Why Tony Judt Thinks Netanyahu Could Be Good for the Jews

For a story in today's Observer about how the rise of a Benjamin Netanyahu government in Israel is affecting Middle East dialogue in America, I spoke with Tony Judt, a noted academic and historian and a provocative critic of some of Israel's supporters in the U.S.

Netanyahu's policies are, from Judt's left-of-center point of view, awful. But he expressed optimism that political developments there would lead to a more constructive debate here.

Referring to the man expected to be Israel's next foreign minister, the ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman, he said, "A man like Lieberman, if he appeared in the government, particularly in a senior position in any other democratic country, he'd provoke a huge public debate. It may be that what it shows is that Netanyahu may be more than a little bit autistic—that is to say that he is so far away from the mainstream, I don't mean anti-Israeli or pro-Israeli, I just mean mainstream thought, not only on the Gaza problem, the Israel problem, the Palestine problem, but also on the sort of people you should have in your government—that it opens up a space in which to discuss Israel in ways that are not about Israel per se."

Judt, who has lived in Israel and volunteered as a driver and translator for the I.D.F. during the Six Day War, described a recent evolution of the political consensus in Israel as a "radical sort of series of steps, a shift to a sort of nationalist, mostly secular territorialist, resentfulist, excuse my language, fuck youist attitude towards the outside world." It is a sign, he said "that something has gone wrong in the Israeli political system."

Asked if the administration of Barack Obama, who in a press conference last night acknowledged that Netanyahu's government didn't make the realization of a two-state solution any easier, would apply more pressure on Israel, Judt said, "Yes, if they know how to do it."

Referring to Netanyahu's participation in the peace process, he said, "The only person who can force him into it is an American president who puts their feet to the fires and says, 'I'm talking to Iran, I don't care what you guys think, we're having a Palestinian state. We're closing down the settlements. If you open up a single new settlement or expand them, you can forget about your three billion a year.'"

But Judt said that supporters of more forceful American posture toward Israel on negotiating with its neighbors had received what he called "mixed messages."

The positive signs, according to Judt, were the appointment of George Mitchell over Dennis Ross as an envoy to the region, which he took to mean that the administration sees the Israeli-Palestinian issue as one that "doesn't have to be regarded as somehow unique and outside of history," but rather one that is "much more like Northern Ireland. No clear-cut wrong side or right side, but a situation that can't go on."

Judt was likewise enthusiastic about Obama's efforts to engage Iran in a constructive dialogue. "Because," he said, "in Israel, Iran is a sort of measuring stick. If you are absolutely pro-Israel you never compromise on Iran. But from Obama's point of view, Iran is absolutely vital to cover him in his overwhelming focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan. If you were doing a sort of Kissingeresque view of international interests, you'd see that Washington and Iran have similar interests. And I think the Israelis see that and realize that the message of the opening up to Tehran is that America will look after its own real interests and not always follow Israel's view of the matter. Those are very much counter to the 'we can do anything because American will let us' view.

Judt said that the mixed message came when Obama failed to come to the defense of Charles Freeman, the Israel critic who was up for a key intelligence post.

"He let him hang. I think that was a mistake, not because of the guy, he can always be replaced, but because symbolically it said to the Israelis 'safe, no pressure.'"

Judt said that there had already been clear signs that the political debate about Israel was becoming more vigorous in the United States. He pointed to the editorial page of The New York Times, which he said was a barometer of mainstream thinking and had published several pieces by Roger Cohen arguing that it was quite all right to criticize Israel. He also said there was a more reasonable and mature discussion on various blogs about the proposal to boycott Israel.

"The level of conversation was much better than the old days, which are not so old, which was one side saying, 'Boycott Israel, it's a fascist state,' and the other side was saying, 'That's Auschwitz talk.'"

That discussion would open up further as Israel appointed officials and followed policies that many Jews in and out of Israel took issue with, he said.

"The other thing is that as Israel does stupider things domestically and therefore Jews do stupider things to Jews, other Jews feel liberated to say that was a stupid thing to do. When Jews do stupid things to Arabs or nasty things to Arabs there is much greater pressure on mainstream Jewish opinion to remain silent, which I disapprove of, but I understand it. Now, no one I know feels that they have to be silent about the fact that Israel has gone a step too far in even considering Lieberman as foreign minister."

He added, "A lot of people in this country beyond John Mearsheimer and other critics of the Israel lobby have started to say, 'How dysfunctional is it that we have to think twice before pointing out that our closest foreign ally may appoint as foreign minister someone who is going to do profound damage to our interests as well as Israel's?'"

And it was there, he said, that he saw an opening for greater debate.

"The lobby will fight back very hard because this is a sort of determining question: Are you allowed to criticize a part of Israeli politics without being thought to be anti-Israeli? If the lobby were smart, they would say it is O.K. to be angry about Lieberman and Netanyahu, but they are not particularly smart."

"The whole point of Zionism," Judt said, "was to make a normal country in which Jews were just like everyone else and had a world of politics just like everyone else and could therefore live real modern lives like everyone else. And if we can't talk about Israel as a normal country that does good things and bad things, screws up and is sometimes a lousy, dysfunctional ally, the same way Italy sometimes is, then Zionism has failed."