It is possible to be 99% right, and 100% wrong at the same time. Former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s political maneuvering in the Likud Central Committee last week is a case in point.
On a substantive level, Netanyahu made a number of important points. He is correct that Prime Minister Sharon’s cavalier acceptance of the inevitability of a Palestinian state poses grave dangers for Israel.
Sharon no doubt envisions a Palestinian state bound by all sorts of conditions, including: an end to incitement in the media and schools against the Jewish descendants of monkeys and pigs, clear recognition of the legitimacy of a Jewish state, demilitarization, and democratization.
Based on that vision, Sharon argues that the Palestinian state he imagines – sovereignty minus – is no different than the autonomy plus favored by Netanyahu. The problem with that argument is that concept of statehood carries substantial historical baggage. The sovereignty that Sharon has in mind and that about which others speak bear little resemblance to one another.
Ideas once born take on a life and direction of their own, and that direction is likely to be far different than their creators anticipated. Today, for instance, levels of popular support for Israel over the Palestinians remains very high in the United States. Yet in recent months, support for an eventual Palestinian state has risen rapidly to close to 70% among Americans. That sharp rise has been fueled in part by the fact that even the Prime Minister of Israel has accepted the idea of a Palestinian state.
Yet it is unlikely that Americans who favor a Palestinian state are giving much thought to the preconditions for such a state. The Bush administration has made a Palestinian state central to its vision for the Middle East. Though the administration is talking up reform of the Palestinian Authority as a precondition for statehood, no one is under any illusion that Yasir Arafat is likely to become a poster boy for good government any time in the near future. There is not one Arab democracy today, and nothing about Arafat gives cause for optimism that a state headed by him would be the first.
So if the Americans continue to seek a diplomatic "solution" to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and a Palestinian state is the key to any such solution, clearly American policymakers are prepared to make do with something less than a fully democratic Palestinian state. They will be constantly tempted to certify that the Palestinian Authority has undertaken significant reforms on the skimpiest of evidence.
The State Department’s most recent annual report on terrorism, which absolves Arafat from direct involvement, is a good example of what we could expect. So is the favorable rating given in Washington to a speech by Arafat, in which he once again invoked peace treaties abrogated by Mohammed as a prelude to wiping out infidel tribes.
Conditions placed on a Palestinian state would not be worth the paper they are written on. The world does not recognize such a thing as conditional sovereignty. No matter how egregious the treaty violations of the State of Palestine, no country in the world, including the United States, would withdraw recognition.
Nor would the world recognize Israel’s right to enforce treaty obligations militarily. Massive Palestinian arms smuggling, of which the Karine-A is but the most egregious example, is a gross violation of the Oslo Accords. Yet no nation has recognized Israel’s right to enter PA territory to seize weapons forbidden under the Oslo Accords. And that is even before an internationally recognized Palestinian state exists. In short, whatever conditions were imposed on a Palestinian state would prove no more effective than the 1919 Versailles Treaty was in preventing German rearmament between the world wars.
If Netanyahu is right to emphasize the dangers of so casually accepting a Palestinian state, what was so wrong with last week’s Likud Central Committee vote rejecting such a state?
On a personal level, of course, the political maneuvering backfired. The Netanyahu victory immediately proclaimed by the press turned out to be pyrrhic; and the humiliation of Sharon turned out to be anything but. Even among Likud voters, polls showed that Sharon’s defiance of the Central Committee played well. Sharon’s refusal to heed the vote helped him shed his image as an unrepentant hardliner. And the vote itself provided him with proof positive to Washington that there are limits as to how far he can allow himself to be pressured.
Meanwhile Netanyahu’s standing in the polls plummeted. The concerns about his character that have plagued him since the beginning of his political career were given new life by suspicion that the vote was more political one-upmanship than a matter of principle.
Netanyahu’s personal political future, however, need not concern us, since he did not seek our advice. Far more significant was the propaganda victory handed the Palestinians on a silver platter.
Ever since Camp David, defenders of Israel have had a ready answer to Palestinian attempts to blame the last twenty months of war on the "occupation." By refusing to even negotiate Ehud Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state on 97% of the land captured by Israel in 1967, and then instigating a war, Arafat made clear that neither the Palestinian leadership nor the Palestinian people have made peace with Israel’s existence.
Now, however, the Palestinians can claim that the vote by the Central Committee of the ruling Likud party proves that Israel rejects a "two-state solution." Palestinian spokesmen were quick to seize the opportunity. PA spokesman Saab Erekat, for instance, charged that the vote proved Operation Defensive Shield was a war to maintain Israeli occupation, and not one to end terror.
Netanyahu should continue to employ all his logical and rhetorical abilities to explain why democracy is a must for the Palestinians, why a demilitarized Palestinian state is an illusion, and why it will take years to undo the nine years of non-stop incitement under Oslo.
But our Sages teach us, "Calculate the cost of the mitzvah compared to its reward, and the pleasure of as sin compared to its punishment." In temporal terms, that means do not focus only on short-term gains while losing sight of the downside risks and long-term consequences.
That is what Netanyahu failed to do last week, and it cost Israel dearly.