The Last Act of
Drama May Be His
Despite their momentary ascendancy, Bibi, Trump, and Putin are yesterday’s men.
• BY DAVID ROTHKOPF
• DECEMBER 28, 2016
The Israeli government’s settlement policy puts it on the wrong side of history,
justice, demography, the law, its own interests — and therefore the interests of
its friends and allies. For each of these reasons, Israel should neither be
surprised nor outraged at the recent U.N. Security Council resolution
condemning those settlements. Nor should they be offended by the U.S.
government’s policy with respect to that vote, a policy that was well-
articulated and defended by Secretary of State John Kerry in an address
The Obama administration’s abstention, which enabled that resolution to
pass, should for the same reasons not be seen as a betrayal. Indeed, as a friend
of Israel, the United States should have gone further and actively supported
Resolution 2334, which passed with 14 votes in favor and just Washington
abstaining. The settlements are hurting Israel, and true friends have the
courage to tell each other what they need to hear, even when they don’t want
to hear it.
I have regularly criticized the Obama administration for what I have seen as
weak, vacillating, or strategically unsound behavior in the Middle East. A
regular point of that critique has been that we have not recognized who our
friends are and in so doing have failed to support our traditional allies in the
way that we should. I was deeply skeptical of the Iran nuclear deal (although
in the end, I accepted it as better than not having any deal at all), so I am no
reflexive defender of Obama-era policies. Yet what the administration did with
regard to Resolution 2334 was sound and good policy.
Indeed, if the Obama team should be subjected to any criticism at all for its
stance on the settlements, it is not, as the Israelis have subsequently hissed,
that the administration may have helped orchestrate the vote — a position
refuted by Kerry. Rather, it is that it did not take a stronger position on this
issue sooner. We are almost at the end of President Barack Obama’s time in
The United States should not have
tolerated Israel’s settlement policy for
one single day.
The United States should not have tolerated Israel’s settlement policy for one single
day. It should have fought against it, even as it was continuing to fund Israeli arms
purchases at record levels and work for a peace deal without the notable cooperation
of the Israelis (or, to be fair, the Palestinians).
Some Israelis, seeking to defend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s
handling of this issue, note that he has supported a settlement policy that is
not as extreme as that of the far-right wing of his party. This is an absurd
defense. Committing a hundred wrongs is not forgiven merely because you
could have committed 200 but chose not to.
Bibi’s spluttering outrage on this deal is not only unproductive; it is revealing
in the worst ways. He speaks of betrayal and seeks to shutter relations with
friends who supported the vote — but he betrayed both Israel’s interests and
its best values when he instructed his emissary not to vote for an inquiry into
war crimes in Syria a week earlier, as a craven sop to Vladimir Putin.
That he could curry favor with a serial violator of international law and norms
like Putin, fail to seek justice in Syria, and thus exacerbate tensions
throughout the region, which will only increase risks for Israel, is a sign that
for Bibi everything is about political tactics, not strategy or principles. He has
succeeded at being prime minister largely by doing things that were good for
his base in the short term and bad for his country in the long term.
The settlements are the prime example. Supporting the colonization of land on
which Israel has no legitimate claim may make the hard right in Israel happy
and may, their defenders argue, give the country (dubious) advantages from a
security perspective. But those settlements will not stem the tides that will
ultimately subsume Netanyahu’s vision of Israel. The Palestinian population
continues to grow so that very soon Israel faces the fateful choice of whether it
wishes to be a democracy (in which the majority Palestinians living within the
state’s claimed borders would have real rights they currently do not have) or a
Jewish state (which would depend on the adoption of policies that
permanently disenfranchise the majority population). Further, the security
threats against Israel are increasingly missiles, drones, cyberwarfare, and
other tools that settlements do little to protect against. While Bibi and his
minions argue that the U.N. resolution will empower terrorists, nothing does
that more effectively than building settlements or aligning with ruthless killers
of Muslims like the Russians.
If the settlements inflame risks to Israel, undermine its legitimacy, and hollow
out international support, they are clearly not in the Israeli interest. Further,
they weaken the support of those who might otherwise support Israel,
including American Jews. It is increasingly difficult to embrace American
ideals of justice, respect for the rule of law, and respect for human rights while
supporting the current government of Israel — whether because of settlements
or because of a policy of disproportionate response to localized, small-scale
attacks as occurred during the last Gaza conflict.
There is also a generational shift taking place among American Jews. Virtually
all who are under the age of 55 simply do not remember the Israel of the Six-
Day War, the little country that could, the David that stood up to the Goliaths
of the Arab world. For the new majority among American Jews, Israel is the
nuclear superpower of the Middle East, the regional bully behind the outrages
that began in the Sabra and Shatila camps, the “peace-loving” hypocrite of
settlement construction and Gaza destruction.
That the response of Israelis is condescension and a suggestion that simple,
coddled, soft American Jews could never understand their situation is hardly
helpful. The lack of outrage among many moderate and liberal American Jews
at the recent vote indicates just how much Israel’s hard-right has done to
undercut the country’s most important relationships over the past couple of
Now, of course, Bibi and his loud-mouthed bully boy of an ambassador here in
the United States, Ron Dermer, are feeling empowered by the recent election
of Donald Trump (who attacked the Obama-Kerry position from his Twitter-
based Oval Office waiting room). Quite apart from the obvious notion that you
must be in deep trouble when a foreign-policy neophyte and shoot-from-the-
lip buffoon becomes your champion, Netanyahu and Co. are making a big
mistake. Trump and his world-class awful choice of an ambassador to Israel, a
far-right fringe character named David Friedman, may offer some succor to
Netanyahu for a while. They may even enlist the help of Putin, friend to Bibi
and the Donald. But this will only alienate the rest of the world — and massive
portions of the base within the United States upon which the Israelis will
depend for their long-term support. Further, there is a hard reality that has
seemingly been tough to grasp for Israeli hard-liners: The only alternative to a
two-state solution is a one-state solution — which cannot be a Jewish state if it
is to be secure, sustainable, or just.
Bibi, Trump, and Putin are part of a
dying breed, the last politicians of the
Bibi, Trump, and Putin are part of a dying breed, the last politicians of the 20th
century. They seek to preserve realities that are founded in the post-World War II and
Cold War realities in which their views were shaped. But the world has moved on
from them, and future generations of leaders will see a radically different picture —
one in which Israel not only has no better claim on its land than the Palestinians but
one in which the memories of the Palestine Liberation Organization and much of
Palestinian terrorism lie in the foggy past; in which Palestinians without a nation
outnumber Israelis; in which Palestinians lack rights because Israelis deny them those
rights; in which Russia is a failing state with a faltering economy; in which Russia is
seen as a supporter of oppressors and not of the people (always a lousy long-term
strategy); in which China and other powers are much more important; and one in
which new technologies will empower new leaders in new ways, creating new threats
and shifting the regional balance of power in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Trump will seek to bully a world he does not understand, one in which
America’s leverage on trade has been diminished and in which his chosen tactics for
doing so long ago proved to be ineffective and damaging to U.S. interests.
Indeed, the reason this settlements vote has so many in the Israeli leadership
so outraged is not because they didn’t want it to happen. It is because it is only
the latest proof that their preferred narrative about Israel has been overtaken
by reality — and that the days of their ability to defend Israel as the region’s
lone democracy are numbered as their demographic clock keeps ticking and
their policies keep undercutting the legitimate rights of Palestinians.
The vote was infuriating to them because it showed that the countries of the
Security Council were unanimously opposed to their policies. It was scary to
them because it underscored that their policies and diplomacy were failing
them and that the time has come for a new generation of leaders with new
ideas for Israel — just as it has come for the aging, failed leadership of the
Palestinians, and just as it is coming for the political dinosaurs of our era,
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Photo credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images