Nov 16th 2011

The Irony of Netanyahu's "Success Story"

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

It is ironic how those loyal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have created a narrative of a success story of Netanyahu's achievements where failure is clearly rampant. They point to the solidity of the governing coalition, the halting of the Gaza flotillas, the failure of the Palestinian UN gambit, the release of Gilad Shalit, the expansion of settlements and the standing ovation from Congress, all while defiantly opposing any of the peacemaking moves proposed by President Obama.

For Netanyahu's supporters this is success when in fact the precise opposite is true. Israel is more isolated in the international community than ever before, its relations with allies have been frayed, it faces unprecedented threats from Iran and its proxies, and an uncertain regional security environment has emerged in full force. Meanwhile inequality and soaring costs of living throughout the country have brought masses to the streets. To be sure, for the safety and security of Israel and its future as a democratic State, Netanyahu's record is disastrous. His achievements are nothing short of utter defeat for Israel as a country and the Israelis as a people, making the nation appears increasingly like a pariah state.

I did not support the Palestinian's UN bid for recognition of statehood precisely because of the expected reactionary policies of Netanyahu and his supporters. We have begun to see Netanyahu's efforts to punish the Palestinians for their UN gambit emerges. These policies will only further undermine Israeli-Palestinian relations and make it even harder to get to the negotiating table and safeguard regional security. Netanyahu has withheld tax transfers to the Palestinians and sat idly by as his coalition partner, Foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, seeks to "Arafatize" Mahmoud Abbas as the chief obstacle to peace. Most disturbingly, Netanyahu has shamelessly introduced expedited settlement construction in response to Palestinian actions as a form of punishment. In reality, these policies only serve to punish Israel, making it more and more unlikely that a two-state solution can be achieved and shaping Israel into the kind of pariah, apartheid state that peacemaking efforts have sought to avoid for so long.

These policies send a clear message to the Palestinians and to the Arab world at large: diplomacy does not work. Rather than supporting moderation by working with the Palestinians to expand their national project without placing the security of Israel or its citizens in jeopardy, the Netanyahu government has done all it can to show that only violence pays. It ignores Mahmoud Abbas' plea for a settlement freeze to return to peace talks, while negotiating with Hamas on the release of Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than one thousand Palestinian prisoners. One would think that if Netanyahu wanted to moderate Palestinian behavior he would support Palestine's efforts to join international organizations such as UNESCO where they could have the opportunity to behave more responsibly and legally, so long as they did not seek singularly to isolate the Jewish state. Instead, Netanyahu has placed the future of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy on hold, while disingenuously calling for negotiations with constructive talks that could lead to a permanent solution that he has no intention of supporting.

Meanwhile, instead of encouraging Hamas to enforce a ceasefire by reigning in other Islamic militant groups while gradually easing the blockade through Egyptian mediation and coordination, Netanyahu chooses the status quo. He refuses to see that Egypt is working closely with Hamas to ensure that the border is secure and the situation is not inflamed. He apparently does not recognize that it is in Egyptian interests - and Hamas' interests - to maintain relative calm. Instead of threatening Hamas, Netanyahu and company should recognize that Hamas has tried to stop other extremist group from firing rockets. They should begin to encourage Hamas to prove with its actions that it can be a responsible player in the region and bolster its relationship with the fledging Egyptian government by improving the situation in Gaza.

The blockade is a stigma on Israel. It further isolates the state by enabling its detractors to point to what appears to be a clear injustice perpetrated by the Jewish state. To be sure, the blockade has not starved the Palestinians in Gaza or led to any humanitarian crisis of the sort. But Israel can, and should, work with Egypt to calm the situation in Gaza and better reward Hamas' behavior in an attempt to improve the current status quo which is volatile, unpredictable and risky for Israel. Unfortunately, this status quo suits Netanyahu while endangering Israel's citizens.

Furthermore, instead of looking for ways to maintain and enhance the security arrangements with the Palestinian Authority and build on it, Netanyahu and his cohorts are jeopardizing Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation through their own misdeeds. It takes the uniquely Israeli chutzpa (naked audacity) to demand further moderation in Palestinians' behavior when settlement construction continues and further expands. Does this government ever connect the continued occupation with the Palestinian's growing frustrations, desperation and despondency? Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent in the territories in projects to serve the ultra-Orthodox and right-wing ideologues. Not only are these resources being squandered at the expense of ordinary Israelis living and serving their nation, but these government policies which cater to religious zealots are making Israel increasingly resemble its arch-enemy, Iran.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis protest against the unaffordable cost of living, economic inequality and other social inequalities. But where are the Israelis demanding an end to the debilitating occupation that has, and continues to, sap Israel's financial recourse and bankrupt its moral standing? Where are the opposition parties such as Kadima? Netanyahu is unlikely to lose his hold on power in this political environment when there is no opposition that offers a sound alternative to Netanyahu's perilous policies.

Meanwhile the considerable threat from Iran will increasingly capture headlines and distract the Israeli public from the Palestinian question. The new revelations made by the International Atomic and Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran is clearly advancing toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons which, from the Israeli perspective represents an existential threat, should also provide the Netanyahu government with the incentive to reach an understanding with the Palestinians. However small or large the potential of conflagration between Israel and Iran may be, it would be in Israel's best interests to focus on Iran and prevent the emergence of a new front in Gaza that could sap much of its military resources when it needs them the most.

This is a shameful state of affairs. The inevitable spark of violence - which could occur at any moment-will only serve to embolden Netanyahu's hardened positions and he will be quick to say, "I told you so." He will sidestep any blame for the deteriorating conditions and he will claim another "success" in not making any diplomatic efforts towards ending the conflict with the Palestinians.

The current status quo, which Netanyahu holds dear, is extremely dangerous for Israel. Violent conflict, whether with the Palestinians or Iran, could substantially change the equation to Israel's detriment, What is needed now is an actual vision for removing Israel from its current path to despair, with Netanyahu's arrogance and intransigence being the first things to go.

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