Last Wednesday Philip Weiss and Adam Horowitz grudgingly tipped their hats to Jeffrey Goldberg for another agenda-setting story, but I think their quick appraisal of Chickenshitgate misses the true significance of this episode. “The comment has stung Netanyahu,” they observe, referring to accusations of cowardice by an unnamed White House official, “and maybe hurt him politically.” With respect to Netanyahu’s domestic audience, there is almost no chance this is the case. Obama is not popular in Israel generally, and as Gideon Levy observes, “Nothing can bolster [Netanyahu] more in the right wing than turning him into the enemy of the supposedly ‘hostile’ American administration.” In the international realm, Goldberg’s story reflects much more poorly on the US than on Netanyahu, since it betrays the Obama administration’s terrible misunderstanding of the conflict. It may be the case (as Weiss and Horowitz write, citing Ari Fleischer) that “the damage was intentional,” but the questions are: damage to whom, and intentional on whose part?
Weiss and Horowitz don’t address the accuracy of our anonymous official’s estimation of Netanyahu, but this is critically important. Assuming Goldberg’s reporting to be truthful (something M. J. Rosenberg doubts), his source told him, “The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit,” and adduced the following evidence: “he’s scared to launch wars” (characterized as “good”), and “he won’t do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arab states [bad]. The only thing he’s interested in is protecting himself from political defeat. He’s not Rabin, he’s not Sharon, he’s certainly no Begin. He’s got no guts.” In its correspondence to reality, this account of Netanyahu conforms to the wildest conservative fantasies of the Obama team’s naiveity and foolishness with respect to foreign affairs.
First, Netanyahu’s purported reluctance to launch major military operations: a familiar theme for Israel apologists, this was already dubious by Operation Pillar of Defense; in the wake of Protective Edge, the most savage punishment yet inflicted on the much-scourged Gaza Strip, it can safely be discarded. (Prime ministers of Israel have done worse, but who honestly expected the criminality of Cast Lead to be exceeded so soon?) It seems our unnamed official was thinking primarily of Iran, but as Stephen Walt points out, in this case “an actual attack was never a serious possibility” (despite what a war lover like Goldberg might have thought). Netanyahu’s failure to bomb Iran is evidence not of gutlessness but of sanity. The fact that his assaults on Gaza don’t count as “wars” in our official’s eyes is symptomatic of the US government’s depraved indifference to the fate of the Palestinians: they are simply expected to be slaughtered by the score every couple of years, in addition to being routinely cut down in smaller numbers by their occupiers.
Even more disconcerting is the inexplicable illusion that Netanyahu’s hostility to the so-called peace process can be attributed to political cowardice — that he avoids making concessions to the Palestinians in order not to be kicked out of office. This might seem plausible to an Obama apparatchik — someone who works in a White House that has allowed Israel to continue its absorption of the West Bank and immiseration of Gaza despite probably disapproving of these measures — but it betrays complete ignorance of Israeli politics.
The scion of a prominent Revisionist Zionist family, Netanyahu began his political career as an advocate of transfer, placing him at the rightward extreme of the Israeli policy spectrum. When he was deputy foreign minister in the Shamir government, Netanyahu proposed seizing the opportunity provided by the world’s focus on Tiananmen Square “to carry out mass expulsions among the Arabs of the Territories. However,” he explained in a speech at Bar Ilan University in 1989, “to my regret, they did not support that policy that I proposed, and which I still propose should be implemented.” Netanyahu came to power in 1996 opposing the Oslo Accords, an agreement that was fatally weighted against the Palestinians but which he nonetheless worked vigorously to destroy, as he boasted during a visit with West Bank settlers when he thought the camera was off.
Toward the indigenous population Netanyahu favors not concession but brutalization: to those same settlers, who lost a family member in a terror attack, he explained that when it comes to the Arabs you have to “beat them up, not once, but repeatedly; beat them up so it hurts badly, until it’s unbearable.”
By his second premiership, Netanyahu had attained the political savvy of your average Labor politician, wising up enough to know more or less how the so-called peace process works: you pair rhetorical support for a Palestinian state with continued actions toward making that outcome impossible (construction in the West Bank, destruction in Gaza). Or, as he put it during a meeting with young Likud supporters in 2013, “What matters is that we continue to head straight toward our goal, even if one time we walk right and another time walk left.” (“When one of the Likudniks asked about peace talks with the Palestinians,” reports The New Yorker’s Connie Bruck, “Netanyahu is said to have replied, as the audience laughed, ‘About the — what?’”) That goal, in accordance with the Revisionist tradition of Netanyahu’s forbears, is Greater Israel, secured through an eventual surrender agreement by which some Palestinian entity, less than a sovereign state, accepts the scraps of the West Bank. (The fate of Gaza, which is to remain cut off in flagrant contravention of Oslo, has never been clear in Zionist thought; in 1955 Ben Gurion told his cabinet, “If I believed in miracles I would pray for it to be swallowed up in the sea.”)
In this sense Netanyahu is indeed not Rabin, Sharon, or Begin; the predecessor he most resembles is his old boss, Yitzhak Shamir. In 1992, after Likud lost the election to Labor and Rabin, Shamir admitted in an interview that his peace negotiations with the Palestinians had been a sham, mere cover for colonization: “It pains me greatly that in the coming four years, I will not be able to expand the settlements in Judea and Samaria and to complete the demographic revolution in the land of Israel,” Shamir told Ma’ariv (at the time a right-paper paper). “I would have carried on autonomy talks for ten years, and meanwhile we would have reached half a million people in Judea and Samaria.” Netanyahu has employed essentially the same run-out-the-clock strategy. During the Clinton years he haggled interminably and reneged outright on implementing withdrawal agreements, thereby preventing final-status negotiations within the five years specified by Oslo; at the same time he continued expropriating land and building settlements, moving closer to integrating “Judea and Samaria” with Israel. His Obama-era approach has been aptly characterized by David Zonsheine, chairman of B’Tselem, as a “status quo strategy”:
“In Netanyahu’s case, preserving his rule without any apparent progress towards a clear goal is part and parcel of his plan to deepen the deeply-ingrained process of preventing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and splintering the Palestinian people… Every day that Netanyahu tries to maintain his seat is another day of settlement construction in the West Bank, another day of Palestinian displacement, of destroying Palestinian assets and other grave human rights violations; another day in which Netanyahu’s strategic goals are being achieved.”
Zonsheine goes on to explain that, since Netanyahu’s objectives run contrary to the international consensus, he has to act “cunningly” in order to be effective; hence, “His declaration of support for the two-state solution at Bar Ilan University and the negotiations led by Kerry were conducted in parallel to government actions on the ground — constituting an integral part of his strategy.”
The perspicacity of Zonsheine’s analysis far outstrips the understanding displayed by US elites, who continue to speak and act as though something other than deep ideological commitment stands between Netanyahu and a two-state solution. For David Rothkopf, editor and CEO of Foreign Policy, Chickenshitgate was an occasion to chide the Obama administration for the “dysfunctional character” of its national security team — evinced in his view by someone’s “venting about Netanyahu” to Goldberg, “one of the most respected journalists in Washington” and “an important voice on Middle East matters who is read as closely in Israel and elsewhere in the region as he is inside the Beltway.” Such an indiscretion “can only damage relations and inflame a bad situation — and it has.” It’s not that the official’s analysis was wrong; in fact, Rothkopf seems to agree with it: “US officials since the Clinton administration in which I served have, in fact, felt that Netanyahu is chickenshit.” Not to be outdone by the highly respected and important Goldberg, Rothkopf offers in support his own anonymously sourced quote: “In the words of a former top Obama official who dealt with the Middle East, on top of Netanyahu’s irritating personality and embrace of inflammatory and counterproductive policies, ‘he’s an accountant.’ In other words, he thinks small; he’s all tactics and no strategy.”
It’s hard to believe that someone who worked in the Clinton administration wouldn’t have a better idea of what Netanyahu is up to, until you find out Rothkopf was Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade Policy and Development. Still, he might have done some reading in the relevant diplomatic history, perhaps consulting Yossi Beilin’s The Path to Geneva: The Quest for a Permanent Solution, 1996-2003, where it is made plain that Netanyahu’s “strategic goal” was halting the Oslo process (p. 69). This generalizes, in the post-Oslo era, to thwarting the possibility of Palestinian statehood, and it is almost incredible that Netanyahu’s “accountant” act should still be fooling anyone. (According to Goldberg, “current and former administration officials have described Netanyahu as a national leader who acts as though he is mayor of Jerusalem, which is to say, a no-vision small-timer who worries mainly about pleasing the hardest core of his political constituency.” A total misreading, needless to say.) Unfortunately for the region and the world, the charlatans of the US foreign policy establishment don’t have to face the daily reality of Netanyahu’s strategy in action, as Zonsheine does, so they are free to believe that no such strategy exists.
Of course, the problem of the occupation is much larger than Netanyahu, but our official’s grasp of history is no better than his or her appraisal of current events. Presumably, the references to Rabin, Sharon and Begin were intended to remind us how a onetime hardliner can change his stripes, making the tough decisions necessary to advance the cause of peace; this is what Netanyahu should do, the implication goes, but lacks the character for. What’s so tragic about this reasoning is that anyone could possibly accept it. None of those prime ministers wanted, or even grudgingly accepted, a Palestinian state — not even Rabin, contrary to myths much cherished in this country. (To the end Rabin advocated “a Palestinian entity, less than a state, that runs the life of Palestinians… This is my goal, not to return to the pre-Six Day War lines but to create two entities, a separation between Israel and the Palestinians who reside in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”) The actions they took were intended to preserve Israeli control of the most desirable parts of the occupied territories (land, resources), though the details differed from plan to plan.
For Begin, the advantage of peace with Sadat was “giving Israel a free hand elsewhere by effectively excluding Egypt from the conflict,” as Noam Chomsky observes. (From the official post-agreement “Government policy guidelines” adopted by the Knesset: “After the transition period laid down in the Camp David accords, Israel will raise its claim and will act to fulfills its rights to sovereignty over Judea and Samaria and the Gaza district” [see Fateful Triangle, p. 62]). This was also the purpose of the murderous 1982 Sharon-Begin invasion of Lebanon, which aimed to destroy the PLO and thereby crush Palestinian nationalism; in Israel it was understood to be a war for the West Bank. With respect to Sharon’s premiership, much effort has been expended in presenting him as “the Israeli de Gaulle” (Ari Shavit’s ludicrous formluation for The New Yorker), but the true purpose of the Gaza disengagement has always been hiding in plain sight, in Dov Weissglass’s candid remarks to Ha’aretz from 2004: “It supplies the amount of formaldeyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians.” (The results confirm this cruel and cynical judgement, and US commentators have played their part in strenuously ignoring the obvious.)
The reality is that a viable Palestinian state has never been on offer — not even from Netanyahu’s old rival Ehud Barak, whom our official did not mention — but it doesn’t matter how often this is conclusively demonstrated; it is ideologically unacceptable, since it gives the lie to the notion of a good-faith US-brokered peace process (and benign US hegemony more generally). The question raised by Chickenshitgate, following Kerry’s doomed effort to reach a final agreement without putting real pressure on Israel, is whether the US political class is now too stupefied by ideology to manage the conflict at all effectively. It is dangerous to construct the kind of myths that surround the US-Israel relationship: people start to believe them, and eventually it becomes impossible to respond to reality, which changes.
With Arab nationalism long since smashed, and the region in flames in large part because of the US’s own disastrous occupation of an Arab country, Israel’s cruelty towards the Palestinians has become a liability for its patron. The energy and prestige Kerry expended in attempting to broker a settlement — what Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon called “misplaced obsession and messianic fervor” — suggests the level of American desire to drain this almost-50-year-old swamp, yet Kerry failed, for the most predictable reason possible: instead of pressuring Netanyahu, he tried to bribe him. According to The New Republic’s account of the talks (which reflects several standard misrepresentations but contains some interesting details), Kerry consented to additional settlement construction in order to get the negotiations going, then tried to prolong them in the face of Israeli intransigence by offering to free Jonathan Pollard (a desideratum of Netanyahu’s since the Wye River summit of 1998). But Israel has everything it needs from the US: lavish aid, advanced weaponry, a veto in the Security Council. It cannot be cajoled into respecting the human and national rights of Palestinians, which the state was built on trampling; it can only be compelled, whether Likud or Labor is in power. There’s no excuse for US officials not to know this by now, and Kerry’s blindness indicates terrifying levels of vanity, incompetence, and ideological delusion.
This brings us to the nature of Goldberg’s story as an intervention in the special relationship. As several commentators noted, the purported thesis — “The Crisis in US-Israel Relations Is Officially Here” — is an obvious exaggeration. Obama and Netanyahu don’t like each other, but neither did Netanyahu and Clinton; where there has been no change in policy, there can be no crisis. George H. W. Bush withheld loan guarantees to Israel over Shamir’s settlement policy, so by Goldberg’s standard the relationship imploded in 1991.
Of course, not even the factually-challenged Goldberg really believes that the crisis is here — and he’s determined to keep it at bay. For although US policy hasn’t changed, the administration’s rhetoric is getting harsher: on Oct. 1 Jen Psaki said settlement expansion in East Jerusalem will “poison the atmosphere” with the Palestinians, and on Monday she went further, explaining that it “flies in the face” of Israel’s stated commitment to peace. For a partisan of Israel as dedicated as Goldberg, who polices the discourse in this country like he’s back at Ansar Three in his IDF uniform, this is ominous. For all his liberal posturing, Goldberg doesn’t favor Palestinian statehood; he admits as much in this latest story:
“Unlike the U.S. secretary of state, John Kerry, I don’t have any hope for the immediate creation of a Palestinian state (it could be dangerous, at this chaotic moment in Middle East history, when the Arab-state system is in partial collapse, to create an Arab state on the West Bank that could easily succumb to extremism), but I would also like to see Israel foster conditions on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem that would allow for the eventual birth of such a state.”
There’s a lot to unpack in this remarkable passage — first, how Goldberg couches a prescription (don’t create a Palestinian state, “it could be dangerous”) in the language of predictive analysis (“I don’t have any hope for the immediate creation of…”), dressing his rejectionism in journalistic guise. There’s also the complete lack of reference to Gaza, home to 1.7 million people, in keeping with Israeli policy of hoping it withers away into nothing but obviously incompatible with support for two states. So what does Goldberg say he wants? For Israel to “foster conditions on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem that would allow for the eventual birth of [a Palestinian] state,” a meaningless notion in a conflict between two opposing nationalisms, one of which has virtually all the power. As everyone knows who has ever lived, there’s always some reason not to do the right thing — in international politics, almost always “security.”
What’s amusing about Goldberg’s argument is that it’s identical to the reasoning offered by Moshe Ya’alon, whom Goldberg likes to portray as the Bad Israeli sticking his finger in the US’s eye. (Any good popular fiction needs a villain; Ya’alon, who once spoke of “applying chemotherapy” to the Palestinian “threat” — “I maintain that this is a cancer” — is perfect for the part.) Compare Goldberg’s view with the defense minister’s Sept. 30 remarks to the Institute of National Security Studies, as reported by the Times of Israel:
“In this situation, can one even consider restricting the freedom of action of the defense forces in Judea and Samaria?” […] A withdrawal, Ya’alon said, would facilitate the rise “of Hamastan” in the West Bank, followed by mortars, rather than rockets, on Israel’s international airport. The military air bases, in Ramat David in the Galilee and Nevatim in the northern Negev, would come under threat of anti-aircraft weapons. And the territory would be used, as in Gaza, by global jihad organizations. “Who can allow himself this sort of security situation in Judea and Samaria?” he said. “And not just vis-a-vis Israel; also vis-a-vis the Hashemite Kingdom. Can it survive that?”
In an inspired outburst on Israeli television, Gideon Levy once told Ari Shavit, “You are a spokesman of the extreme right, masquerading.” Were we blessed with an American Levy, he would say the same to Goldberg. Instead we have sycophants like Rothkopf, who drone on about Goldberg’s access and influence without interrogating the source of either. Like Netanyahu redeploying from Hebron — a maneuever he said was in keeping with his father and grandfather’s maxim, “to give 2 percent in order prevent 100 percent” — Goldberg subjects Israel’s worst excesses to limited criticism while defending the overarching project of dominating the Palestinians.
Because this position corresponded to US policy, Goldberg’s career has thrived, despite the stunning wreckage of his journalistic record. But since his work depends on getting powerful people to talk to him, for the past several years he has had to play a bit of a double game, maintaining good relations with the Obama and Netanyahu camps through public disagreements over Iran and settlements. With Chickenshitgate, Goldberg finally made his choice. He carried a fair amount of water for Obama to earn his access, and he made good use of it; but on the eve of the president’s becoming a lame duck — and possibly reaching a deal with Tehran that will outrage Israel’s apologists — Goldberg published a quote that the White House had to disavow at once. “In a sign of how urgently the administration has sought to put out this fire,” Foreign Policy reported, “congressional aides said White House officials didn’t even wait for a response from the Hill before trying to do pre-emptive damage control.” And Kerry, who six months ago went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to blame Israel for the breakdown in peace talks, had to revert to groveling type, calling Netanyahu to apologize for the “disgraceful, unacceptable, damaging” remark. This is service to the occupation that far surpasses Goldberg’s prison guard duties during the first intifada.
In light of the predictable response to Chickenshitgate — in Israel, indignation on the right and exasperation on the left, pearl-clutching and tongue-clucking here at home — Goldberg’s warning about “unsurprising, post-November” changes to US policy seems like a case of saying it to keep it from happening. Publicly presenting a map with borders and withdrawing diplomatic cover for Israel in the UN would be positive steps for the Obama team; but letting their ostensible pet journalist put them on the defensive against Netanyahu is representative of the wisdom with which they manage the special relationship.