Obama’s Sit Down with Thomas Friedman
Last Friday, President Obama sat down for an interview with NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman about foreign affairs. Although the topics were broader than the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the topic was broached. When asked about whether he should be more vigorous in pressuring Prime Minister Netanyahu and Abu Mazen to strike a land for peace deal, the President answered that it has to start with Abbas and Netanyahu. Pointing out that Bibi’s poll numbers are better than Obama’s, the President does not believe that Bibi will make peace without internal pressure forcing him to make necessary compromises. Abu Mazen according to the President has a different problem; he is too weak to make peace. In other words, while Bibi is too popular, Abbas is not popular enough.
In Obama’s world, Bibi needs societal pressure to take on the settler movement and make the necessary hard compromises that are against his natural inclinations. Obama continues to focus on settlements in the territories as the key issue. It is as if he has completely ignored Operation Protective Edge and most of the last six years he has been President.
According to Obama, Abbas is just too weak to make peace. But what does that mean? Just for a moment, consider the assumption that Abbas is prepared to accept the legitimacy of Israel being the homeland of the Jewish people and is willing to live in peace in a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel and that refugees will be repatriated only in a Palestinian state. I am totally aware of the lack of realism regarding these assumptions but let this argument play out. Abbas is weak because his positions are not reflective of the society that he represents. His solution has not been accepted by the Palestinian street; he is out ahead of Palestinian public opinion.
How does one establish one’s bona fides in Palestinian society as a leader? The best way to do so seems to be to murder Israelis. Recent polling data indicates that less than 30% of the Palestinians support a two-state solution. Mainstream Palestinian society is still not prepared to accept the permanence of the State of Israel and live in peace alongside of it. So in the world according to Obama, Bibi is to push his society place their trust in a 79 year-old leader in the 9th year of his 4-year term whose views do not reflect those of his society when the significant likelihood is that Abbas’ successor will have dramatically different views about a Palestinian state. And all of this is ignoring the possibility of rocket fire from the Judean hills down into the coastal plain and shutting off Ben Gurion Airport and Israel’s connection to the outside world.
Then we move on to Bibi. I wish our constitutional law scholar President had bothered read or re-read James Madison and Federalist 10 about the nature of democracies and representative governments. It might have given him a better understanding of Israeli politics. Madison’s problem with pure democracy was the combination of people with similar economic or social interests into a tyranny of the majority, which he described as the violence and damage caused by factions. Madison posed two possible solutions to the problem of factions, eliminate its causes or control its effects. In a free society, the elimination of factions is impossible because interest groups are inherent to liberty. Only a totalitarian society can eliminate the cause of factions, such as the one in Gaza.
Madison’s solution was a representative government, a government in which the many elect the few who govern. A pure democracy is incapable of controlling conflicts between factions because the views of the largest faction control, and there is no way to protect weak factions against the actions of an obnoxious individual or a strong majority. Madison’s belief was that the elected representatives would represent the best of society and be able to govern with wisdom and discernment. I cannot say that that portion of Madison’s analysis is applicable to the Knesset, but Madison’s solution still works.
With broad coalitions necessary to achieve power, compromises must be made to establish a majority coalition and in the process take into account all the disparate views of the factions forming the coalition. That’s where Federalist 10 speaks directly to Israeli politics. In order to form a government, Bibi has put together a disparate coalition that includes Tzipi Livni, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, which in the aggregate is reflective of the views of the a broad spectrum of Israeli society, constituting the vast majority. There is ambivalence in Israeli society, which sees both the necessity of a Palestinian state combined with the utter impracticality of having one, given the impact of such a state on the ability of Israelis to live in peace and without fear of rocket fire or terrorist attacks. Even though Operation Protective Edge has increased Bibi’s popularity, Bibi is nevertheless reflective of that societal ambivalence. The left has not convinced the Israeli public that its policies are a viable alternative. On the other hand, neither has the hard right convinced the public of the benefits of their policies either. That sort of gets you to Bibi by default.
Netanyahu’s views are reflective of those of his society; Abu Mazen’s are not. So why is it that Netanyahu has to be pressured when Palestinian society, according to President Obama is not prepared to make peace? The rational move would be to influence the views of the Palestinians so that Abbas’ views are not dismissed on the Palestinian street and isn’t that where the President should be directing his energies?