The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Monday, May 20, 2002  

Prime Minister Sharon Has a Better Grasp on Reality

It’s interesting that we find some of the most thoughtful and provocative discussions of Middle East politics not in America’s leading metropolitan newspapers but in this country’s preeminent Jewish publications and in the Israel press. Ideas are presented and debated in these outlets that are anathema to most pundits writing about the conflict today. The narrow range of views expressed on the op-ed pages and political talk shows, along with the stifling of constructive debate in Congress, continue to inflict damage on American foreign policy.

And so we turn to the latest issue of the Forward, which has a thoughtful essay by Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, “Undermining Israel, With No Alternatives.”

Yoffie takes Benjamin Netanyahu to task for his recent address to the Likud Party’s Central Committee, the speech in which he asked the party to affirm that a Palestinian state would never be established west of the Jordan River.

“[Netanyahu] declared that it was not his intention to undermine Prime Minister Sharon, but he was fully aware that if the resolution passed -- and it did -- the result would be not only to humiliate Sharon and advance Netanyahu’s own candidacy for party leadership, but also to cause significant damage to Israel’s diplomatic standing. At a critical moment in Israel’s history, with its citizenry reeling from continuous terrorism, Netanyahu chose opportunism over leadership and personal ambition over the well-being of the Jewish state. [Ed.: Emphasis added.]

Yoffie clearly is pained by the present state of political discourse in Israel, which he asserts is characterized as “a bizarre dissonance.” It could hardly be otherwise given the security dilemmas Israel faces, and on this we sympathize, conceding that even after the attacks of September 11, we can barely comprehend the fear, distrust, and insecurity that prevails through the region.

Yoffie’s analysis of the divergent views held by Israelis is intelligent and nuanced. A majority, he writes, support forcibly transferring the Palestinians out of greater Israel, but a majority also support dismantling the West Bank settlements should that be required to reach a peace agreement. “They demand a strong hand against Palestinian terrorism while expressing sympathy for the Saudi peace plan,” he adds.

“Weary of the killing, Israelis seem intent on getting tough with the murderers while searching for any means possible to be rid of their presence,” Yoffie continues.

“In this atmosphere, demagogues might easily exploit popular ambivalence to offer simplistic solutions that compromise Israel’s fundamental values. Fortunately, Israel’s political leadership has largely avoided such temptations -- until now,” he observes, referring to Netanyahu’s central committee speech.

According to Yoffie, neither Sharon nor Netanyahu has ever been an enthusiastic advocate of a Palestinian state, but to his credit, Sharon understands that adopting a position against such an entity would be “disastrous for Israel.”

“Confronted by the Netanyahu challenge, Sharon passed an important test of leadership: He was prepared to stand by his convictions even if it meant paying a significant political price,” Yoffie writes. “But not only Sharon has paid a price; Israel has as well.”

Yoffie points out that the committee vote “has raised legitimate questions about the government’s intentions” and that the Palestinians have been given a public relations gift. “More important, it has embarrassed the Bush administration, which is firmly committed to a two-state solution....Netanyahu, who knows the United States well, is well aware that his resolution has the potential to distance Israel from its most important ally,” maintains Yoffie.

Netanyahu’s failure of leadership is most evident in his failure to put forth an alternative to a sovereign Palestinian state. Yoffie also reminds us that former Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s position -- “an autonomy plan that fell short of statehood” -- was accompanied by the recognition that his stance would require that Palestinians be offered Israeli citizenship. One can only imagine the reaction if Begin were alive and put forward this plan today.

“If the possibility of a Palestinian state is to be excluded, as Netanyahu proposed, the only option that remains is some form of permanent occupation,” argues Yoffie. “In short, rejecting a Palestinian state means rejecting the democratic values that are the foundation of Zionism.”

“By trying to outflank the prime minister on the right and promote his own candidacy at all costs, Netanyahu has exploited Israel’s vulnerability, compromised her message and weakened her position in the United States and the world,” concludes Yoffie.

One can’t help be feel sad, frustrated, and angered by this blatant display of short-sighted intransigence.

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