At this moment, it appears that Benjamin Netanyahu will continue to serve as Israel’s Prime Minister. American Jews and non-Jews alike should respect Israel’s choice.
Despite what many Americans say, Netanyahu is not “ruining it” for Israel or leading Israel into an abyss.
Israeli democracy is admittedly imperfect, noisy, fractious, and messy. Its electoral system is a zero sum game that tends to drive parties towards extremes rather than the center and typically yields relatively unstable governments.
But the fact is that Israel is a vibrant democracy. The collective voice of the Israeli populace is reflected in policy and in the choice and tenure of the prime minister. In Israel, unlike the United States, a highly unpopular prime minister does not last long before a new government is put in place. In fact, the next government will be Israel’s thirty-third in its brief 66-year history.
The Israeli people want peace. And if the Israeli public believed that peace were achievable, a prime minister who did not deliver the goods would simply not be elected or would not last long if he was. Despite his recent pronouncements regarding a Palestinian State, it is not that Netanyahu is “rightwing,” “hawkish,” or “extremist.” The bare truth is that the Israeli public does not currently believe that the Palestinians sincerely wish to live in peace with the Jewish State of Israel. It is as simple as that.
Living in Israel in 1977, I personally witnessed the hero’s welcome Anwar Sadat received when he arrived after telling his Parliament that he was prepared to go to Jerusalem to discuss peace. This was the same Anwar Sadat who had initiated the Yom Kippur War that cost Israel about 2,700 Israeli lives and threatened its very existence. The change in sentiment was immediate and palpable when Israelis realized that Sadat meant what he was saying. In the end, it was “hawkish,” “rightwing,” and “extremist” Likudnik Menachem Begin who signed a peace treaty with Egypt.
King Hussein of Jordan was also was received in Israel with great warmth when he indicated that he wanted peace. Israelis knew that he meant it, despite his country’s animosity before and during the Six Day War and Jordan’s harboring of PLO terrorists until 1971.
And even Yasser Arafat was given an opportunity. Who can forget the image of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin only hesitatingly shaking hands with Arafat on the White House lawn that sunny day in 1993? That handshake reflected the Israeli commitment to give the Oslo Accords a chance and to see where it led despite their lack of complete trust in Arafat. My then-80-year old, fifth-generation-Jerusalemite, religious-Zionist uncle said to me at the time, “We have tried war, now we have to try peace.”
But Israelis have been repeatedly disappointed by the Palestinians. Israelis know how far their various leaders have gone to try and achieve peace while being rebuffed at every stage. They remember the failed Camp David Summit of 2000, where, despite Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s willingness to give way more than many Israelis would have liked, “Arafat missed the opportunity to bring [his] nation into being,” according to President Clinton. Shortly afterwards, Arafat initiated the Second Intifada. And Israelis recall all too well the painful, unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005—also initiated by a “hawkish, rightwing, and extremist” Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon driven to carry out what he perceived as the will of the majority of citizens. This move, rather than bringing Israel closer to peace, has led to the creation of a Hamas terror stronghold that has served as a base for launching attacks against Israeli civilians and rockets into Israeli cities.
Israelis still do not see a Palestinian “peace camp.” What they do see is continued hostile Palestinian media rhetoric towards Israel. They see Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas honoring terrorists who have killed innocent Israeli civilians and subtly encouraging violence against Israel. They see the Palestinians repeatedly circumventing the Oslo Accords which call for direct negotiations as the only legitimate means of resolving the conflict. And they see increasing domination of the Middle East by extremist Muslims, making them more skeptical that Palestinians will ever accept a Jewish State.
Israelis can see the demographics of Palestinian population growth just as well as any American. And Israelis do not enjoy having to subdue another people in order to ensure their own safety. However, Israelis are also not suicidal. They do not want a fictitious peace. When the Palestinians show a true desire for and commitment to peace, Israelis will recognize it, and there will be a peace deal, irrespective of who is prime minister at the time. Even Benjamin Netanyahu.
David Raab is Executive Vice President of the Touro College and University System and author of “Terror in Black September,” an account of the infamous 1970 hijackings to Jordan.