Netanyahu, Joseph and Moses
Over Saturday night dinner, a close friend bemoaned how badly Netanyahu was handling the fallout from the peace talks. My friend is not a leftist but nevertheless thinks that Netanyahu should have shown a greater interest and willingness to forge a permanent peace agreement – not so much for the sake of the Palestinians as for Israel’s reputation in the world. My friend was not alone in this criticism. It is rather widespread. It became more acute with Netanyahu’s unwillingness to free the remaining Palestinian prisoners on time that he had pledged to free as a condition for the Palestinians resuming the peace talks last year, though reports often conveniently omitted the commitment Netanyahu had made to do so if Abbas agreed to continue the talks past the deadline. The fact that this condition to resume the talks was not part of the original agreement did not seem to matter for the defenders of Netanyahu.
Instead of joining in either the criticism or the defence of Netanyahu, I want to first characterize Netanyahu as a leader using the background on Joseph and Moses as foils of two contrasting types of leaders. For example, Joseph made his name and reputation as a political leader on the basis of a domestic political platform, not as Phillipe Couillard did who won a clear majority for Liberals last night on a program of jobs, jobs, jobs versus a boring repetitive refrain of referendum, referendum and referendum by the Parti Québecois. Joseph won popular acclaim for a program even more fundamental tha Couillard’s stressing food, food and more food. In contrast, Moses was a far less popular leader for he was both a top-down chief magistrate with only ears for a divine voice rather than the pleas of the masses, as well as one whose almost exclusive concern was a unique form of separatism, separating one’s own followers from the body politic within which they had lived for over four hundred years and finding a new land to call home under one’s own jurisdiction and under the rule of law handed down from heaven. Ideals rather than daily domestic concerns would or should motivate the people to vote with their feet was Moses’ belief.
Was domestic or international policy the prime concern of Netanyahu’s leadership, granted that security always had to be the number one concern of any Israeli leader. But had security concerns been pushed into the background? After all, look at the long list of domestic political agenda items for Netanyahu. Whatever was on the list, issues of social justice did not seem to have a high priority among them as it did for Québec Solidaire which increased the number of seats it held in the provincial assembly from 2 to 3. Netanyahu seems to have no or little interest in any of the following issues: discrimination in housing against and anti-discrimination protection with respect to jobs for Israeli Arabs; racial profiling of Israeli Arab citizens undergoing security checks at Ben Gurion airport; fair and equal access to purchasing land, though the Supreme Court of Israel did force the hand of the government on this issue by obligating the Israel Land Authority, which controls over 90% of the land available in Israel, to have a fair representation of Israeli Arab citizens (and women as well) on its board (I was not able to find out whether that included Bedouin and especially Bedouin women); racism against Arab-Israeli citizens in general which two-thirds of Israelis recognize, though Israelis believe the racism against Ethiopian Jews is even more prevalent; fostering anti-racism in sport, particularly in soccer; in general, the Israeli government, again unlike the new Quebec government, is not committed to promoting a shared and inclusive society as distinct from one that fosters divisions; fostering a charter of values based on inclusiveness rather than divisiveness; my own particularly important issue, the problem of refugee claimants and illegal economic migrants in Israel, though once again the Israeli court intervened to ensure that the children of these refugees and migrants, especially those born in Israel, had legal rights; protection for Jewish orthodox women unable to divorce their husbands (agunot) when their husbands refuse them a timely and fair get (divorce); the increasing disparities in salaries experienced in Israel (and around the world) compounded by salary discrimination between Ashkenazi versus Mizrachi, Ethiopian Jews, women and especially Israeli Arabs, though the Netanyahu government did get legislation passed to publish information on gender wage gaps; protection and adequate welfare for the 1,754,700 million Israeli citizens or 430,000 households out of a population of eight million who live below the poverty line, including 180,000 seniors and 817,200 children as documented in the National Insurance agency (according to an OECD Report the poverty rate in Israel went from 15% in 1995 to 21% in 2012), although the government did pass a law that made welfare payments payable jointly to a husband and wife rather than just to a husband; Netanyahu, after much dithering, did finally appoint Karnit Flug as the first woman governor of the Bank of Israel; the court’s order and perhaps surprisingly, Netanyahu’s instructions, for the government to implement Israel’s 1998 Public Housing Act; ignoring the problems of the homeless, though when our television program, Israel Today, did a program on the homeless in Tel Aviv where the majority of homeless are to be found, compared to Toronto, we were surprised at how relatively few homeless there were and even more surprised at the large number of agencies and professionals working on this problem; the government did cancel tax hikes on healthcare and housing; fairness in the treatment of Reform and Jewish rabbis and congregations in comparison to the treatment of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, though on this topic the Netanyahu government has demonstrated a degree of initiative, perhaps because the overseas American Jewish community is so important for the issues Netanyahu does prioritize, so the State Attorney’s office ruled that that the Ministry of Religious Services must allow Reform and Conservative rabbis movements to serve as community rabbis; the requirement of military service by Haredi, however imperfect, is in process of being implemented.
With some notable exceptions, Netanyahu does not run a social justice government or one committed to social inclusiveness. He fails the Joseph test. What about foreign policy, especially the near-to-home policy of dealing with peace with Palestinians? As everyone knows, I strongly supported the Obama-Kerry peace initiative even though I only had faint hope that it would succeed. But that hope was bolstered by the excellent team Kerry had assembled led by Martin Indyk who was committed unreservedly to Israel and had been a student in Israel when the Yom Kippur War took place, authored U.S. President Clinton’s Middle East strategy, had been active in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).was a former American ambassador to Israel and, as Vice-President at Brookings, the Washington liberal think tank on foreign affairs, led its Middle East program. But the talks are now on life support and most observers seem ready to publish an obituary, though Indyk and Kerry have not thrown in the towel. Just on Sunday, Indyk led serious and evidently sincere talks among Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Isaac Molho, Netanyahu’s personal representative at the talks, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, and Majed Faraj, the head of Palestinian intelligence services.
Who is to blame for what appears to be an immanent failure? The Palestinians blame Netanyahu for not keeping his promise to release more prisoners. Israelis, especially Lieberman, counter with the argument that why should more prisoners be released if there is no likelihood of the talks continuing past the 30 April deadline let alone any realistic prospect of a deal. Further, while admitting Israel did not release the prisoners, the government had vowed to do so if there was a Palestinian commitment to continue the talks. Instead, the Palestinian Authority, to the surprise of both Israelis and Americans, took unilateral steps to initiate Palestine’s membership in fifteen international bodies in which only states can be members by signing letters of accession, an initiative taken, contrary to the negotiation agreement, without Israel’s permission let alone knowledge. However, the decision to join the International Criminal Court has been held in abeyance. This was a response not only to the non-release of the prisoners but to the Israeli government decision to let a tender for 700 additional residential housing units in Gilo, though the construction ban really only applied to the West Bank and Gilo is virtually an integral part of Jerusalem. Both the Israeli and the Arab negotiators at Sunday’s meeting did ask Indyk to convene another session. But Likud ministers in the government gloated that “the danger of peace had been averted”
Tzipi Livni has come in for particular criticism for being part of an artificial process when the head of the government, Netanyahu, had not truly been committed to the peace process. I believe this criticism is unwarranted and that Netanyahu is committed to a two- state solution, but a commitment not based on a possible deal he can make with the Palestinians. More importantly for an assessment of Netanyahu as a political leader, he was very astute in including Livni in his government, and more astute in appointing an individual with a relatively dovish reputation to be in charge of the negotiations.
The reality is that the negotiations are very painful and complex because Netanyahu and Abbas are totally at odds and equally uncompromising on Jerusalem. Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state can be dealt with through creative ambiguity and indirection by endorsing UN resolutions recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. The issue of Palestinian refugee return, which is so central to Abbas’ history, has witnessed a seismic shift with Abbas’ admission that very few Palestinians would return to Israel, but Abbas remains stubbornly wedded to the principle of the right of return. In the scheme of things, the tractable issue of settlements and borders seem to be the least important issue in these negotiations as everyone seems to recognize the broad outlines and agreement on that policy just as they long ago recognized the deal and discussions over water. In fact, Netanyahu has initiated steps to demolish illegal building in Yitzhar which has led to clashes between settlers and the Border Police.
So, again, who is to blame? Will the Republican controlled House of Representatives blame the Palestinians and initiate a move to block the half billion dollars of aid America gives the Palestinian Authority? Abbas has already taken steps to counter such an expected initiative by asking the Arab League to make up for American shortfalls. Most observers sympathetic to the Palestinians place the full blame on Netanyahu. And my friend on Saturday evening who belongs probably to the centre, tends to place the primary blame on Netanyahu. Rabbi Dow Marmur casts equal blame for, as he writes, “the Palestinian and Israeli narratives are irreconcilable”. I do not happen to agree with him. The narratives are reconcilable if both parties give up the claim that, “all of the land is ours and ours only”. Both Netanyahu and Abbas have given up that claim. The issue is not that they are not pragmatists, but their pragmatism has drawn red lines in the sand, now specifically over Jerusalem, that need to be bridged but, given both current governments, no one has been able to build the divide on the ground including the experts and committed members of Kerry’s team.
So though pessimistic, my pessimism is shallow compared to Dow’s. I do not believe that either Abbas or Netanyahu is simple engaged in shadow boxing to keep the Americans entertained and off their respective backs. The fact that Livni has not turned on Netanyahu is but one among many clues. Netanyahu’s problem is that he does not carry a divine magic rod and lacks the backing of a transcendent belief and agent. Abbas and Netanyahu, with all their clever political skills – skills that Moses never mastered – lack a mediating formula which would allow them both to go home discontented with the result but delighted there was a result.