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King Bibi is wearing the wrong crown

By catering to the far right, Netanyahu has made Israel vulnerable, isolated and without hope for peace

Enough is enough. A few months ago, Time magazine crowned Benjamin Netanyahu “King Bibi” in their cover story on him. Well, a king must be worthy of the crown and the kingdom, and must earn the trust of a majority of his subjects. A real king must also decide whether he is a king who represents all of his subjects or only his courtiers.

The time has come for Netanyahu to decide what he wants to be. The king of the far right, or the king of Israel. It has been years since Netanyahu began his reign, supposedly over all of Israel, when in fact all his actions and decisions have been those of the sovereign of the far right realm. This is true in the areas of financial, social and security policy and, of course, in the diplomatic space.

Actually, “King Bibi” must understand that the hard right in Israel is a minority. It is a minority in both the electorate and the Knesset. It is a minority that controls the kingdom – not because it represents a majority view, but simply because of sheer lack of courageous and united leadership on the left, the center, and the moderate right.

Since Rabin, there hasn’t been a king of the center-left in Israel, and Likud has long since morphed from a pragmatic Zionist right-wing party into one commandeered by the extreme right.

And so it was that the extreme right and extreme left in Israel met. Both have destructive policies and a desire to ultimately bring Israel to a bi-national Israeli-Palestinian state – each for their own reasons and political intent. The far left because it believes that Israelis and Palestinians will find the harmony they desire here in a single shared state, and the extreme right because it would rather live here in a single shared state than make the very painful territorial concessions that will be necessary for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Most Israelis want, and rightly so, an amicable divorce from the Palestinians under the two state solution. Clear boundaries. We’re here, they’re there, living side by side in peace and dignity.

But the fringe right and fringe left, far from wanting an amicable divorce, prefer the unbreakable chains of matrimony. God help us if that happens. Precisely because of this, it is incumbent on the majority of the Israeli public to stand up and say loud and clear: enough is enough. The rules of the game, the vision, and the path itself must change, and now. The public in Israel, and Bibi himself, have to understand that exclusively wearing the crown of the right has failed miserably. It has failed in social and political terms and it has failed on a security level.

The failure is significant in a range of important areas, but I will mention only three. First, Israel has one of the strongest armies in the world, the bravest and most motivated soldiers in the world, and yet in two decades we have not succeeded to subdue a small, unsophisticated, barbaric terrorist organization that continues to dictate the terms of life in Israel and paralyze the whole country. Add to this the damage done to Israel’s deterrence, which has eroded over the years, and you realize that something very wrong has happened here on a military and strategic security level. It all happened under the right.

Second, Israel has one of the most sophisticated, highly developed and well-funded intelligence networks in the world, and despite this, and under our very noses, Hamas built a fully-equipped, advanced underground city of evil, and an impressive network of terror tunnels. Perhaps Israel would care to take lessons from Hamas on building a subway system for Tel Aviv, about which Israel’s government has been talking for many years now.

The third and final failure, and the most painful one, at least to me as an Israeli, a Jew and a Zionist who is so proud of his country: Israel is a Western democracy, indeed the only democracy and the most advanced and progressive country in the whole Middle East, and yet it is the country that is perceived as a global human rights violator, the evil, immoral, neighborhood bad guy.

That’s the same neighborhood in which nations butcher and massacre their citizens in systematic genocides and with chemical weapons; states that ignore basic human rights; countries that discriminate against women; execute dissidents, academics, journalists, political opponents, gays and members of religious and other minorities in the town squares; the same Arab-Muslim Middle East in which the Arabs and Muslims who live the most free, democratic, and fair lives in the whole region are the ones who live in the “Jewish state.” And yet, incomprehensibly, we are the ones who are seen as the bullies of the region.

All this when Israel has a rich and embracing judicial system, and when justice and morality are clearly on our side. Once we were understood around the world. They even admired us, but no longer.

Does any of this seem reasonable? Of course not. So what the hell is going on here? Where did we go wrong? Netanyahu’s insistence on remaining the king of the hard right in a Middle Eastern state in which the hard right is a minority is what has brought us to our present situation.

The State of Israel and Netanyahu must realize that we are a regional player and we cannot afford to just keep dancing solo – or, at best, just keep dancing the Israeli-Palestinian tango. The problem is much broader.

Israel is part of a neighborhood, a difficult and problematic neighborhood to be sure, but still a neighborhood, and this Middle Eastern neighborhood has many players, mainly Arab and Muslim players. Some of these are bad, very bad indeed. You cannot talk with them and should not even try. But some are rational and moderate. With them it is desirable, worthwhile and possible to try and reach understanding and agreement, even peace. Israel must understand that sometimes the enemy of your enemy can be your friend, or at least your partner against a common enemy in war.

I have personally known for some time now that there are elements in the Arab and Muslim world that you can talk to in the Middle East. Moreover, there are such elements who even want to talk to us and are willing to reach an agreement with us; one might even say very willing. I talked to them myself quite a bit in the past and I still talk to them in the present, including in the last several weeks. ISIS, Hamas and their murderous, immoral fellow travelers are also their enemies, not just ours. So yes, in order to seriously talk to them we will need to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. But it is possible, and the reward will undoubtedly be greater than the price we will have to pay.

A little over a year ago, just two months after my election to the Knesset, I was the first Knesset Member ever to initiate a discussion on an official Knesset Caucus related to Israel’s need for regional dialogue and on Israel’s duty to respond to the Arab Peace Initiative. More than 40 members of Knesset and a number of ministers and deputy ministers in the Netanyahu government came and participated in the discussion.

The participants in the discussion came from almost every party in the chamber. From Arab parties on the far left, through ultra-Orthodox parties, to Likud and Jewish Home on the far right. Netanyahu did not come and did not address the caucus; nor did Tzipi Livni nor Yair Lapid. They sneered at the discussion I initiated and said it was too early and too detached from reality – that the time was not yet ripe for a regional effort. It’s funny, because three weeks ago I heard that Livni and Lapid conditioned the ceasefire agreement with Hamas on the establishment of a regional summit. Welcome to the club, I say to them. Better late than never.

For 12 years, the Saudi Peace Initiative, which has since been upgraded to the Arab Peace Initiative, has been on our table. Twelve years in which the famous “three noes” of the Khartoum Conference turned into “three yeses.” Has anyone in the Israeli administration responded in any way to this tectonic shift in the Arab and Muslim worlds? No. Israel’s failure to respond to the Arab Peace Initiative has been one of its gravest diplomatic errors. We should not and must not accept the initiative as it is, but we should and must react to it and wrestle with it.

Strangely, and unacceptably, Israel never even officially rejected the Initiative. Even refusal would have been a preferable statement to this complete lack of engagement with it. Certainly in terms of a proposal that comes from the Arab world. I once said to Netanyahu from the Knesset podium: you can say “no” to the initiative, “yes,” “yes but,” or “maybe,” but the one thing you cannot do is to not react to it at all.

I call on the Israeli government to immediately open a direct channel with countries in the Arab and Muslim world, including the Palestinians, and send them a simple, clear, direct and basic message: If you are prepared to live here beside us peacefully, let’s sit down and talk about how to do it – we are ready to talk and reach an agreement, and it is possible, because we’ve done it in the past with Egypt and Jordan. But if you are among those who wish to live here instead of us or to destroy us – know that this will never happen. Not in a million years. Israel and the Jewish people have always been and will always be here.

Without an agreement, we will have to keep fighting here forever, losing lives and losing the opportunity and the huge potential to live a just and normal life here, economically, morally and diplomatically. We can live here with each other and not against each other. If the rational and moderate players in the Middle East will choose to cooperate with each other, the Middle East’s potential is huge. Economically and also, primarily, in the realm of security, particularly in terms of the potential for eradicating evil and barbaric forces like ISIS, Hamas, and their allies.

But to get there, from an Israeli perspective, Israeli diplomacy in the Middle East must be much more accurate and sophisticated than an IDF cruise missile. The years of Netanyahu have been the least accurate and sophisticated in terms of regional diplomacy. It’s time to start changing that.

If Netanyahu wants to be the one to bring the change, he can and must make the switch from being king of the right to being king of Israel, a king who understand that he lives in the Middle East. A king who understands that the political and diplomatic arm of Israel must always be as active, involved and strong as its military arm, and not subservient to it. Netanyahu must start swimming in the deep waters of the Middle East in general and of an agreement with the Palestinians in particular, just as right-wing leaders that became prime ministers did before him. They understood.

If Netanyahu chooses not to switch crowns, the day will come when the kingdom will choose to replace “King Bibi” with another king. In my view, that day is not far off. The choice is in Netanyahu’s hands. It is still not too late.

About the Author
MK Hilik Bar is General Secretary of the Labor Party, Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and co-chairperson of the Knesset Caucus for Jerusalem.
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