The Moral Failure of Benjamin Netanyahu

It was all leading to this – the youth spent in the US, the education at MIT, the years honed as Israel’s top diplomat – speaking before the United States Congress, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu finally experienced his moment in the Beltway sun. Regaling his august audience with history lessons, military escapades and self-congratulatory rhetoric, Mr. Netanyahu held his listeners in rapt attention. Indeed, with 29 standing ovations, incessant clapping and over-the-top adulations, the Prime Minister turned the US Congress into a hysterical audience resembling an Oprah Winfrey’s give-away special. By the time his speech was over, Mr. Netanyahu had both democrats and republicans singing, “Bibi bibi bibi can’t you see, sometimes your words just hypnotize me.”

But the hypnosis will eventually wear off, and when it does congress will have to face an unpleasant reality: Mr. Netanyahu had sold them a bill of goods rotten to the core. And everybody can smell its pungent stench.

Mr. Netanyahu’s speech, despite his pontification on the dignity of democracy and disaster of Islamism (with a particular focus on Iran), was really about the peace process. Presenting the world his vision of a two-state solution, Mr. Netanyahu “generously” offered the Palestinians (on the condition they accept Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people) a demilitarized state in which Israel has sole sovereignty over a (“united and free”) Jerusalem, control over “major population centers” (i.e. settlements) deep in the West Bank, and a military occupation along the Jordan valley. He further explained there would be no right of return into Israel and that Hamas cannot be part of the Palestinian government.

The sad reality is that in speaking to Congress Mr. Netanyahu missed an amazing opportunity to show true leadership. He could have put forward creative, compassionate and daring proposals that would have, in true Zionist fashion, once again cast Israel as a proactive actor in history. Instead, he gave us unimaginative and stale ideas that are sure to keep the conflict going. One is reminded here of the immortal words recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus: “They make a desert and call it peace.”

Of course anyone who really knows Mr. Netanyahu knows that his peace overtures have the sincerity of a used car salesmen. Even Mr Netanyahu’s own father has admitted as much. In an underreported interview in the summer of 2009, shortly after Netanyahu gave his famous Bar Ilan speech (in which he outlined the exact same vision for a Palestinian state), Professor Benzion Netanyahu, the 100 year-old historian and father of the Prime Minister, told Israel’s Channel 2 news that his son does not support a Palestinian state. The elder Netanyahu, claimed that the prime minister personally told him he deliberately placed impossible conditions before the Palestinians:

“He supports such conditions that they (the Arabs) will never accept. That is what I heard from him. I didn’t propose these conditions, he did. They will never accept these conditions. Not one of them.”

Unfortunately, the words of the Prime Minster’s father, who himself believes there is no place for Arabs on Jewish land, have proven to be true. Netanyahu has chosen an extreme right-wing coalition and constrained by “their” interests has repeatedly placed insurmountable obstacles before the Palestinians. For the Palestinians, a people who are primed for statehood, whose anchor for a fair solution is already a compromise (West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza make up 22 percent of Mandate Palestine) and who have an alternative to the negotiated solution, the Prime Minister’s offer of a simulacrum of state will simply not due.

Beyond the unacceptable details of his vision, perhaps the most glaring flaw in Mr. Netanyahu’s speech was its utter lack of empathy and humility. Mr. Netanyahu rightly asked his audience to step into the shoes of Israelis under threat of rocket attacks, and to understand the painful compromises that peace necessitates, yet he showed no ability or desire to sympathize with the hardship and challenges faced by the Palestinians. This is a terrible mistake on the part of someone seeking to reach the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people.

Imagine instead if Mr. Netanyahu had actually said:

“To the Palestinians I say that while we can never fully understand what it’s like to be you, we recognize your historic pain, humiliation and anger. We recognize how difficult it will be to compromise on a dream that you believe is rightfully yours. We regret you have endured such hardship for so long and our role in creating your pain. We sincerely want to build a peaceful future together.”

Simple words that do not negate Israel’s positions yet reveal a completely different orientation towards peacemaking.

Of course such words would require a leader of moral courage: something Mr. Netanyahu spectacularly lacks. The US Congress may have been bamboozled by Mr. Netanyahu oratorical gifts, but the people of the region know better. They deserve better.


9 responses to “The Moral Failure of Benjamin Netanyahu

  1. Your analysis is very one sided. It doesn’t take to account the peace process that has been going on for years.
    It doesn’t look at the erosion of the Israeli position in the negotiations as a result of similar statements made in the past.
    And finally it doesn’t look at whether any reciprocal actions have been taken to justify such a public statement outside of the negotiation.

    This is no doubt a bad place for Israel to be, but they didn’t walk there alone.

  2. Roi has it exactly right. Netanyahu missed a historic chance to get Israel and its American allies off the destructive path they now tread — the path of war. I fear that the revolting spectacle of Congressional Republicans and Democrats competing for Jewish and Evangelical Christian favors will return to haunt us if things take a turn for the worse in Palestine and Israel.

  3. I agree completely; moral courage means taking a stand and not waiting for the “other guy” to do it first.Though it’s not an easy thing to do — his political and physical life are at risk if he does. Such is the legacy of the middle east, sadly.

  4. OK, let’s play the game – ‘What Bibi should have said.’
    “To the Palestinians I say that since you choose to continue wallowing in your own humiliation and anger, we will never fully understand what it’s like to be you. We recognize how hard it must be to compromise on your dreams of self-entitled largesse, made that much more difficult when you see the success of your small but hardworking neighbor, Israel.
    We regret you have chosen to endure such hardship for so long, but that’s your choice. Since you still blame us for creating your pain, we’re going to have no option but to send that flotilla full of weapons and anarchists to the bottom of the sea. Call us when you sincerely want to build a peaceful future together.”

  5. What Netanyahu pulled with his speech can be summed up with a quote from the movie the Usual Suspects:
    “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
    Instead of giving a moral speech which admits the pain and suffering for all peoples involved, Netanyahu tricked congress into seeing only Israeli pain– making it appear that Palestinian suffering doesn’t exist. Only when other peoples stories are equal or more important than are own will peace become possible.

  6. You ask for Israeli leadership to recognize the Palestinian’s dream, which is happening by the Israeli acceptance and support of the creation of a Palestinian state. Palestinian leadership should also recognize the Israeli dream, through this same acceptance and support. This is one thing Netanyahu got right – emphasizing the necessity in negotiations for the Palestinians to recognize the right for Israel to exist as a Jewish state, just like Palestine will exist as a Palestinian state. Hamas simply refuses to do this, and there is no sane reason why Israel should negotiate with a recognized terrorist organization that aims for Israel’s destruction. This is the moral failure.

  7. The comments by Netanyahus father reveal the reality of the situation. The Isrealis understand that continuing the war on “terrorism” allows the to unilaterally declare the borders of a future state by changing the “reality on the ground.” They build large settlements in areas of the west bank with natural resources and then annex those settlements. And they are free to do this as long as the struggle continues. For heavens sake, the father of the prime minister just admitted he doesn’t want peace. Please world, wake up and realize that usually the aggressors are those who benefit from the aggression, and in this case it is clearly Israel that benefits.

  8. It is clear to me as a professional peacemaker that Netanyahu and his rightist government have no interest in peace with the Palestinians. Where does this leave the US, the Palestinians, and the world? I think the smartest, most courageous move for the Palestinians would be to publicly renounce violence and terrorism and begin an organized, concerted non-violent action against Israel. If properly planned and executed, it will shame Israel to the peace table. If the Palestinian men lack the moral fortitude, then let the women step forward. The Palestinians could achieve in 12 months of nonviolent action what they have thus far failed to achieve in 60 years of violence.

  9. I am not surprised to see how many anti-Netanyahu people there are here (me included). But I am astonished to see how many people believe that Israel has not done enough to try to bring the Palestinians to the table.

    Now the Palestinians do not wish to agree with the right wing government, but they didn’t agree with the left wing government led by Ehud Barak either, when there was a lot more on the table.
    It is debateable whether Rabin had not been kidnapped things would have been different, but one thing is constant: The terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians have never stopped and every leader, while having enough support to crush opposition and stay in power, claims they can’t stop the violence (in Yasser Arafat’s time it was the militant Fatah, Tanzeem, then it was Hamas and most recently it has been the Salafis).

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