Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t the problem: The United States has enabled Israel, and now we must stop.

We Don’t Have a Netanyahu Problem. We Have an Israel Problem.

We Don’t Have a Netanyahu Problem. We Have an Israel Problem.

Events beyond our borders.
March 19 2015 9:55 AM

The Price Israel Must Pay

We no longer have a Netanyahu problem. We have an Israel problem.

President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Photo illustration by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images and Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images.

Two weeks ago, the United States had a Benjamin Netanyahu problem. The Israeli prime minister seemed to have gone rogue. His ambassador to Washington had secretly negotiated with Republicans to have Netanyahu address a joint session of Congress. Against the Obama administration’s wishes, Netanyahu spoke on the floor of the House of Representatives against U.S. foreign policy. He told members of Congress that the speech wasn’t political. Then he went home and used video of their applause in an ad promoting his re-election.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

In the final days of his campaign, Netanyahu pitched himself to Israelis as the candidate who would stand up to President Obama, “American money,” the “international community,” and Israel’s Arab minority. He bragged that he had used settlements to seize strategic Palestinian land, and he vowed to keep doing so. A day before the election, he renounced Israel’s commitment to a Palestinian state. He pledged that if he were re-elected, he wouldn’t permit such a state. He implored Jews to flock to the polls and drown out the ballots of Arab Israelis.

Many Americans, including me, thought these rants would hurt Netanyahu. We were wrong. In those final days, his support soared. On Tuesday, Netanyahu’s party, Likud, won a plurality of seats in Israel’s parliament. Thirty-three percent of Israelis voted for Likud or for smaller parties that officially rejected a Palestinian state. Another 15 percent voted for Jewish nationalist or ultra-Orthodox parties that have blocked Palestinian independence. A further 7 percent voted for a Likud offshoot that is expected to round out the new government. That adds up to more than 55 percent of the electorate. It’s more than 60 percent of Israel’s Jewish voters.

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Netanyahu can no longer be dismissed as a rogue. He has proved that his people stand behind him. They have given him more seats in parliament than he had before and a more hawkish coalition of ruling parties. We don’t have a Netanyahu problem anymore. We have an Israel problem.

Israel and the United States have a long, deep friendship. It’s based on shared interests and values. But it’s no longer clear that the old interests and values are shared. The U.S. government believes that Palestinian Arabs, like Jews, are entitled to a sovereign state. We believe it’s wrong to build settlements on land that doesn’t belong to you. We believe that ethnic minorities are entitled to participate in the political process and that they shouldn’t be vilified to scare up votes. The events of the past week suggest that the prime minister of Israel doesn’t believe these things and that most of his people either agree with him or don’t care enough to vote the other way.

It’s true that Israelis have other concerns, such as the high cost of housing. But when you set aside an issue, such as the rights of Palestinians, you’re saying it isn’t important to you. It’s also true that it’s easy for Americans like me to talk about this without facing the threat of terrorism. But sometimes distance is helpful. A friend can help you see changes in yourself. The constant pressure of war, terrorism, and peril has hardened Israel’s heart.

In the days since Netanyahu’s victory, some people have suggested that he didn’t really mean what he said about rejecting Palestinian statehood. They argue that it was just an election ploy and that he can “walk it back.” Please. Netanyahu would never accept such an excuse from a Palestinian leader who disavowed his prior commitment to peace. Netanyahu would say that such a leader couldn’t be trusted, that he wasn’t a “partner for peace,” and that his use of such a ploy to win votes showed the true belligerence of his people. For years, Arabs have said that Netanyahu behaves like a man who’s trying to prevent a Palestinian state. Now he has openly admitted as much. Why should they believe he didn’t mean it?

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When you look for a pattern in Netanyahu’s behavior—the settlements, the ethnic demagoguery, the speech to Congress, the retraction of his commitment to an independent Palestine—no moral principle unites them. What unites them is audacity and calculation. Netanyahu does whatever he thinks he can get away with. That’s how he describes the thinking of his adversaries, because that’s how he thinks, too. If you listen to Israeli leaders who are trying to influence the behavior of their nation’s enemies, the word you’ll hear again and again is price.

That’s why Israel has descended to its current level of disregard for others. It hasn’t paid a price. Even in the face of Netanyahu’s unwelcome speech to Congress, the Obama administration sent officials to AIPAC’s annual conference to pledge that the United States would stand by Israel no matter what. “We have Israel’s back, come hell or high water,” national security adviser Susan Rice assured the crowd. So Netanyahu delivered his speech, went home, and gave the United States, Europe, and the Palestinians more hell. And Israelis re-elected him.

We have enabled this behavior, and we must end it. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. We must clarify the price Israel will pay for continuing to flout international norms and commitments. The challenge is to find the right measure. It can’t be destructive, vengeful, or disproportionate. That rules out sanctions, cutting military aid, and subjecting Israel to prosecution under the International Criminal Court. It also rules out supporting a Palestinian-backed United Nations resolution that would demand the establishment of a Palestinian state within a year, with no corresponding promises to Israel.

The right vehicle is a different resolution, floated three months ago by France, which would authorize a two-year timetable for resolving the terms of statehood. It would stipulate a “non-militarized” Palestine, as well as a “full-phased withdrawal of Israeli security forces.” The terms of the French draft aren’t much different from what the United States informally accepts. But by endorsing the resolution and making clear that we will no longer use our veto in the Security Council to fend off such measures, the United States would signal to Israel that our patience has run out. Israel can join the discussions and move toward recognition of Palestine. Or it can stand alone.