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Katja, Israel is a democracy

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(Editor’s note: This is a response to a guest column by Katja Edelman headlined “Bibi, can you hear me” published in the Dec. 19 issue.)

As a citizen of Israel, resident of Jerusalem, I thank you for your voluntary service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). You have earned the right to criticize Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, even from a distance, now that you are back on Morningside Heights.

You take the prime minister to task for his coddling of the settlers and for “turn[ing] Israel into something unrecognizable from the outside.” You ask him to “honor the legacy of the great Nelson Mandela and be the kind of leader who takes risks for the people and nation he loves.”

Indeed, the mark of the great leader is the willingness to take risks; but it is also the ability to know when to take those risks. Furthermore, in a democracy, the prime minister must not only weigh the international consequences of his actions but also the impact that his policies will have on the citizens of his country.

Israel is a democracy and nothing is simple in a democracy. The decision-making process in a democracy, and especially in Israel, is convoluted, loud, quite often too open and subject to many competing pressures. As the only democracy in the region, Israel’s open processes are subject to much second guessing. How much easier would it be for Prime Minister Netanyahu if he did not have to worry about the maintenance of his ruling coalition, the next election or comments from abroad?

What may be perceived as an incoherent Israeli policy on settlement construction when viewed solely from the single perspective of those outside of Israel, may be a rational second-best policy when the domestic perspective, and hence, the need for balance, is thrown into the equation.

Take the makeup of the current ruling coalition. The recent election for Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, was primarily contested over domestic social and economic issues. The ruling coalition, which consists of doves and hawks who hold diametrically opposed views on settlement policy, was stitched together to deal principally with the domestic challenges currently facing Israel. Were the prime minister to take bold action and develop a coherent policy on the settlements and settlers, as you urge, he would lose his current coalition in favor of a coalition that would support his settlement policy but would not be able to move on the more pressing domestic issues.

And now is not the time to do that, since Israel does not have a genuine partner for peace.

President Mandela had a negotiating partner who shared his goal of ending apartheid. By freeing the imprisoned Mandela, South Africa’s last apartheid president, F.W. de Klerk, demonstrated, through action and not just word, that he was willing to work with Mandela to reach their shared objective. The current Palestinian leadership has not sent any signals that it is willing to live in peace with a Jewish state or coexist with Israel. Palestinian maps continue to exclude Israel and their schoolbooks make no attempt to educate Palestinian children for peace or coexistence with Israel. Under such circumstances, how can we ask the prime minister to take the risk and make the hard decisions on a settlement policy that could very well create fissures in the political and social fabric of Israel?

The fact that the current round of negotiations with the Palestinians consists of two separate negotiations that require two conflicting negotiating styles also makes Israel unrecognizable from the outside.

On the one hand, the prime minister is negotiating with the Palestinians as if he were in an old-fashioned Mideast bazaar. In such a non-rational negotiation, one stakes an extreme opening position, sticks to the maximalist position and does not offer to show his or her cards unless reciprocated.

On the other hand, Israel is simultaneously negotiating with the United States in a rational give-and-take over what Israel should be offering the Palestinians, with the “outside” expecting an Israeli position that is logical, internally consistent and will lead inexorably to the final outcome. This bifurcated negotiation is the reality that you say is unrecognizable from the “outside.”

What is tragic about the current situation is that polls show that a large majority of Israelis would give up sizeable chunks of land in the West Bank for a genuine peace with the proper security arrangements. Katja, you want Prime Minister Netanyahu to essentially act like Mandela and take risk. A genuine peace is, however, dependent on Netanyahu’s having a de Klerk to his Mandela.

Jacques J. Gorlin held senior positions in the State and Treasury Departments and served as senior economic adviser to Sen. Jacob K. Javits (R-NY). He subsequently was president of the Gorlin Group for more than 25 years before moving from Washington, D.C., to Israel in 2011.