War Stories

Israel Just Lost

Benjamin Netanyahu has won at his own country’s expense.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
A photo of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud party ballots lie on the floor of Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 18, 2015.

Photo by Amir Cohen/Reuters

The results of Israel’s election are good for Benjamin Netanyahu in the short run but bad for Israel in the long run.

Many have commented that the outcome will exacerbate tensions between Israel and President Obama, but that misses the larger point—which is that it will also further alienate Israel from the world.

Key here is Netanyahu’s declaration on the eve of the vote that there will never be a Palestinian state as long as he is prime minister—thus reversing his commitment, in 2009, to a peace process capped by a two-state solution.

This earlier commitment was widely seen as purely rhetorical. In fact, the whole notion of serious peace talks, or a peace-inducing formula for an Israeli-Palestinian border, has long devolved into a bit of convenient fiction. But the operative word here is convenient. As long as all sides say they support a two-state solution (or any commonly held formula for peace) as a goal, a lot of awkward issues can be swept under the rug—and in a region where one lit match can set off a conflagration, fire-dousing rugs aren’t such bad things.

Netanyahu has now ripped away the rug, revealing that the floorboards had collapsed long ago: There’s no floor at all, only chasms and crumbling sheet rock overlooking a dark abyss.

What is the nature of the abyss, from Israel’s perspective? Above all, there is the real possibility of the loss of international legitimacy. This is not an abstract matter. In November 2012, the U.N. General Assembly voted, by an overwhelming margin (138–9, with 41 abstentions), to recognize Palestine as a “nonmember observer state.” This fell short of becoming a full-fledged “member state;” only the Security Council can bestow that status, and it isn’t likely to do so, since the United States, as a permanent member, holds veto power.

But the General Assembly vote wasn’t entirely symbolic. The International Criminal Court took the occasion to recognize Palestinian statehood, and here’s the thing: On April 1, Palestine’s membership at the ICC takes effect, and its delegation is expected to refer the status of Israel’s occupied territories to the court for investigation.

The ICC, the European Union, and the U.S. State Department formally regard the West Bank and Gaza as “occupied territories.” The ICC and EU apply the same label to East Jerusalem. (The State Department takes an ambiguous stand on that issue, though it does not recognize the area to be part of Israel.) David Bosco, professor at American University and author of Rough Justice: The ICC in a World of Power Politics, says that the ICC could conceivably condemn Israel’s settlements in the occupied territories and even indict Israeli leaders for war crimes. The ICC has no enforcement arm, but many European nations recognize its authority, so some Israeli officials may be barred from traveling to parts of Europe.

Even if things didn’t go that far, one can easily imagine a renewed effort in the United Nations to push Palestine statehood beyond that of a nonmember observer. Or some of the nations that supported, or stayed neutral, on the resolution could take tangible action: for instance, allowing Palestine to staff embassies on their soil.

The United States and Israel are quite alone in their opposition to the notion. Apart from Canada, the nations that joined them in voting “nay” in 2012 were not exactly powerhouses: the Czech Republic, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Panama, and Palau. American diplomats persuaded a few European allies—Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Poland—to abstain. They did so, arguing that statehood must be dangled as a bargaining chip to lure the Palestinians to the peace table; if it were granted unconditionally, they’d have no incentive to negotiate.

Now that Netanyahu has said he won’t ever recognize a Palestinian state, this argument loses all logic.

This is another instance of Netanyahu’s parochial shortsightedness. The Palestinians, especially in Gaza, are at least as much to blame as Israel for the shuttering of peace talks. But Netanyahu’s brusque rejection gives them an excuse—which many nations and people will happily second—to pin all the blame on Israeli intransigence.

Netanyahu’s horrendous March 3 speech to Congress could have the same backfiring effect on the nuclear negotiations with Iran: President Obama had won some leverage in the talks by saying that if a deal falls through, he would step up sanctions and possibly pursue more aggressive actions, on the grounds that he’d given the Iranians a chance to prove their peaceful intentions, to no avail. Now, however, if the talks fail, Iran can blame Netanyahu and his lemmings in the U.S. Congress—and much of the world will accept that analysis, keen to lift sanctions and resume the profits of commerce.

Netanyahu’s electoral victory holds other dicey consequences for Israel’s future. If he manages to assemble a governing coalition, it will be by capturing all the other right-wing and ultrareligious parties. As a result, his new government could be even less liberal, secular, and internationalist than his current government—and that means it will be less able, in its speedy trek toward self-isolation, to lean on the support of Jewish Americans, whose allegiance has already faded in recent years.

It is always a terrible thing when Netanyahu visits the United States. He flies home, chest out, head high, believing that the rapturous reception he received at the AIPAC convention and the joint session of Congress reflect American public opinion. A majority of Americans do support Israel, in part, I suspect, because the sorts of Americans who don’t care for Jews dislike Muslims and Arabs even more. American Jews, especially liberal and Democratic Jews who still form a critical base of Israel’s support, were angered enough by Netanyahu’s cynical dagger toss at Obama during his last visit. His 11th-hour campaign remarks against a Palestinian state, compounded by his sheer racist gibe at Israeli Arabs (exhorting his right-wing base to counter the Arabs, who were turning out to the polls “in droves”), will make these Americans still less comfortable about supporting an Israel led by the likes of Netanyahu—and populated by the likes of his base.

Meanwhile, he should expect to see larger crowds, and possibly more converted followers, at the next rally organized by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.

For some time now, the Israeli ideal, as once envisioned by American Jews, has been the stuff of mythology. It’s not entirely Netanyahu’s fault; a few years of rocket attacks, bus bombings, “Death to Israel” parades, and the sheer geography of the region—such a small state, surrounded by armed enemies—can harden the most elegiac utopia, and Israel has never been that. Still, there are shrewd ways to play the survival game of shrimp-among-whales. Many past Israeli leaders knew how; there are many Israeli security officers, outspoken opponents of Netanyahu, who have ideas on how to revive the gamesmanship. Netanyahu isn’t playing it shrewdly, and his reckless rhetoric in the campaign—designed to win a few more seats in the Knesset—may lose him, and his nation, much more in the end.