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Gary Epstein
And now for something completely different . . .

What If This Is As Good As It Gets?

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Bret Stephens is a brilliant journalist and an incisive political commentator. He has demonstrated excellence at each of his high-profile positions–among them stints at The Jerusalem Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.  His is a powerful voice for Israel, made even more so by his independence of thought and his willingness to depart from conventional positions.  He is a truly original thinker in a field where stereotypes rule and repetitiveness reigns supreme. In my humble opinion, a true measure of his quality resides among the countless times that I have read his work with admiration and thought, “I wish that I had written that.  I wish that I could write like that.”

Not infrequently, I forward his articles to family members and friends with approving messages.  I just did so again yesterday with his piece on what a better Israeli prime minister than Benjamin Netanyahu would do.  Mr. Stephens has made no secret of his disapproval, even abhorrence, of Mr. Netanyahu.  Here, I said, is a creative approach to the present situation.

And then I read it again.

On second analysis, it seemed more like a facile and glib attack that takes cheap shots by ignoring the true complexity of the situation, suggesting that someone other than Netanyahu could easily accomplish objectives that are, in truth, unattainable, and offering little, if anything, that is new, constructive, or achievable.  Mr.  Stephens writes so well and so persuasively that it really takes two readings to see beneath the veneer.  And why would he employ these devices to make Netanyahu appear deficient?  I attribute this to the malaise that has settled upon even those commentators who truly love Israel as they (we) contemplate its awful and fraught present situation, combined with the loathing that Mr. Netanyahu appears to inspire among the right people in academic and journalistic circles.

Accordingly, I will try to fairly paraphrase the proposals offered by Mr. Stephens as measures that a better prime minister than Mr. Netanyahu would take, responding to each one with a more realistic assessment:

*A better prime minister (BPM) would immediately hold elections, so that Israelis could elect a government they believe will bring them out of crisis.  The resulting government, if led by Netanyahu, will have an ”honest mandate” and “dissenting Israelis would have fewer reasons to protest him.”

BUT . . . The present democratically elected government has an honest mandate.  The candidates were known quantities and their platforms were explicit; the electorate knew for whom and what it was voting.  Losing voters may not have liked the result, and may have expressed their discontent volubly, but the notion that a duly elected government, with a majority in the Knesset, should dissolve itself because some of its policies are unpopular with the press and even a portion of the public stands democracy and the Israeli system of government on its ear.  And let’s be real.  If Mr. Netanyahu dissolved the government, held elections, and won again, the notion that the protests of “dissenting Israelis” would stop is nothing short of laughable, as is the notion that it would change the mindset of some military leaders, who appear no longer to believe in civilian leadership.

*A BPM would declare Israel’s willingness to accept a Palestinian State that looks like Costa Rica or the United Arab Emirates, but not one that looks like Yemen or Afghanistan.  The creation of that state would be more likely if it were to be moderate, not militant, and committed to the prosperity of its people and not the destruction of its neighbors.

BUT . . . Mr. Stephens does not explain how he plans to swap out the present Palestinian Arab population and leaders of Gaza and the West Bank, 80% of whom support Hamas, armed struggle, and resistance, and replace them with an equivalent number of moderate, peaceful, docile Central Americans.  I think that it is fair to say that if the Palestinians had been able or willing to establish such a neighborly state, it would have come into existence about 12 times by now, and its GDP would rival that of Germany, or at least Italy.  For Netanyahu, or even a BPM, to announce that he would welcome a clone of the United Arab Emirates as a neighboring state would not advance the ball six inches (15 cm).  Those are not the cards Mr. Netanyahu has been dealt, and it is unfair and unrealistic to suggest that his announcement that Israel is prepared to accept a peaceful neighbor would change anything.  Now, if a moderate and credible Palestinian Arab leader were to emerge with such a proposal, that might be a step forward (at least for the few days or weeks that he or she remained alive.)

*A BPM would create long-term safe zones within Gaza, for so long as Israel remains in Gaza, monitored and financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development and its European counterparts. It would be open to journalists and well-provided with humanitarian resources.  If it worked, it would certainly realize Mr. Stephens’ objective of alleviating humanitarian distress, keeping civilians out of harm’s way, and depriving Hamas of propaganda victories.

BUT . . . One assumes that an occupying force of the IDF would have to guard and maintain these enclaves from Hamas encroachment, and someone (the Arab countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations?  The UN?  The US?) would have to keep Hamas from stealing the food and medicine.  Perhaps the US could build a floating dock.  Or perhaps, assuming we could get past the negative colonial implications, we could ask Switzerland to come in and administer these little cantons within Gaza.   Because . . . Israel administering and protecting peaceful and protected Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza?  It really isn’t astonishing that Netanyahu hasn’t proposed or implemented that.  Would it be so easy for a BPM?

*The BPM would proclaim a postwar vision for Gaza, establishing a 10-year Arab mandate led by Arab States that have diplomatic relations with Israel, preferably including Saudi Arabia.  So Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan will provide Gazans with security and governance and Hamas will fade peacefully into the background.  Norway, Ireland, Spain and other supporters of a Palestinian State will provide reconstruction assistance.  If it succeeds, it could be a model for the West Bank.

But . . . Sure it could.  Also for Iran and North Korea.  Maybe Sudan.  Who exactly is this BPM going to be?  Superman? Walt Disney?  Would Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, or the miracle-working triumvirate of Norway, Ireland, and Spain, do away with the role of the UNRWA in sustaining the Palestinian populace in its enduring hatred?  Isn’t this proposal based on the quaint notion that irredentist Palestinians will stand peacefully by?  And isn’t that beyond the capacity of any PM, B or other?  And isn’t it DOA?

*Stephens says that a better prime minister would obtain the release of all remaining hostages, living and dead, by offering a reciprocal safe passage from Gaza to Qatar for all Hamas fighters and leaders, but he cautions that no deal should effectively legitimize Hamas’s continued grip on power.

But . . . While this is a terrific proposal, do you think that it might require the acquiescence of Hamas leadership, which might not be forthcoming before, say, Hell freezes over?  Or, perhaps,  in the unlikely event that Hamas does not agree to relinquish power peacefully and go away, might this proposal require the prior military defeat of Hamas?  Just asking.

*A BPM would not have ministers who are unqualified for their jobs.

But . . . there is no “But.”  I can’t argue with that one.  The deal-making and horse-trading that attends the formation of a coalition is among the most distasteful features of Israeli politics.  I’m not certain that Stephens’ BPM would be able to clean house unless the BPM’s party had a functional majority without a coalition, but any observer should agree that it is devoutly to be wished that only qualified people should serve as ministers.

*The BPM is going to have a red line requiring full implementation by a stated deadline of the Hezbollah retreat behind the Litani River in accordance with UN Resolutions, thus calling attention to Hezbollah’s violations.   When Hezbollah does not comply, that will provide greater justification for Israel to launch a war that the US will support.

But . . . Uh . . . Hezbollah, launching thousands of missiles, has effectively invaded the north of Israel and forced the evacuation of its population.  That’s not adequate justification?  Perhaps no one has reminded them of the UN Resolution? And, despite the violations, hasn’t the US stated that it will not support Israel in a war?  Would the announcement of a red line change that? Will the BPM change US policy by fiat?  And is the BPM going to bring Iran to heel also?  Because this article makes very little mention of Iran, and makes no realistic proposal to make it curb Hezbollah’s behavior. That would appear to be a major oversight, given that it is Iran calling the shots.

*A BPM would not deliver a speech to Congress in these complex times, because such a speech will highlight America’s partisan divisions over support for Israel.  Rather, he should explain to Democrats (such as Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?) that Israel is the only country in the Middle East where progressive values are respected.

*But . . . does anyone really think that such an explanation will be effective?  Is Israel’s status as the only democracy in the Middle East a secret?  Maybe if Jamaal Bowman had stayed around, he could lend his progressive voice to the support the BPM would engender with such an explanation.  It might be argued that Netanyahu has the clearest and most persuasive voice of any Israeli on the American stage and that he should seek the largest platform available to articulate Israel’s position.  Hiding his head in the sand may be a feature of the BPM, but Netanyahu has a loud voice and the ears of supporters of Israel in Congress and the American heartland, and there may be no better time in the future to stake out a clear position and attempt to solidify American support in Congress while the mood among Republicans and older Democrats is still favorable.  Time is running out.

*Stephens suggests, quite appropriately, that Netanyahu should not pick a fight with the American President, and should do what is necessary to have the American President reciprocate.

Agreed.  Perhaps we could get Jill to intercede on our behalf.

*A BPM would oppose stipends and subsidies for religious students who refuse enlistment orders.

No argument here.  But also for secular students who don’t serve.  Those who give the most should receive the most.

*Stephens says that a BPM would articulate the real stakes in the war, identifying it as a multifront campaign against Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Iran, and their allies in Russia, Syria, China, and North Korea.

But . . . I would submit that the present Prime Minister has done that repeatedly and vociferously for years, while the Obama/Biden coterie has willfully turned deaf ears.  In fact, Netanyahu’s forceful presentation of this position has served to antagonize them, because of their preference for an Iran-centric Middle East.  It’s still a fair point, but it’s hard to imagine how the imaginary BPM, or anyone, could accomplish this task more persuasively.

*Stephens concludes by saying that a better prime minister would do all these things and more, and that Israel’s crises will abate when it gets one.

Would they, though?  Is there someone we can identify who could work these wonders?  Is he or she presently in the Knesset?  Leading the IDF? Writing for a newspaper?  Isn’t it just a bit facile to suggest that replacing Netanyahu with someone more to the liking of the illuminati will bring salvation?  Would it really be so easy for someone without Netanyahu’s decades of experience (even with the associated baggage) to implement these proposals that might be categorized as, shall we say, optimistic? Costa Rica?

And if there are no elections, or if elections yield, for the umpteenth time, a stalemate or another Netanyahu government, do we just give up and disregard what they did on October 7, and what our heroes in the IDF and on the homefront have done starting October 8?

Or maybe  . . . we could complete what we started on October 8, coalesce behind a duly elected and formed government, implement and effectuate its policies, support it during war, expressing criticism only when and as appropriate, without ad hominem attacks?  Maybe, for once, we could get behind our leaders and support them, even when the wind changes directions?

And lest the reader or Mr. Stephens, in the unlikely event that this should ever come to his attention, conclude that I am one of those fault-finding, nay-saying members of the audience who nit-picks but has nothing positive to add, I offer the following suggestion for this Prime Minister or any BPM who replaces him: do whatever is necessary to shore up support in the United States, obtain the necessary weapons and manpower, and proceed to win the war as decisively and expeditiously as possible. By any means, as the masked street people say. Only a victor can dictate terms.  No matter who is Prime Minister, Israel will not be able to implement any effective plan for Gaza through dialogue with a hostile, adverse party with equal bargaining power.  Such a negotiation will yield partial and temporary relief, at best. Netanyahu must win the war to accomplish his goals.  So would any putative BPM.

When Israel wins the war, the possibilities for building peace are endless.  Until that happens, even the most well-written op-ed (and I still wish that I could write like him) will be empty posturing.

And what if the ostensibly BPM turns out to be W?

About the Author
Gary Epstein is a retired teacher and lawyer residing in Modi'in, Israel. He was formerly the Head of the Global Corporate and Securities Department of Greenberg Traurig, a global law firm with an office in Tel Aviv, which he founded and of which he was the first Managing Partner. He and his wife Ahuva are blessed with18 grandchildren, ka"h, all of whom he believes are well above average. He currently does nothing. He believes he does it well.
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