Monday, September 19, 2011

Bibi: Dumb or Wrong?

Tom Friedman has a column up lambasting Bibi Netanyahu for putting Israel's future as a Jewish, democratic state at risk. Matt Yglesias says there's "an awful lot to agree with" in Friedman's column, but argues that he gives Bibi too much credit in attributing his postures to ignorance. Rather, Yglesias' argues, Bibi has made it evident that he has a strong substantive commitment to the settler project, and all the damage Israel's taking to its international reputation are costs Bibi is absorbing with open eyes. It's not that Bibi is making a "misstep" -- he's just made a calculation that his allegiance to settlements is worth growing international isolation.

I'll parrot Yglesias' words back: there's "an awful lot to agree with" in that. I do agree that Bibi is substantively committed to a vision of greater Israel that is in my view immoral and unsustainable. While he has some recognition that a Palestinian state will have to come into existence eventually, he doesn't really have any plan for it, nor does he have any qualms about gobbling up as much of the West Bank as possible before that day occurs. This is important to note, because while Israel has had leaders willing to make bold strides for peace, Bibi is not one of them, and that fact has to be part of any short-term appraisal of how Israel and Palestine got to the position they're in right now.

Still, I don't think it gets the whole story either. First, I'll reiterate my view that Bibi's primary motivator is neither ignorance about Israel's situation, nor ideological commitment to Greater Israel, but simply short term personal/political self-interest. Yglesias cites his decision to stay with Likud when Ariel Sharon broke off to form Kadima as proof of his status as an ideologue who is willing to gamble, but I think it is more consistent with basic political self-preservation instincts. Even while Sharon was part of Likud, Netanyahu was constantly sniping at him from the right--that's a large part of why Sharon packed up and left. Netanyahu would have had no credibility in Kadima and would have been marginalized if he'd tried to join. Leading Likud's rump faction was clearly his best move, and it did indeed pay off.

Second, Yglesias' point that Bibi knows and is willing to accept growing international isolation as a price to pay for settlements doesn't account for a key aspect of Bibi's worldview: that international isolation is simply a fact of life of Israel no matter what it does, and has little to do with the settlement project at all. Settlements are the current preferred rhetoric for folks who find it impolitic to simply say they dislike Israel as a concept, but they aren't actually playing any causal role. True or not (I think it's more true than Yglesias thinks but less than Bibi does), for someone who believes that "international isolation" is going to be a relative non-factor in one's analysis, because it isn't something that can be helped.

Finally, the fact that Netanyahu has, at times, recognized the need for a Palestinian state and respects Israel's democratic character indicates, to me, that settlement expansion is at the very least not his only ideological commitment. He is not just a National Union MK in drag. But I think he's simply too mentally weak to see the tension, and thus is attempting to delude himself that Israel can maintain its current path without consequence. It is a painful choice for Bibi, and sometimes when people are faced with painful choices they just attempt to put off choosing, covering their eyes to the dilemma in front of them. That, too, is part of what Bibi is doing.

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