By all accounts it was something like his umpteenth stop of the day -- after the Senate, the National Press Club, the Washington Times, and who knows how many smaller and/or private meetings with politicians and journalists, not to mention whatever television would come before and after -- but during his 90-minute session at the American Enterprise Institute late yesterday afternoon Benjamin Netanyahu appeared as fresh and relaxed and sharp as if he'd just returned from a nice vacation in the Caribbean.
He's what the new age types would describe as a man at peace with himself. So why is it that those same types hate him so much? They already loathe Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- yet their one real fear is that Netanyahu will replace Sharon as P.M. if the current situation deteriorates still further.
We all know why he's hated and feared: He doesn't beat around the bush, but speaks and thinks with clarity, and he wants U.S. policy to reflect that same clearmindness, however unpleasant the consequences. In introducing him, Kenneth Weinstein of the Hudson Institute, which co-hosted the event, stressed that clarity is needed above all in understanding that the U.S. and Israel are fighting the same war of terrorism against the same enemy. Those who would destroy one would destroy the other. War clarifies thinking, AEI President Christopher DeMuth added in his introductory remarks. Against this common enemy, Israel has the same right to self-defense as the U.S. does. The one concern, as Netanyahu observed, is that the U.S. seems to be moving from the clarity of purpose laid out by President Bush on September 20 to selective application of its arguments.
In demanding the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and expressing a desire to meet with Yassir Arafat, the Bush administration is responding to pressure from international and media opinion. Netanyahu ignores it. When the U.N.'s leading accommodationist Kofi Annan asks, "Can it be that the entire world is wrong?" Netanyahu replies: "You bet." Several times he mentioned Israel's preemptive takeout of the Iraqi nuclear reactor 21 years ago, world opinion be damned. But everyone knows the world is safer today because Israel then what had to be done.
Today the issue is Arafat. Europe and Colin Powell for the umpteenth time are willing to accept his signature on agreements he will never live up to in the slightest. Netanyahu -- and one senses Israel generally -- will never again join in this charade. Arafat sponsors suicide terror, he seeks Israel's destruction, he is terrorist and terror regime rolled into one. Pointedly, Netanyahu noted that during his tenure as prime minister Palestinian terror against Israel was at its lowest ebb precisely because Arafat knew Netanyahu would "bring him down" if he tried anything. Again one senses that as far as Israel is concerned, Arafat is gone. For good. The matter is no longer open to discussion.
As he has throughout his trip, Netanyahu described Europe's current hostility to Israel as "shameful" behavior by a continent that stood by as 6 million Jews were slaughtered. Who are the Europeans to play moral one-upsmanship with Israel? An honorary European of sorts yesterday was the National Journal's Jonathan Rauch, who during the question period asked Netanyahu if Israel is doing what it should to prevent civilian casualties among the Palestinians. Perhaps Rauch is hard of hearing, but earlier in his remarks Netanyahu had addressed just that issue when he noted Israel was not using air power for that very reason, even though that meant risking far greater losses of its own.
In an effort to understand Europe's thinking, Netanyahu noted that its perceptions are colored by its own experience with overseas colonialism and assumption that Israel represents a last example of European-style colonial rule over an indigenous people. Never mind that Zionism represented a return to ancestral lands or that the Holy Land little more than an empty wasteland (as Mark Twain and others noticed) that didn't attract Arab migration until after Jewish settlers brought prosperity and opportunity. But try making that argument today in polite company.
In Netanyahu's view, Israel has much more in common with the U.S. and its history of nation-building. Which also explains why U.S. public opinion is so strongly supportive of the current Israeli campaign and right to self-defense. As Netanyahu noted, you don't have to be from the South Side of Chicago to have political common sense.
He raised countless other important points, particularly regarding the need to plant the seeds of pluralism in the Islamic world. If Turkey could have moved to create a more reasonable society, the cause isn't hopeless, he suggested. (Though as a Turkish journalist in the audience noted, that hasn't kept the current Turkish prime minister from calling Israel's actions in the West Bank "genocide.")
But more significant was his understanding of the logic of our own war on terrorism. A showdown with Iraq is looming, and he urged the U.S. to put the Republican Guards on notice. If they want to live they should lay down their arms. Otherwise they'll die. Such bluntness was a reminder that the U.S. is hardly ready to take this next step. It could just be that official U.S. policy is urging Israel to pull back because we ourselves are hardly ready to display Israel's resolve.
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