Tel Aviv Diary: Bibi Netanyahu Rails Against The World

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands in front of new construction in the Jewish settlement known to Israelis as Har Homa, in an area of the West Bank that Israel captured in the 1967 war and annexed to Jerusalem, on March 16, 2015. Marc Schulman writes that by attacking so many people simultaneously, Netanyahu may have gone too far. After repeatedly claiming to the Israeli public that relations with the world are excellent, reacting the way he has over the U.N. resolution on Israeli settlements may be an overreach, Schulman says. Ronen Zvulun/reuters

For the past few months, the joke in Tel Aviv has been that President-elect Donald Trump was an invention of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After all, to most Israelis, even ardent opponents of Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister seemed a sane choice compared with Trump.

During the past few days, however, many Israelis are scratching their heads wondering which one of these political leaders is the more responsible.

Ever since the U.N. Security Council vote on December 23, Netanyahu has been acting in ways that confound most people. First, he recalled Israel's ambassadors from New Zealand and Senegal—two of the sponsors of the U.N. resolution, which condemns Israel's settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Then Netanyahu canceled the visit of the Ukrainian prime minister and shortly thereafter canceled a scheduled meeting with the U.K.'s prime minister.

Next, Netanyahu ordered his ministers not to visit any of the countries that voted in favor of the resolution. After that, he called on all of the representatives of the countries that voted for the resolution for a meeting—on Christmas Day—"to explain themselves."

Finally, Netanyahu and his Republican strategist (oh, apologies, I meant our ambassador to the U.S.) to directly blame President Barack Obama for the resolution, supported by a procession of his Likud ministers all denouncing Obama for "stabbing Israel in the back."

Ambassador Ron Dermer went one step further, asserting that Israel would share the intelligence it has with the incoming Trump administration on how Obama is directly responsible for the passage of the resolution.

An Israeli ambassador publicly proclaiming that Israel is collecting intelligence on any American president is simply astounding. Furthermore, waging a full-fledged frontal assault on a U.S. president who is leaving office with one of the highest approval ratings in modern history is suicidal in the long run.

Related: Tel Aviv Diary: Obama exacts cold revenge on Netanyahu

As if all this were not bad enough, the Israeli consul general in New York tweeted: "The era is over in which countries benefit from Israeli know-how in high-tech, in security and so on, and from the prestige of a visit to Israel and involvement in the Middle East, without providing diplomatic repayment."

MK Ze'ev Elkin, Israel's minister of Jerusalem affairs and environmental protection, claimed that U.S. Vice President Joe Biden personally asked Ukraine to support the resolution.

Listening to all of the statements and speeches, I could not help but think about the story my grandfather used to tell me about a seller in the market who wanted to get people to head to a specific place. The salesman would tell everyone who passed that there was a sale going on there, even though there was none.

After a while, the man would close down his stall. When his neighbor asked where was he going, the salesman would reply, "To the sale, of course." Ultimately, he believed his own lie.

It would seem some of our leaders have fallen into the same trap: believing that because we are the "Start-up Nation" we are irreplaceable; that because we currently understand airline security better than anyone, the world needs us more than we need the world; or that, mistakenly, the United States needs us more than we need it.

From reactions in Israel, one might think that the U.N. resolution and the U.S. decision to abstain (and not impose its veto) came as a complete surprise, or that the U.N. resolution called for the destruction of Israel. Nothing could be further from the truth, on either count.

It is reasonable to question why—with all that is going on in the world today—the U.N. cares about the issue of illegal building in territory conquered by Israel in 1967. By all accounts, the world should have more important things to worry about.

The U.N. obsession with Israel is a very real problem. However, as I wrote in a previous piece, Netanyahu urged his ministers not to support a new law: the arrangements bill that would retroactively legalize the seizure of Palestinian lands. He warned that it would end in censure through a U.N. resolution, or a trial in the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

A few days later, because of his internal political calculations, Netanyahu decided to support the arrangements law, which then passed the Knesset in its first reading. So why the surprise?

There is very little that is unique in the new U.N. resolution. It merely reaffirms the stated opinion of the international community that building homes on land captured in 1967 is illegal and calls on Israel to halt such building. Some Israeli legal experts dispute this interpretation of international law, but they have been in the minority.

The resolution calls on nation-states "to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967."

The Israeli government fears that this resolution might become an impetus to revive the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. What angers Israelis most is that the resolution refers to "East Jerusalem" in the same manner as the rest of the area captured in 1967.

Israel annexed Jerusalem in 1967, and many Israelis cannot imagine that our sovereignty over the Western Wall—Judaism's most holy site—could be questioned.

The majority of Israelis support the idea of a two-state solution, and more than half of Israelis do not want to keep the occupation in the West Bank. But just as many have no idea how to bring the conflict to an end.

Israelis have no reason to believe that after over 100 years of opposing our existence here, Palestinians will suddenly become willing to accept it. Previous unilateral withdrawals from South Lebanon and Gaza have resulted in missile barrages instead of peace.

At the same time, Palestinians, who have watched Israel's physical control over what was once the British Mandate for Palestine continue to expand, have no reason to believe that Israelis will be willing to compromise.

There are still millions of refugees from 1948 (600,000 who left in 1948 and '49 have grown into millions over the years, since Palestinians are the only refugees in the world who inherit their refugee status), to whom no one is willing to tell the truth: that they will never return to their homes in what are now parts of Tel Aviv, Haifa or other integral parts of Israel.

The settlers and their political leaders in the Bayit Hayehudi party have had a clear goal: making a political settlement that includes a two-state solution impossible.

Because of Israel's unique political system, Bayit Hayehudi wields greater political power than it deserves, based on its actual support. The result is that instead of ordering the police to remove the settlers from the illegal Amona settlement, as demanded by the Israeli Supreme Court, the Israeli government spent months trying to find a solution acceptable to the settlers.

After months of negotiations, the only proposal they could come up with was so patently illegal, under both Israeli and international law, that the government's attorney general said he could not defend the decision.

Netanyahu's political instinct to attack the U.N. is well-founded. The U.N. has always been an unpopular institution in Israel. It is impossible to explain to most Israelis that when the Security Council, or for that matter the General Assembly, votes, it's not the U.N. that is voting but rather the individual countries.

Netanyahu can attack Obama with little domestic political fallout. Over the past eight years, he has successfully convinced much of the Israeli public that Obama hates Israel. (Of course, he has convinced many Israelis that left-wing Zionists also hate Israel and that the views of Obama and the Israeli left are not all that different.)

However, by attacking so many people simultaneously, Netanyahu may have gone too far. After repeatedly claiming to the Israeli public that our relations with the world are excellent, reacting the way he has over the U.N. resolution may be an overreach.

The opposition has finally found its voice. Even Yair Lapid, the former finance minister and chairman of the Yesh Atid party, who on December 24 was the first to hold a press conference denouncing the U.N. vote and the U.S. decision not to veto, was openly criticizing Netanyahu's actions by Monday.

The prevailing opinion on the streets of Tel Aviv is that the prime minister had gone way too far and that this could endanger his support among his devotees. When pressed, however, those same people could only shrug and acknowledge that it's unclear if anything Netanyahu does will truly dent his support.

Marc Schulman is the editor of Historycentral.com.

Tel Aviv Diary: Bibi Netanyahu Rails Against The World | Opinion