Ganging Up Against Netanyahu
by Jerold Auerbach
In President Obama’s recent White House interview with Jeffrey Goldberg (reported in Bloomberg View, March 2), what the president had to say about Israel grabbed headlines and, justifiably, stirred no small measure of outrage from critics for its timing, factual inaccuracies and tone.
On the eve of his arrival in the United States and his meeting with the President, Prime Minister Netanyahu was warned that time is running out for the Jewish State as “a Jewish-majority democracy” if it fails to make peace now. Obama cited three reasons for the urgency: “changes in demographics,” meaning an expanding Palestinian population between the Jordan River and Mediterranean; the growth of Jewish settlements; and the commitment by an aging President Abbas to non-violence and diplomacy, which might not outlive him.
Indisputably, President Abbas is growing older. But on demography and settlement expansion, President Obama was flagrantly mistaken. He told Goldberg: “There are going to be more Palestinians, not fewer Palestinians, as time goes on. There are going to be more Arab-Israelis, not fewer Arab-Israelis, as time goes on.” For Israel to survive “as a democracy and a Jewish state,” President Obama insisted, it must reach “a peace deal with the Palestinians and a two-state solution.”
But the demographic threat, designed to force Israel into submission lest its democratic identity be undermined, is non-existent. Ominous warnings of a rising Palestinian population tide are erroneous. Jews currently comprise three-quarters of the Israeli population and two-thirds of the entire population west of the Jordan River. The Israeli Jewish fertility rate is rising; the Palestinian birth rate has declined significantly since the turn of the century. The existing Jewish majority is in no danger of submersion under a nonexistent Palestinian tidal wave.
As for Jewish settlements, the President’s apprehension over their presumably alarming growth is similarly misplaced. Obama told Goldberg: “we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple of years than we’ve seen in a very long time.” True enough in percentage terms; last year settlement housing more than doubled. But, as Evelyn Gordon noted on her Commentary blog (March 4), it doubled “from such a low base” as to maintain Netanyahu’s ranking in new settlement housing starts at the bottom of Israeli prime ministers since Yitzhak Rabin. “Never has settlement construction been as low,” Gordon notes, as under Netanyahu.
Obama’s implicit assumption that Jewish settlement construction is not only excessive but illegal is also misplaced. As Alan Baker, Israeli international law expert and former ambassador to Canada, wrote the day after the Goldberg interview: “Israel and the Jewish people have very well-based and long-standing inalienable, indigenous, historic, legal and international rights in the area including Judea and Samaria.” Among Baker’s salient points: the West Bank territories are disputed, not occupied, since there was no legitimate sovereign prior to 1967; neither the 1949 Armistice line nor the 1967 “borders” have standing under international law; Israel has complied with international norms, building only on land that is not privately owned.
Obama’s display of Chicago manners, perhaps best left to his former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, was almost immediately obliterated by the Russian invasion of Crimea, which has dominated headlines ever since. But The New York Times Editorial Board could not permit the American president’s “remarkably blunt” dissing of Netanyahu to pass without a supportive lead editorial (March 6). Repeating Obama’s erroneous projections and groundless warnings about “more Palestinians, not fewer Palestinians, as time goes on,” and Israel’s “aggressive settlement construction,” the editorial proclaimed: “These are the hard facts that need to be broadcast widely.” But they are not facts; they are misstatements of fact that neither The Times nor the President wish to acknowledge.
President Obama, paraphrasing Rabbi Hillel’s memorable questions, asked Netanyahu: “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?” But he conspicuously omitted the rabbi’s first question: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?”
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Jewish State Pariah Nation: Israel and the Dilemmas of Legitimacy, forthcoming in April.