Magical Thinking On Netanyahu


Liberal supporters of Barack Obama have sometimes been guilty of magical thinking, believing that President Obama eventually will reveal his inner progressive and press for the policies they fervently desire. This, of course, is utterly wrong—while re-election may offer him a freer hand in a second term, Obama has shown that he rarely shifts from his instinctive centrism.

Similar magical thinking is emerging recently about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Perhaps with his ironclad 94-member coalition behind him, some argue, Netanyahu will take on entrenched interests—most urgently, settlers and their political backers—and muscle his right-wing government back towards moderation, if not peace talks.

Jeffrey Goldberg has been at the vanguard of this crowd, writing that he hopes that Netanyahu will establish financial inducements for settlers to move back inside the green line. Yesterday, tweeting in response to news that Netanyahu forced the Knesset to vote down a bill that would have legalized the Ulpana settlement outpost, Goldberg wrote, “Bibi pisses off the right, but on a small-ball settlement issue. Hoping he takes on bigger targets than this.”

Indeed, that same day, Bibi did take on a bigger target: those who oppose settlement expansion. In a statement, Netanyahu explained his opposition to the Ulpana bill, but he really focused on trumpeting his own support of the settlement project. Netanyahu promised “to establish a ministerial committee on settlement to ensure that the Government's policy of strengthening settlement is implemented.” He also told settlers that he “understands your pain,” promising, “We will continue to strengthen settlement, and we will continue to strengthen democracy in the State of Israel.”

Faced with these kinds of remarks—and the related announcement that the Israeli government will build 300 homes in Beit El—it is foolish to expect a sudden reversal from Netanyahu. He and his government are explicitly devoted to strengthening settlements, not to dismantling them or slowing their expansion. And they have been throughout his premiership. In November 2010, he said that construction in East Jerusalem (and the Palestinian dispossession that accompanies it) did not constitute settlement building. A year earlier, he vowed that a 10-month settlement freeze was a “one-time, temporary move.”

And this support goes back to Netanyahu's first go-around as prime minister: In September 1997, discussing settlements with a Jerusalem Post reporter, Netanyahu remarked, “I don't think they're growing quite at the pace at which they grew under the Labor government, and I don't say this with any particular pride.” They were growing, but Netanyahu was unhappy that they weren't growing fast enough.

Hoping for a change in Netanyahu or even for Israeli unilateralism—whatever one might think of its merits—is misguided. Israeli unilateralism already exists: It's called the Occupation, which this week marks 45 years of appropriating Palestinian lands and trampling on Palestinian rights. Given this history, why does Goldberg think that Netanyahu may have a come-to-Sharon moment and become “serious about compromise”? We know who Netanyahu is and has always been—a settler in all but name.