It’s easy to throw darts at the speech Benjamin Netanyahu delivered on Tuesday at the United Nations. He bashed the Iranian nuclear deal while depicting himself as a champion of the Iranian people. “My Iranian friends,” he declared, “you will be free from the evil regime that terrorizes you.” But ordinary Iranians greeted the nuclear deal by dancing in the streets because it offered a potential easing of the economic sanctions that had impoverished them.
It’s also easy to mock the fact that Netanyahu, after denouncing the Iranian regime because it “jails journalists, tortures political prisoners and shoots innocent women,” in the very next paragraph praised the “courageous” Egyptian dictator Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi who, according to Human Rights Watch, killed 1,000 political protesters in a single day in 2013.
Finally, it’s tempting to lampoon Netanyahu’s homage to Winston Churchill’s famous 1946 line about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe: “From the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean, from Tehran to Tartus, an Iranian curtain is descending across the Middle East.” It’s no secret that Netanyahu loves Churchill. In his baldly racist 2000 book, “A Durable Peace,” he approvingly quotes Churchill as saying, “Left to themselves, the Arabs of Palestine would not in a thousand years have taken steps toward the irrigation and electrification of Palestine.”
But the Tehran to Tartus line is absurd. If an Iranian curtain is descending across the Middle East, then the United States is helping unfurl it. Iran was America’s indispensable ally in dislodging the Islamic State group from Mosul, and it is playing a major role in the fight against IS in Syria. In 1946, Churchill correctly noted that the Soviet Union posed the greatest European threat to the United States. In 2017, the greatest Middle Eastern threat to the United States is Sunni jihadism. And in that struggle, Iran — for all its misdeeds — is on America’s side.
But these are quibbles. In his core argument, Netanyahu was correct. He came to New York to celebrate the fact that the world’s most powerful governments care more about acquiring Israel’s military, agricultural and cyber technology than they care about the Palestinians. And he’s right.
Donald Trump hasn’t endorsed the two-state solution, and has never expressed the faintest moral concern for the millions of Palestinians living as stateless noncitizens under Israeli rule. India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi — whom the United States once denied a visa because of his role in anti-Muslim riots — is Netanyahu’s ideological cousin. This summer, not only did he become the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, he also snubbed Mahmoud Abbas while there.
It’s not just that other countries want Israel’s technology. Many are moving in Israel’s ideological direction. In European nations already uncomfortable with multiculturalism, the epic refugee crisis surging out of North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia has sparked a nationalist, Islamophobic backlash that must make Netanyahu smile. There goes Europe’s moral high ground. And which other world powers are going to pressure Israel to respect human rights and international law? China? Russia?
In 2011, Barack Obama warned, “In the absence of a credible peace process” the “march to isolate Israel internationally… will continue to gain momentum.” At the time, I believed that, too. But we may have been blinded by our progressivism. Progressivism entails more than a vision of government. It entails a vision of history. Progressives believe in the inevitability of progress. As Obama often said, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Perhaps, however, it doesn’t. Or it doesn’t in our lifetimes. It’s possible that in the coming years some combination of international pressure, Palestinian protest and wiser Israeli leadership will begin unwinding Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. But it’s at least as likely that Israel will respond to further Palestinian violence with ever more brutal countermeasures, and Palestinian life in the West Bank will come to resemble Palestinian life in Gaza. And the world, which already shrugs at the hideous suffering 14 kilometers south of Ashkelon, will go on shrugging.
As I suggested last week, it’s likely that younger and nonwhite Americans will express more sympathy for the Palestinian cause. But that may not be enough. In a 2015 essay, Ta-Nehisi Coates remembers reading a quote in Tony Judt’s book, “Postwar,” in which a journalist watching the forced population transfers immediately following World War II declares, “No one seeing its horrors first hand can doubt that it is a crime against humanity for which history will exact a terrible price.” Then, to Coates’s bewilderment, Judt observes, “History has exacted no such retribution.” Maybe it will be that way with the occupation.
“I tremble for my country,” Thomas Jefferson declared, “when I reflect that God is just.” That’s how I feel about my people. I know that the state that we sustain holds millions of human beings in bondage. And for that, I believe, we will be judged. But the first is a statement of fact. The second is a statement of faith.
On Yom Kippur, we will hear Isaiah demand that we “unlock the fetters of wickedness, untie the cords of the yoke and let the oppressed go free.” And what happens if we don’t?
On Tuesday at the General Assembly, Netanyahu gave his answer: Nothing will happen. In fact, we will prosper, because what matters in this world is power. It’s Pharaoh’s answer, horrifying to hear from the leader of a Jewish state. But nothing I can see proves it wrong.
Peter Beinart is a Forward senior columnist and contributing editor.
Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward and Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York. He is also a Contributor to The Atlantic and a CNN Political Commentator.