Misjudging Bibi’s Visit

For the general American public and members of Congress, perceptions about Israel are more important than reality. The converse is true for Israelis, that is why Benjamin Netanyahu should not allow the warm reception he received in Washington to cloud his judgement concerning Americans’ support for his policies. He should also understand that he has made a potentially catastrophic error that could undermine his position.

For better or worse, first impressions often stick. Netanyahu made a good impression in his appearances; unfortunately, he allowed others to cast him in a different light before he had even arrived. The mistake he made was allowing the Arabs to set the political agenda. The Arab Summit declarations were hostile, implicitly threatening Israel with war if it failed to capitulate to Arab demands. The media spin was the opposite, however, with Israel being cast as the belligerent party. This was made possible by Netanyahu’s failure to articulate what he will do to achieve peace. Instead, the new Prime Minister immediately focused on what he would not do, and his words were then compared to the “three noes” issued by the Arabs at their 1967 summit in Khartoum. A Toles political cartoon reprinted in the Washington Post portrayed Netanyahu in a way that, if it sticks, could make him one of Israel’s least popular leaders. In the first panel, Toles shows Netanyahu saying, “No independent Palestinian state.” In the second, “No giving up the Golan Heights, no giving up East Jerusalem, and no end to settlements on the West Bank and Gaza.” The next reads, “And...there was one more...oh yeah....” Finally, “No preconditions.”

In terms of substance, most Americans would support every statement, with the exception of building settlements. The style, however, comes across like Begin and Shamir. The Arabs and the press are creating a negative image of Netanyahu, but it is reversible, so long as he acts quickly to demonstrate in words and deeds that he is offering the chance for peace, and the Arabs are rejecting the opportunity. The lesson he should have learned during his years in Washington is that Americans do not see terrorism as an excuse for inaction or inflexibility. Even when the PLO had disapproval ratings far beyond what they are today, most Americans still favored negotiations with Arafat. For Israelis, the message may be “it’s security stupid,” but for the American audience it has to be “it’s peace stupid.”

The problem is that for all intents and purposes, the peace process with the Palestinians is over. Israel has conceded all that Rabin planned to give up. Netanyahu has no reason to renege on the past agreements since they are, despite Likud denials, essentially the implementation of Begin’s autonomy proposals. The remaining subjects of negotiation are really nonnegotiable. The three major final-status issues are Jerusalem, settlements and refugees. On each, American Jews agree with the new Prime Minister’s position, which, unfortunately from a public relations standpoint, amounts to three noes: no change in the status of Jerusalem, no dismantling of settlements and no right of return for Palestinian refugees. The trick, and it’s a difficult one, is for Netanyahu to continue negotiations on these issues and, simultaneously, convince non-Jews in America that compromise is impossible without looking like he opposes peace.

In addition, one issue is hanging in the air like a grenade without a pin. If it hits the ground, it could blow up U.S.-Israel relations for a long time to come. The issue is settlements.

Groups in the West Bank took Netanyahu’s election victory as a signal to resume the expansion of settlements and the government will be under great pressure to pursue such a policy. Netanyahu rightly points out that the Jewish population in the West Bank grew during the last four years of Labor rule, but that was primarily from natural increase and, more important, occurred in the context of the peace agreements with Jordan and the Palestinians.

Netanyahu can’t get away with the same policy, let alone one that calls for the creation of new settlements or dramatic increases in existing ones, in a different context. In case the message wasn’t clear enough during Shamir’s reign, let me repeat it here: members of Congress hate settlements and the Administration hates settlements. American Jews believe Jews have the right to live anywhere, but they hate settlements when they upset elected officials.

Israelis are deluding themselves if they think Netanyahu can get away with anything because it is an election year. At this point, Clinton won’t risk losing many Jewish votes by opposing an Israeli policy that is not popular here. After November, of course, Clinton won’t have to worry at all about Jewish opinion. And if Bob Dole is elected, despite the amiable meeting in New York with Netanyahu, Israelis should be prepared for a repeat of the Bush years.

I still believe Netanyahu has the chance to be the most popular Israeli Prime Minister in American history. By failing to recapture the political agenda, however, or returning to the settlement policies of his Likud predecessors, he could earn an entirely different place in history.