“They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing,” is the way Talleyrand referred (supposedly) to the restored Bourbon dynasty after the abdication of Napoleon, encapsulating in a nutshell those who keep doing the same thing again and again, expecting different results.
Such people believe that every intelligent person should recognize that their theory is the right one. The wrong circumstances had failed the theory, and if one would just give it another try, one would see that this time the theory would work.
It’s difficult to imagine foreign policy wonks dancing in the streets of Washington, D.C., but my guess is that was exactly what they were doing in their favorite think tanks and editorial offices, not to mention in Foggy Bottom and the White House Executive Office Building (which houses the National Security Council) when they heard last week that their long-time nemesis, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu, was out of power. Now that the circumstances have changed, they imagined, they will have yet another opportunity to retry their theory, and this time it will work.
The only person that liberal internationalists despise (and I mean, really despise) more than Netanyahu is, of course, his personal friend and diplomatic partner, former President Donald Trump.
One can more readily comprehend the animosity toward the Archie Bunkered Donald among the cosmopolitan graduates of Ivy League universities who ran foreign policy for the Obama-Biden Administration and are now doing the same thing for Joe Biden.
But Netanyahu is an intellectual who graduated from MIT, who opens his day with the New York Times, and reads the same books they do.
So it’s nothing personal in the end, and has more to do with politics, and possibly the notion that Israel was led by a conservative statesman who could have probably run as a Republican for the U.S. Senate if only his dad had not decided to return to Israel with his family. (After watching Bibi on TV, one of my Millennial students asked me whether he was the Republican governor of Israel).
Opposite World Views
From that perspective, the gunfight at Washington’s O.K. Corral between Bibi and Barack Obama pitted an Israeli nationalist and admirer of Ronald Reagan who is nostalgic, supposedly, for “Mad Men’s” America, as well as a military officer who had served and fought in his country’s most esteemed combat units, and who operates based on the tenets of realpolitik, against a biracial American metrosexual and left-leaning, anti-military pseudo-intellectual, who subscribes to an ideology that celebrates a “post-American” world sans “exceptionalism” and romanticizes the Third World; and who believes that Israel not unlike America is on the wrong side of history, while the Palestinians, Iran, and the rest of the Muslim world represent the future—one with which Obama’s America needs to identify if it is to redeem itself.
These opposite world views explain why Netanyahu and Obama didn’t get along on so many issues, including the so-called Arab Spring, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Palestinian “problem.”
The self-proclaimed African-American president, the son of an anti-British Kenyan Muslim and who was raised in Indonesia (among other places), pledged to “reset” America’s relationship with the Muslim world, welcomed the coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, wanted to launch a detente with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and asked his secretary of state, John Kerry, to restart another Israeli-Palestinian peace process that after months of negotiations led to northing, except for unfulfilled expectations.
When it came to the peace process, Kerry, Obama, and the foreign policy wonks who had joined them on the road to a post-American world, ended up recycling Washington’s old idée fixe, that the only thing preventing stability in the Middle East was the unresolved Palestinian problem. And the major obstacle on the way to that promised land was Israel and its policies towards the Palestinians.
If you buy into this narrative, then the Netanyahu-Trump duo were responsible for placing the Palestinian problem on the policy back burner and refusing to invest time and resources in trying to resolve it, which supposedly played into the hands of those in Jerusalem and Washington who wanted to maintain the status quo in the Israel-occupied West Bank.
If it weren’t for Bibi and the Donald, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands would be over, and the Jewish state would now be on the road to integration in the Arab Middle East, and would be normalizing relations with, say, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, and perhaps even Saudi Arabia. Paradise has been lost!
Assumptions from Another Era
Oops . . . something went wrong with the narrative favored by the peace processors. After refusing to allow the inept and corrupt Palestinian leadership to veto efforts to normalize the relationship between the Jewish and Arab states, Trump launched diplomatic efforts that led to the signing of the Abraham Accords which also delivered a knockout to Iran and its regional proxies.
In a way, much of the drive to a peace process is based on geo-political assumptions that belonged to another era, when trying to resolve the conflict between Arab and Israelis was a core American national interest.
During much of the second part of the 20th century, America was worried that the Arabs would join the Soviet camp, impose an oil embargo on the United States and destroy Israel.
These days the United States remains the hegemonic power in the Middle East, facing insignificant challenges from Russia or China, while the Arab oil states are normalizing relationships with Israel as part of an effort to contain a common enemy, Iran.
Trump and Netanyahu helped to advance these diplomatic efforts and their success amounted to an historic challenge to Washington’s idée fixe with its focus on the Palestinian problem.
But unlike old generals, old ideas don’t fade away in Washington, and in the fantasy world of New York Times columnists, Brookings Institute scholars, the “Middle East experts” who show up on CNN, and the best and the brightest who direct foreign policy in the Biden Administration, the collapse of the Netanyahu government, coming after the latest round of fighting between Hamas and Israel, means that it’s now springtime for that old favorite, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Let’s try it again and this time it will work!
Never mind that it makes no sense for the Biden Administration, with the major challenges it faces at home and abroad, to get busy with trying to resolve a conflict that cannot be resolved without a clear willingness on the part of the Palestinians to recognize the Jewish state.
If anything, the politician who has replaced Netanyahu as prime minister, the religious nationalist Naftali Bennett, is more of a maximalist than his predecessor when it comes to the Palestinian issue. He has been a longtime proponent of annexing most of the West Bank to Israel—unlike Netanyahu, who has publicly adhered to the principle of a two-state solution—and had criticized Bibi for not deploying ground troops into the Gaza Strip to defeat Hamas.
At the same time, the new coalition includes, in addition to Bennett’s nationalist party (Yamina), two right-wing parties, (Yisrael Beiteinu and Tikva Hadasha) that support continuing the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and two centrist but hawkish parties (Kahol Lavan and Yesh Atid) that are unlikely to support any new diplomatic initiative led by Washington that would allow opposition leader Netanyahu to depict them as surrendering to President Biden’s pressure.
And if the two left-of-center parties in the coalition decide to back a new round of peace negotiations, the coalition would likely disintegrate, with Netanyahu running in a new election as the leader that would save Israel from a New Munich, demonstrating what happens when you do the same thing again and again.