What is it about Israel in general and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in particular that leads to so much careless reporting and tendentious commentary?
Start with The New York Times, trendsetter that it is, which ran this headline on March 16: “Netanyahu Says No to Statehood for Palestinians.” An editorial then referred to the prime minister’s “outright rejection of a Palestinian state.” Columnist Thomas Friedman piled on, accusing Mr. Netanyahu of having “declared” he would “never permit a two state-solution between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Here’s what Mr. Netanyahu actually said to an Israeli reporter shortly before last week’s election: “I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to radical Islam against the state of Israel.”
Can there be any benign explanation for transmogrifying Mr. Netanyahu’s suggestion that Palestinian statehood is not achievable “today” into the charge that he rejects a Palestinian state “outright,” and has vowed that a two-state solution will “never” be permitted?
Consider, too, the history from which Mr. Netanyahu has learned lessons: In 1982, Israel withdrew from the Sinai after signing a peace treaty with Egypt. Today, that territory is being used as an “attack ground” by Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, a group that has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. (Important to note: The current government in Egypt is fighting these jihadis — in close cooperation with Israel.)
Southern Lebanon, from which Israel withdrew 15 years ago, is ruled by Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist proxy, which has illicitly installed tens of thousands of rockets — all of them pointing at Israelis.
Gaza, from which Israel withdrew 10 years ago, is ruled by Hamas — self-declared jihadis openly committed to Israel’s extermination.
As for the West Bank, what almost everyone knows — though most are reluctant to say — is that were Israelis to withdraw today, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would likely be overthrown by Hamas, the Islamic State or Iranian-backed militias.
Let me emphasize: This is the situation today. I am not saying — nor was Mr. Netanyahu — that Palestinians and Israelis will “never” be able to live as neighbors, in independent states.
After the election, Mr. Netanyahu attempted make clear that he has not changed his position — a position laid out in detail in a major speech in 2009. Israelis, he said then, will support a Palestinian state — if Palestinians will reciprocate by accepting the Jewish state and agreeing to end the conflict.
This formulation is virtually identical with offers of Palestinian statehood made by other Israeli prime ministers in 2000, 2001 and 2008. Palestinian leaders rejected them all. “I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution,” Mr. Netanyahu said last week. “But for that, circumstances have to change.”
Most of the media called the prime minister’s clarification a “reversal.” Obama administration spokesmen refused to grant even that. Instead, White House press secretary Josh Earnest insisted that Israelis were “withdrawing from their commitments to the pursuit of this goal.”
He added: “It means that we need to rethink what our strategy is going to be” — an implicit threat to end the support past Democratic and Republican administrations have provided Israelis against those attempting to use the power of the United Nations to weaken and, eventually, destroy them.
As he issued that threat, Mr. Earnest called Israel “our closest ally in the region.” Considering President Obama’s apparent willingness to provide the Islamic Republic of Iran with a path to a nuclear weapons capability, his retreat from his own red lines following the use of chemical weapons by Syria’s dictator, the rise of the Islamic State in the wake of the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, and the deteriorating situation in Yemen just after Mr. Obama declared it a success thanks to his policies, is it going too far to fear that the United States has become, as the scholar Bernard Lewis warned it might, “harmless as an enemy but treacherous as a friend”?
One additional controversy requires a bit of context: Mr. Netanyahu’s attempt to prod his voters to the polls by warning that “Arab voters are coming in droves to the ballot boxes. Left-wing [nongovernmental organizations] bring them in buses.”
While hardly a statesman-like comment, does it compare with Vice President Joe Biden telling African-American leaders to get out their vote in 2012 because if Republican candidate Mitt Romney wins, he “is going put y’all back in chains”? Let’s stipulate that, in the heat of a tough campaign, candidates sometimes say things they ought not. Is it not hypocritical for the Obama administration to hold itself to one standard and the Israeli prime minister to a different and far more stringent standard?
Mr. Netanyahu has since apologized for his remark which, he acknowledged, “offended some of Israel’s citizens, hurt the Arab citizens.” He also attempted to clarify his intention, saying that Israeli citizens, “Jewish or Arab” should vote “as they see fit” but that “what is not legitimate is the funding” — a reference to the fact that foreign money supports the “left-wing NGOs” in Israel. And One Voice, a U.S.-based NGO run by an Obama ally, assisted the left-wing parties and the Joint Arab List attempting to defeat Mr. Netanyahu. That Arab coalition includes both Islamists and self-identified communists.
In the end, Arab voter turnout was high and, as a result, Arab representation in the Knesset will increase. This demonstrates yet again how democratic and tolerant Israelis remain in a region rife with tyranny, oppression and barbarism.
That point is not likely to be emphasized by the White House or most of the major media. Attributing such a lapse only to carelessness and tendentiousness may be overly charitable.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.