A Place Against the Nations

Benjamin Netanyahu plans to address the United Nations tomorrow, the same day Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to ask for U.N. membership for Palestine. The Israeli prime minister's trip to New York is a curious matter. He knows that the Palestinian request will fail in the Security Council. Netanyahu also knows his own speech will not keep a General Assembly majority from recognizing the independent state of Palestine. Netanyahu regards the United Nations as intrinsically hostile territory. He may even know that his speech could produce a few more votes for Palestine.

So why is he bothering? Why didn't he stay home and leave the thankless job of getting up at the General Assembly podium to Israel's U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor?

The answer is partly a matter of personal biography and domestic political tactics. It's much more a matter of political psychology and points to a key reason Israel's isolation in the Middle East has become so much more dire since Netanyahu came to power.

Netanyahu was Israel's ambassador to the United Nations from 1984-1988. It was a bad time for Israel diplomatically, and a good time for the young ambassador. Electoral stalemate in Israel had produced a government of national unity incapable of foreign policy, much less pursuing peace. A popular Hebrew word play called it the "government of national paralysis." Internationally, Israel was a pariah, though peace with Egypt had given it a new regional ally. Only a few years before, in 1975, the General Assembly had passed its infamous "Zionism is racism" resolution. Before Netanyahu's tour of duty ended, the first Palestinian uprising began, and pictures of stone-throwing young soldiers further eroded Israel's standing.

Netanyahu was a hardliner within his political party, the Likud, who lacked the aristocratic pedigree considered vital for rising politicians in the party; his parents did not belong to the Fighting Family, the veterans of the far-right, pre-state Irgun underground. But with his American English and self-taught TV skills, he flourished in New York as a practitioner of hasbarah, a Hebrew word that can be translated as "spin," "PR," or "propaganda." The driving principle behind hasbarah is that Israel's actions are flawless but misunderstood. Netanyahu became a star among right-leaning Israeli voters (along with AIPAC-style American Jews and Republicans). Five years after returning home, he was elected head of the Likud; three years after that, he was prime minister.

Returning to the U.N., Netanyahu is going back to an easier time in his life, when he did not have to worry about an unsteady coalition in parliament, constant resignations from his feuding staff, or hundreds of thousands of demonstrators opposing his economic policies. In comments to his cabinet this week, he said he would "represent ... the truth" to an organization capable of deciding "that the sun rises in the west and sets in the east." His truth, he said, would include "the fact that [Jews] are not foreigners ... that we have rights in this country that go 'only' 4,000 years" -- an argument not likely to convince U.N. delegates that the Palestinians do not also have a right to self-determination. Nor will his claim that "the Palestinians are doing everything to torpedo direct peace negotiations" erase his own refusal to stop settlement construction. His rhetoric, like his presence, fits the 1980s better than today.

But Netanyahu is playing to a different audience. He may hope that his speech, like U.N. ambassador Chaim Herzog's response to the "Zionism is racism" resolution, may become part of the Israeli canon. He certainly hopes that among voters, it will appeal to the legitimately scarred side of the Jewish psyche that says that the whole world is against us, that we must demand our rights, but that any recognition of them is really only the smile before betrayal.

The historical traumas that produced these fears are entirely real. The problem with post-traumatic stress is that it alerts you not only to real dangers but false ones. For the mugging victim, every friendly wave of a hand may look like the prelude to the blow of a fist.

I should also stress: Netanyahu isn't conjuring up these fears cynically. They are his own; they frame his world. In 1993, just after he became head of the Likud, he published a book called A Place Among the Nations. The book's underlying assumption was that the Jews had been denied such a place. Netanyahu wrote that "this century's slanders against it [the Jewish people] and Israel, their reach, effectiveness and devastating consequences, have exceeded anything seen before" -- thereby putting every unfair criticism of Israel in the same category of threat as Nazism. Political compromise was useless as a way to soften hostility, he argued. "Strength attracts and weakness ultimately repels," he wrote. Besides showing power, the only means of getting support was good public relations. But the underlying anxiety of hasbarah advocates shone through his writing: We must explain ourselves much better, but doing so may never change the minds of the gentiles -- except, perhaps, among conservatives in Congress.

Netanyahu's foreign minister and key coalition partner, Avigdor Lieberman, has an even harsher view of the world. In a 2006 interview, Lieberman described to me the formative memory of his early childhood in Soviet Moldova: his parents speaking Yiddish in public despite rampant anti-Semitism. "We'd get on a bus, packed with people, all gentiles ... and every head turned toward us," he recalled. His parents' courage is admirable, but for Lieberman, the whole world is a crowded Moldovan bus, and defiance the only response.

These attitudes have shaped policy since Netanyahu and Lieberman assumed their current posts in 2009. Netanyahu has been unwilling to stop settlement construction (even during the short-lived "freeze" of 2009-2010), unwilling to accept the pre-1967 border as the baseline for peace, unwilling to resume talks where his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, left off.

Netanyahu, it's true, inherited the damage done by Israel's early 2009 invasion of Gaza -- including the cracks in relations with Turkey, a vital ally since the 1990s. But the ill-considered commando attack last year on a Turkish ship headed for Gaza widened the cracks, and Lieberman's success in blocking an Israeli apology for the deaths of Turkish citizens made the split complete. This month, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador. That may well have been the inspiration for the mob attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo a few days later.

I don't mean to be politically solipsistic. More is at work than Israeli actions. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdoan does play to the Muslim world; the antipathy of the Egyptian public toward Israel is an old problem. But if you walk into a party -- or a region, or the United Nations -- with an angry look and the assumption that everyone dislikes you, they might just prove you right.

The opposite is also true. In 1992, when Netanyahu was presumably working on A Place Among the Nations, Yitzhak Rabin took office as Israel's prime minister. Rabin, who'd been a brigade commander at 26, military chief of staff at 42, was a man who'd learned to see the world from a forward command post. Yet in his Knesset speech presenting his government, he declared, "No longer is it true that 'the whole world is against us.' We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in its thrall for almost half a century." In just over two years in office, he did just that, not only signing the Olso Accord and the peace agreement with Jordan but altering Israel's relations with the world.

Short of a miracle, Netanyahu will not learn from Yitzhak Rabin. At the U.N. tomorrow, he will aggressively present his credo, putting his faith in spin and simultaneously not believing it can make a difference. He may well touch the emotions of many Israeli voters. He is unlikely to leave Israel any less isolated when he leaves the podium.

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