counted on to frustrate any UN moves for consequences directed at Israel, but that American view remains problematic as it will only fan the flames of much greater outrage in Europe. Netanyahu would be well-advised to stop talking about Gaza, but instead he peddles the ridiculous line that “Hamas is ISIS.” Again, no one is buying.
Between ham-handed references to retiring New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and demonstrating his lack of geographic knowledge by claiming that Tel Aviv is as close to the Green Line (the internationally recognized border between Israel and the West Bank) as the UN building is to Times Square (Tel Aviv is actually about five times as far from the Green Line), Netanyahu gave the impression of a man with nothing new to say. And, indeed, there was nothing new.
Perhaps somewhat notable in its absence was any mention of a two-state solution. Netanyahu used his well-worn line about his willingness to make “historic compromises” but said it in the context of declaring his opposition, rather than his support for peace. Here’s the full quote:
I’m ready to make a historic compromise, not because Israel occupies a foreign land. The people of Israel are not occupiers in the land of Israel. History, archaeology and common sense all make clear that we have had a singular attachment to this land for over 3,000 years. I want peace because I want to create a better future for my people, but it must be a genuine peace–one that is anchored in mutual recognition and enduring security arrangements–rock solid security arrangements on the ground, because you see, Israeli withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza created two militant Islamic enclaves on our borders for which tens of thousands of rockets have been fired at Israel, and these sobering experiences heightens Israel’s security concerns regarding potential territorial concessions in the future.
So, the lands is ours and maybe someday we’ll give the Palestinians a tiny bit if all of our conditions are met. That, in the Netanyahu dictionary, is “historical compromise.”
But Bibi did present his ideas of peace. Well, not exactly his idea. He stole the idea from his foreign minister, the far-right leader of the proto-fascist party, Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman has proposed, on several occasions, that Israel seek peace with the so-called “moderate Arab states” and then pursue an agreement with the Palestinians. It is, of course, a non-starter, as absurd as closing one’s eyes and believing the conflict will simply go away. But this is what passes for diplomacy in Bibi’s speech to the United Nations.
As with Abbas, Bibi was primarily speaking to his audience at home, both in Israel and in the United States. Abbas, however, won points at home, perhaps enough to compensate for the distaste his use of the term “genocide” evoked elsewhere. It’s hard to imagine that Netanyahu’s speech did much for anyone in Israel. It was a mere recycling of what have become clichés, and, while he did display his characteristic obstinacy, Bibi didn’t come across even as forceful as he has in other major speeches.
One point Netanyahu made has so far escaped notice, but in light of recent events bears scrutiny. He said that “…as prime minister of Israel, I’m entrusted with the awesome responsibility of ensuring the future of the Jewish people and the future of the Jewish state.”
Now, as protests became angrier over the summer, the inevitable, though generally isolated, incidents of anti-Semitism were often, and quite intentionally blended in analyses by defenders of Israel’s massive military campaign. The refrain, heard over and over, was that Jews should not be held accountable for Israel’s actions.
I agree completely. But the flip side of that is that Israel does not represent world Jewry. If a Jew in the US or France or Australia or Iran wants Israel to represent her, she should accept Israeli citizenship and move there. Netanyahu is quite correct that part of the job description of prime minister of any country is the security and well-being of that country’s citizens. But he is no more entrusted with my future, or the future of any other non-Israeli Jew, no matter how strong their Zionism may be, than David Cameron is responsible for Brits who have become citizens of other countries, or Angela Merkel is for German-Americans. They are all responsible for their citizens.
Indeed, the point is even stronger with Israel, which offers automatic citizenship to any Jew who emigrates there. Being of Jewish descent is sufficient to trigger that offer, something no other nation-state offers to descendants of its nation who are citizens of other states.
People can’t have it both ways. If they want to consider themselves Israelis and therefore have Netanyahu take responsibility for their well-being, then they are also responsible as any Israeli citizen is for their country’s actions. Most of us in the global, non-Israeli Jewish community do not want that responsibility, and so we are represented by the governments of our countries. Netanyahu should therefore worry about Israelis—and he’d do well to pay attention to ALL of his citizens and not just the Jewish ones—rather than trying to usurp responsibility for the Jews who didn’t elect him.
Obama met with Netanyahu two days after his UN address. At virtually the same time, the Israeli government was giving final approval to a new settlement in East Jerusalem that is widely understood to be the final nail in the coffin of the long-dead peace process. Between Obama’s barely a mention of Israel-Palestine, Abbas’ much more confrontational tone, and Netanyahu’s mantras, there was little hope left for the near future. If ever there was a time for powerful international intervention it is now. But with Abbas having announced a proposed Security Council resolution calling for Israel to end its occupation in 2016, and the United States having already signaled it would veto any such resolution, that doesn’t seem likely.