An Open Letter to Benjamin Netanyahu

Dear Bibi:

I hope you don’t mind my using the familiar form of address, even if you are the prime minister of Israel; it is, after all, the diminutive by which many of us -- private persons, journalists, bloggers -- tend to refer to you. At worst, it suggests a certain condescension; at best, it betokens a spirit of affection, however grudging. I am of the latter camp.

True, we have never met, but we came close once. That was when you visited my home town Montreal on September 9, 2002, to give a talk at Concordia University on Middle East affairs. Unfortunately, you never made it to the podium. A riot erupted, fomented by the Student Union subbing, in effect, for the university’s 6000-strong Muslim student body, forcing the cancellation of the lecture. As many of us know, but too few wish to admit -- especially the university syndics -- this emeute was an expression of the metastasizing campus movement which seeks to demonize Israel while shutting down legitimate debate and discussion.

Still, though we have never met, I feel as if I know you well, having followed your career for many years and even suffered vicariously the checks and humiliations you have had to endure. And when you were elected prime minister a second time, in 2009, I celebrated the event as a harbinger of a better and more viable future for an embattled country that you would -- surely -- nobly and vigorously represent and lead.

After the disastrous stewardship of Ehud Olmert, the man who was “tired of winning” and prepared to surrender not only territory but most of his country’s negotiating assets at the bargaining table, you were the proverbial breath of fresh -- or at least, not so stale -- air. Your supporters sensed that you had matured after your less-than-successful 1996-99 administration. We assumed that you would immediately set about rewriting the script that Olmert had followed and which had dragged Israel into a condition of diplomatic and military peril. The passionate speech you delivered to the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2009, was precisely the sign of moral clarity, intellectual gravity, and national honor we were waiting for.

And yet, as time went on, we had to admit to a growing presentiment of disappointment and even alarm. Did you really learn from your mistake in signing the Wye and Hebron agreements, as we had hoped? Was political scientist Yaron Ezrahi right when he said that you would have little compunction “in sacrificing an ideological position as long as it keeps [you] in power”? Writing in Haaretz, Karni Eldad, daughter of Knesset member Aryeh Eldad of the National Union Party, articulates an intuition that has come, regrettably, to be shared by many: “The prime minister prefers to be remembered as a politician who managed to navigate between the raindrops than someone who stood for his beliefs.” It is no accident that your approval rating now festers at 32%, even lower than President Obama’s in the U.S., which is saying a lot.

And, of course, Obama is your major nemesis. It is your failure to resist one of the most anti-Israeli presidents in living memory, including Jimmy Carter, that has called your credentials into serious doubt. Yes, we are all aware that the American connection is as necessary to Israel’s welfare as it is complex, problematic, and, on occasion, even treacherous. We are all aware that you need the American veto in the Security Council -- growing ever shakier in any case -- and must tread carefully. Nevertheless, your maneuvering to guarantee American support regardless of the debilitating concessions required of you speaks not to your political intelligence and moral stamina but to a certain -- what shall we call it? -- vertebral insecurity. I am sorry to say this, but your behavior in office leaves me no choice.