The Orwellian Chutzpah of Bibi Netanyahu

How you look at things.
Dec. 6 2012 11:34 AM

The Chutzpah of Bibi Netanyahu

Israel’s prime minister says diplomacy is war, criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism, and West Bank settlements aren’t unilateral.

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Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to reporters in Germany on Dec. 6, 2012.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In 2009, shortly after he took office, President Obama went to Egypt, France, and the United Nations. While defending the United States, he conceded its past mistakes. Critics called it an “apology tour.”

William Saletan William Saletan

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

Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, takes a different approach. After losing last week’s U.N. vote on Palestinian statehood, Netanyahu announced West Bank settlements that the U.S. and Europe had strongly opposed. When Britain, France, Spain, Australia, and several other countries called in Israel's ambassadors to protest this slap, Netanyahu’s office replied that "Israel will continue to stand by its vital interests, even in the face of international pressure, and there will be no change in the decision that was made.”

Now Netanyahu has opened a trip to Germany—Israel’s most reliable friend and arms supplier in Europe—by insulting Europe, Germans, common sense, and critics of his land-grab policy. In an interview with Die Welt, Netanyahu argues that diplomacy is war, criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism, and U.N. resolutions—but not Israeli settlements—are unilateral.

“We can see half of Palestinian society overtaken by radical Islamists supported by Iran, and the other half is moving away from peace with unilateral resolutions at the U.N.,” Netanyahu tells his interviewers. The U.N. vote, in his opinion, showed that “the Palestinians want a Palestinian state without peace” and that “there’s no value to making agreements for peace, because when the other side violates it, nobody will hold them accountable.” In a dig at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Netanyahu concludes:

That is the root cause of the conflict: the unwillingness to make peace with Israel in any borders. … I would make peace in a heartbeat with Abu Mazen if he wanted peace, but he went to the U.N. His speech in the U.N. was not the speech of a man who wants peace. It was terrible incitement, full of venom. It wasn’t the way that a leader speaks to his people preparing them for peace.

Whoa. Let’s back up and take this from the top. When Netanyahu says half of Palestinian society has been taken over by radical Islamists, he’s talking about Hamas, which controls Gaza and preaches violence. When he says the other half is pushing resolutions at the U.N., he’s talking about Abbas’ faction, Fatah, which controls the West Bank and has embraced nonviolence. Netanyahu sees no difference. In his view, Palestinians who propose “unilateral resolutions” at the U.N., like those who launch missiles, are “moving away from peace.” And anyone who delivers a speech “full of venom”—i.e., full of statements that really tick you off—is guilty of incitement and not wanting peace. Plus, the Palestinians promised in previous peace agreements to negotiate statehood with Israel. By seeking statehood through the U.N., they’re violating those agreements. And although this violation hasn’t entailed any actual breach of peace—in fact, Abbas has reaffirmed his commitments to nonviolence, coexistence, and permanent peace—the violation justifies Netanyahu’s conclusion that “there’s no value to making agreements for peace.”

Netanyahu continues:

I feel a deep mission to protect the Jewish people and the one and only Jewish state. We’ve had a horrible history on the soil of Europe. Our people were murdered—six million of our people and from the ashes of the Holocaust, we built the state. This state is being attacked again and again by Arab states and now by Iranian-backed terrorists. And it’s being attacked again and again with slander. In our history, including on the soil of Europe, we had a regular pattern. First the Jewish people were maligned, then they were attacked. And the maligning, the vilification served as the legitimization for the attacks that followed, and in many ways this is what is happening to the State of Israel. It is vilified again and again in public opinion, including in European public opinion, to prepare the attacks.

This is quite a piece of manipulation. It starts with an invocation of the Holocaust—one of four times Netanyahu brings up the Nazi genocide to exploit the guilt of his German audience, of whom no one younger than 67 was even alive during the Third Reich. From there, he segues to the 20th-century Arab wars against Israel, and then to contemporary terrorism. Then, in a majestic leap, he declares that Israel is now “being attacked again,” this time with “slander” and “vilification.” He speaks of “Israel,” “the Jewish state” and “the Jewish people” interchangeably, implying that anyone who criticizes his policies is orchestrating violence against Jews. He goes on:

We had no defenses before the establishment of the Jewish state, and we could be tossed like a leaf in the wind. And we were incinerated like refuse. And so the Jewish state was established, among other things, to give the Jewish people a home in their ancestral homeland, but also to give them the capacity for self-defense. Our enemies who know that they cannot defeat us on the battlefield in legitimate warfare, are using two types of weapons against us: the weapon of terror—rockets fired on our cities. And the weapon of lies. … We seek to live in peace with our neighbors, and they seek to either eradicate us with a frontal attack, or to establish a state that will not live in peace with us. And either one is unacceptable. 

That’s a straight line, in Netanyahu’s telling, from Hitler’s ovens to Hamas’ rockets to Abbas’ “weapon of lies.” Without shame, he lumps together the rocket attacks with the pursuit of statehood through the U.N.: “Either one is unacceptable.” When the interviewer points out that “the French and British have even threatened to recall their ambassadors” to protest Israel’s new settlement plan, Netanyahu cracks, “I suppose Israelis should have become used to the fact that we don’t get a fair hearing in Europe.” With a burst of moral narcissism, he adds: “We’re the only country threatened with genocide.”

The interviewer, referring to European criticism of the settlement plan, asks, “Were you surprised by the reaction of France and UK and Sweden?” Netanyahu replies:

I think that there’s a willingness to believe the worst about Israel in some quarters of Europe, and that’s something that has been part of our history in Europe for many generations. People believed outrageous things about the Jewish people, as some now believe about the Jewish state. What is our great crime? What is it we’re doing? We’re building in the areas that will remain in a final peace settlement of Israel. This is not some foreign land. This is the land in which the Jewish people have been for close to 4000 years. What we’re talking about is suburbs contiguous to Jerusalem. And everybody knows that they will remain part of Israel. You don’t change the map, you don’t prejudge anything.

That’s a pretty transparent allegation that European criticism of the settlement plan is anti-Semitic. For good measure, Netanyahu casually asserts “everybody knows” the area being settled “will remain part of Israel.” Never mind that Abbas calls construction in this area a “red line.” Never mind the U.S. State Department’s affirmation that “this area is particularly sensitive and construction there would be especially damaging to efforts to achieve a two-state solution.” This is Israel’s land, because Israel says so. But when Abbas persuades the U.N. to vote 138-9 for Palestinian statehood, that’s “unilateral.”

There’s a case to be made for many of Israel’s concerns about Palestinian statehood. But this isn’t it. Rockets are violence. Speeches and resolutions at the U.N. aren’t. Israel is entitled to demand probationary security mechanisms in the Palestinian territories based on recent history. But it isn’t entitled to claim those territories based on the Bible. Israel can bargain for parts of the West Bank, but it can’t take them. The Holocaust must be remembered but never abused.

Someday, Israel will have a prime minister capable of making this case to the world. My fear is that the world will no longer be listening.

William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

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