Israel's Shabbos Goy
Why America will come to regret the craven deal Obama is offering Netanyahu.
Those of us who keep an eye on the parties of God are avid students of the weekly Sabbath sermons of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. In these and other venues, usually broadcast, this elderly Sephardic ayatollah provides an action-packed diet that seldom disappoints. A few months ago, he favored his devout audience with a classic rant in which he called down curses on the Palestinian Arabs and their leaders, wishing that a plague would come and sweep them all away. Last month, he announced that the sole reason for the existence of gentiles was to perform menial services for Jews: After that, he opined, their usefulness was at an end. A huge hubbub led to his withdrawal of the first of these diatribes. (I would be interested to know if this was on partly theological grounds. After all, the local Palestinians may still have some labor to perform before the divine plan is through with them.) The second sermon, so far as I know, still stands without apology. Why on earth should anybody care about the ravings of this scrofulous medieval figure, who peppers his talk of non-Jews in Palestine with comparisons to snakes, monkeys, and other lesser creations, rather as Hamas and Hezbollah refer to the Jews? Well, one reason is that he is the spiritual leader of the Shas Party, an important member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition. Indeed, two key portfolios, of the Interior and of Construction and Housing, are held by Shas members named Eli Yishai and Ariel Atias.
Yishai recently delighted the Diaspora by saying that only those Jews who converted via the Orthodox route could carry "the Jewish gene." Atias has expressed alarm about the tendency of Israeli Arab citizens to try to live where they please—or "spread," as he phrases it—and has advocated a policy of segregation in housing within Israel proper. He also advocates the segregation by neighborhood of secular from Orthodox Jews, adding that he does not wish his own children to mix with their nonreligious peers. It is Yishai's ministry that is famous for making announcements about new "housing" developments outside Israel itself and in legally disputed territory. Very often, Netanyahu himself has claimed to be taken by surprise at these announcements, which usually involve tense areas of Jerusalem. Thus the huge embarrassment inflicted on Vice President Joe Biden earlier this year, when fresh settlement construction was proclaimed in the middle of his high-level visit. And thus the undisguised irritation of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week, when yet another round of such housing was scheduled while Obama was in Asia and Netanyahu was in the United States. Apparently, the latest high-level round of the peace process has included the modest and tentative suggestion to Israel that such disclosures be timed with greater tact and coordination in the future.
It's not only the doings of his Interior and Housing ministries of which Netanyahu has to remain resolutely uninformed. His foreign minister is not a part of Israel's most important external negotiation. This is perhaps just as well, since the holder of the post, Avigdor Lieberman, regards the whole "process" as a waste of time. He said as much at the United Nations last September. It was patiently explained at that time that Netanyahu had not been favored with advance notice of the contents of the speech.
Lieberman has another distinction that I believe is unique. He does not live in the country whose foreign ministry he heads. He chooses, rather, to make his home in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, a tenaciously held outcrop with a population of fewer than 1,000 people. The party which he heads—Yisrael Beytenu—is a nationalist rather than religious faction, but in a competition with Rabbi Yosef for vicious anti-Arab rhetoric, it's not immediately clear which one would emerge the winner.
Now we read that, in return for just 90 days of Israeli lenience on new settlement-building (this brief pause or "freeze" not to include the crucial precincts of East Jerusalem), Netanyahu is being enticed with "a package of security incentives and fighter jets worth $3 billion" and a promise that the United States government would veto any Palestinian counterproposal at the United Nations. Netanyahu, while graciously considering this offer, was initially reported as being unsure whether he "could win approval for the United States deal from his Cabinet." In other words, we must wait on the pleasure of Rabbi Yosef and Ministers Atias, Yishai, and Lieberman, who have the unusual ability to threaten Netanyahu from his right wing.
This is a national humiliation. Regardless of whether that bunch of clowns and thugs and racists "approve" of the Obama/Clinton grovel offer, there should be a unanimous demand that it be withdrawn.
The mathematics of the situation must be evident even to the meanest intelligence. In order for any talk of a two-state outcome to be even slightly realistic, there needs to be territory on which the second state can be built, or on which the other nation living in Palestine can govern itself. The aim of the extreme Israeli theocratic and chauvinist parties is plain and undisguised: Annex enough land to make this solution impossible, and either expel or repress the unwanted people. The policy of Netanyahu is likewise easy to read: Run out the clock by demanding concessions for something he has already agreed to in principle, appease the ultras he has appointed to his own government, and wait for a chance to blame Palestinian reaction for the inevitable failure.
The only mystery is this: Why does the United States acquiesce so wretchedly in its own disgrace at the hands of a virtual client state? A soft version of Rabbi Yosef's contemptuous view of the gentiles is the old concept of the shabbos goy: the non-Jew who is paid a trifling fee to turn out the lights or turn on the stove, or whatever else is needful to get around the more annoying regulations of the Sabbath. How the old buzzard must cackle when he sees the gentiles actually volunteering a bribe to do the lowly work! And lowly it is, involving the tearing-up of international law and U.N. resolutions and election promises, and the further dispossession and eviction of a people to whom we gave our word. This craven impotence will be noticed elsewhere, and by some very undesirable persons, and we will most certainly be made to regret it. For now, though, the shame.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu by Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images.