Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Blogger: 'Give Us Netanyahu. Please.'


Israelis go to the polls tomorrow to pick a new prime minister. Opinion polls show Benjamin Netanyahu of the center-right Likud slightly ahead of moderate Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister in the ruling Kadima government. In a surprise, far-right-winger Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu may beat Defense Minister Ehud Barak's center-left Labor into third place. The elections come just a few weeks after Israel's invasion of Gaza.

In a posting on his blog, The Washington Note, today, political commentator Steve Clemons argues that while there's no real difference among the candidates, the election of Netanyahu could transform the perspective of the White House and force a paradigm shift in U.S.-Israeli elections. Well, from an American perspective, what differences do you see among the Israeli candidates for prime minister? 800-989-8255; email You can join the conversation on our Web site. That's at; just click on Talk of the Nation. Steve Clemons joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back in the program.


Mr. STEVE CLEMONS (Political Blogger, The Washington Note): Great to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And of the two leading candidates, Tzipi Livni wants to negotiate with the Palestinians; Bibi Netanyahu does not. She maintains the war in Gaza achieved its goals. He insists as prime minister, he would have to go back in and finish the job. No differences?

Mr. CLEMONS: Oh, I think there are big differences between them, and as I said in the post, Tzipi Livni, who I rather do like generally, and if you're interested in earnestly achieving some sort of peace arrangement or a process with the Palestinians, it seems to me that Bibi Netanyahu is far more in touch with the more strident part of Israel's political character right now, and it is that part of Israel that we need to do some deal making with. It's also, I think, important for Americans to realize that to some degree, as Zbigniew Brzezinski has said, neither the Israelis nor Palestinians have shown very much maturity about their own affairs.

They've not come together over a very long period of time, and it's important to move above them in my view. We've been very much in the weeds and trying to earnestly achieve a peace deal, trying to achieve a balance, trying to reward moderates, and it's just not working. And right now, I think that we might need to try and, you know, take the tough dose with Netanyahu. He's done deals before. But I think it also will show Americans that these two players on both sides are just too strategically immature with their own interests to be trusted with them any longer.

COHEN: Both players on both sides, not just the Israelis...


Mr. CLEMONS: Well, the Palestinians and the Israelis. I think the Palestinians and what Hamas and Fatah have both done have also been, to some degree, have undermined their own position and situation. And if this were 20 years ago or 30 years ago, one could walk away from it and say, it's too bad; let's keep working. But the failure to achieve any kind of equilibrium in this region is having greater and greater consequences for U.S. national security and for the security and stability of the region. And at this point, I think other great power stakeholders in the region - also Europe, also the United States, also Russia - have to just say, enough is enough. And I think it's easier to do that with Netanyahu in place than it would be with Livni or Barak.

CONAN: So, to deal with those who don't want an earnest agreement rather than those who do?

Mr. CLEMONS: Well, to some degree, an earnest agreement has somewhat been a fake and artificial process. To some degree, it's been fascinating. I think Obama's National Security Council staff has some very good people on it. But the dominant view on that team right now is, let's now make Mahmoud Abbas a winner and show Palestinians that we can shower goodies on him that he can then distribute to the Palestinian people, and he will be profiled and juxtaposed differently to what Hamas can do to deliver. I think it's too much too late for that strategy. And to some degree, we failed for quite a long time to make the moderates and Mahmoud Abbas a winner in the process of trying to have nonviolent negotiations with the Israelis.

So - and one other fascinating thing is Avigdor Lieberman's surge. Avigdor Lieberman is essentially the Hamas of Israel politics. He's a rejectionist. He's an ethnic disaggregationist. He wants to export Arabs and Palestinians outside of Israel. And to some degree, you have an interesting door opened if he does end up in the government, which is, what's wrong with talking to Hamas and imagining a government with Hamas when you have the same type of rejectionism in the Israeli government??

CONAN: They're not quite equal (unintelligible)...

Mr. CLEMONS: Well, I wouldn't call them equal, but I do think that it's an important issue of...

CONAN: But they are symbolic of a trend that we've seen. Every time that a previously right-wing government - and you say you deal with the rejectionists, you bring them over to the cause, and you think of, well, Menachem Begin, for example.

Mr. CLEMONS: Right.

CONAN: He gets out-flanked on what we would think of in this context, his right.

Mr. CLEMONS: Sure.

CONAN: You think of Yasser Arafat. Again, finally he gets involved in a real process and gets outflanked on his right.

Mr. CLEMONS: And you could - you can take it further. I think, Yitzhak Rabin got, you know, met very tragic consequences for his moving forward and he was not anyone, anyone could accuse of being a left or progressive on these issues. And I also think Ariel Sharon made a very, very important statement when he was prime minister before his stroke. He talked to his own constituents, his own right-wing, and said, behind this desk, issues look differently, the world looks differently, and if we want to survive as a great state, we want to maintain our character as a Jewish state and as a democracy, we must move and must extract ourselves from Gaza and other of the occupied territories. That was Ariel Sharon.

CONAN: And yet, Mr. Netanyahu, and again, he's...

Mr. CLEMONS: That's right.

CONAN: Campaigning on these issues. Campaign rhetoric is not always the rhetoric one has - what now is the actions one takes as prime minister. But nevertheless, he seems fairly well-committed to expansion of settlements, which, indeed, a lot people, I think including yourself, see as a toxic problem that is just growing worse and worse and more difficult for the Israelis to unravel. And they see that eventually any agreement with the Palestinians as having to pull back considerable numbers of Israelis settlements, and it gets harder and harder the more you build.

Mr. CLEMONS: I absolutely agree. I think the settlement expansion is the toxic aspect that's undermining the foundation of any possibility of hope here. So, it raises the question of, when we saw Gaza take place, the Israeli incursion into Gaza, the tit-for-tat between Hamas and Israel and this really horrific exchange, Zbigniew Brzezinski was on one of the local - one of the major TV shows and made a point that really struck home with me, which was, this is tragic, but yet it's all part of a predictable blur of an ongoing set of rejectionism on both sides and the incapability of either the Palestinians or the Israelis to take this matter into their own hands.

And if you look at the history of these negotiations, though there have been times where there was greater engagement and more effective American engagement than others, on the whole, we've maintained a narrative and a fiction that Israel and Palestine had to negotiate this on their own; it wouldn't be done for them. I think the time has come for Americans to rid themselves of that fiction, and it's easier to do that when you see the flamboyant behaviors that you see both by Hamas and by, possibly, Bibi Netanyahu.

CONAN: And we should point out that, even though the latest opinion polls in Israel show Kadima and Likud quite close, most observers believe that the right would be in a much better position to form a coalition government; neither Likud nor Kadima will get anywhere close to a majority on their own. They're both around 30 seats or something like that.

Mr. CLEMONS: I think that's right. I think the real story is the surge of Lieberman's party. He used to be an eccentric on the side and periphery of the secular parties, and he's surged, election after election, to greater and greater strength.

CONAN: And despite the fact that Ehud Barak is the defense minister after a popular war, Labor looks like it's going to get the worst result ever in its history.

Mr. CLEMONS: Well, it's interesting. Ehud Barak is an interesting man. He's both a guy who came closest possibly to a peace deal; he's also...

CONAN: At the end of the Clinton administration.

Mr. CLEMONS: That's right. He's also the guy more recently who, after the Annapolis process started, ratcheted it up the barriers to mobility for Palestinians by 20 percent higher than they already existed. To some degree when I was last in Israel and talking both to Livni's and Olmert's top negotiators and others, it was very clear that there was frustration in the cabinet with the way in which Barak was managing his defense portfolio, like he was trying to break their political backs by getting into a more hawkish position. And ironically, he's really moved himself, frankly, away from his own Labor Party base, which doesn't necessarily support that hawkishness.

CONAN: We're talking with Steve Clemons, director of American strategy at the New America Foundation and blogger for the Washington Note, about his most recently piece. It's about Israeli elections tomorrow, where he would think that a Prime Minister Netanyahu of the center-right Likud Party would be a clarifying factor for the Obama administration. 800-989-8255; email us, Richard on the line from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

RICHARD (Caller): Yes. I'm calling your attention to what had been a segment on "60 Minutes" two Sundays ago about illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and - where they're ever continuing and it appears they'll continue without abatement. What do you think Benjamin Netanyahu would do about those illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank?

CONAN: These are vigorously opposed by...

RICHARD: I'll take the call off the phone.

CONAN: OK, Richard, thanks very much. These are vigorously opposed, not just by the Bush administration, but by the Obama administration as well.

Mr. CLEMONS: I think the caller was referring to a segment done by Bob Simon of "60 Minutes." It was really an outstanding segment, and I recommend that people see it. Bibi Netanyahu's profile in this is to advocate expansion of the official settlements and further integration of those official settlements into Israel proper, and for unofficial settlements he's tended to turn a blind eye. What's interesting is, there are some people who say - and Bibi Netanyahu is intimating this himself - that he recognizes when he was prime minister last that he made mistakes, that he was immature, that he didn't do some things as well as he would have. We may see some changes in the way in which he approaches these issues because they're going to be fragile and they're going to be red-line items, partly for the Obama administration, depending on how he approaches them. So, without seeing him as prime minister, all we can do is go with what we saw in the past, and that is he's a very pro-settlement-association prime minister and who may, in fact, modify his position and dial that down a little bit, but we don't know yet.

CONAN: We don't know, and you point out in your piece, he was voted out of office last time in part because of the feeling that he had disrupted relations with Israel's indispensable ally.

Mr. CLEMONS: That's right.

CONAN: Let's see we get another caller on the line. This is Rick, Rich with us from St. Louis.

RICK (Caller): Yes, hi. Thanks for taking my call. I don't agree with - and I came to the program late, so I think Steve, your guest, that outside parties are going to inflict the decision on Israel or on the Middle East, and you know, on Hamas because if they don't or if those parties aren't in agreement, then anything the outside parties try to - outside people try to do, is kind of worthless. And this is not the normal negotiation that you have between countries, when one says - you know, Israel has already shown themselves to throw people out of the settlements, which was the right thing to do. I'm not one of these people - I think it's the absolutely right thing to do. But when one party says, we don't want you to exist as a nation, you don't belong in this part of the world, I don't see why you - yes, you could bring Hamas to the table, but I don't see how outside parties should raise them to the level of the Israeli government.

CONAN: Rick, not quite the topic we're on today, but nevertheless, not off completely topic either.

Mr. CLEMONS: Well, let me just put it in the context. We often silo parts of the Middle East off from others. We talked about the Israel-Palestine situation devoid of other regional factors frequently. I think what's interesting about the approach that President Obama and his team have said they're going to take is it's going to be a look at the synergism between all of these issues. And in my mind we have a peace deal that was put on the table in 2002 by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that tries to offer a pathway forward. It's not perfect, but it's at least an opening play to say. there are 22 Arab states that we can normalize relations with Israel. Recently in a Financial Times piece, one of the Prince Turki(ph), former ambassador of Saudi Arabia in United States, essentially threaten that if things didn't begin to proceed in a different direction, that peace deal would be removed.

Why is this important and relevant to the Israel-Palestine situation? For me it's important for the United States because if we don't get Israel loosely on track with Sunni Arab states in the region, you're essentially turning over the entire region to Iran's pretensions. I'd like - I'd rather not see a war between Iran and the United States, and one way to confront Iran without doing so in a bilateral and a direct and a messy military way is to essentially try to put together a different construct in the broader Middle East. That's impossible without this Arab peace deal and Israel moving forward. And that's why I said Israel's leaders have been so remarkably strategically immature about their own interest. And the last comment I'll make about this is that the United States, somewhat as the security guarantor in part for Israel - imagine it like a levee in New Orleans that is slowly eroding with the perception of U.S. power, declining in the eyes of many around the world. It's very important that we begin showing that we can begin achieving the objectives we set out for ourselves and not letting this dissipate because the failure to achieve objectives translates into weakness. That's what we need to fix.

CONAN: Rick, thanks very much. We're talking with Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And one good point out from the other side, Steve, that we achieved this by weakening our most important ally in the region, a country which has retreated entirely from Gaza, took the painful step, Ariel Sharon took that painful step removing with great political cost the settlements from Gaza, and that has done the Israelis nothing, and their reward for this is, is to receive rockets on their towns in the southern part of the country.

Mr. CLEMONS: Well, the major critique of Ariel Sharon, though I just praised him, was Ariel Sharon did not negotiate at all with the Palestinians. This was completely a unilateral moved, again, completely undermining those moderates who kept saying, if we negotiate we can achieve things and nonetheless helping essentially to make Hamas a winner in that equation. So, it - unilateral moves of that sort are not the kind of thing. Trying to work across the lines with those people and generating a different equilibrium rules of the road, both states will need each other and be interacting with each other from here on out after a Palestinian state is created. None of that was created out of Ariel Sharon's unilateral move.

CONAN: But from your point of view, again, please give me Netanyahu - If Prime Minister Netanyahu is as good to his word as a candidate...

Mr. CLEMONS: Right. As the more flamboyant he is...

CONAN: And goes in?


CONAN: And quote/unquote, finishes the job, in Gaza, confronts Hezbollah in Lebanon, and confronts Iran directly or indirectly, how does that help achieve what your vision is?

Mr. CLEMONS: Well, my sense is that if you were that flamboyant, one, my view is that the winner, the party that got the most benefit believe it or not, out of the Israeli incursion into Gaza was Hamas itself. It's Hamas trying to harass a kind of flamboyant disproportionate action because its political enemies in the region are Fatah, wanting to look - we've now gutted Fatah's legitimacy in the eyes of Palestinians, and now Hamas is on the pedestal in the eyes of many Palestinians who hate the occupation of their territory. And it's also created an Arab empathy and sympathy across the region with the plight of the Gazans.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. CLEMONS: And so...

CONAN: What we're talking about Israeli politics.

Mr. CLEMONS: Right. So, when we go in to Israeli politics and see this happen, you've got both sides ratcheting up a fear-mongering and an escalation that right now is benefiting - and as I said, I think that this is highly irresponsible behavior on both sides absolutely, and we need to see that as Americans. In the past, a friend of mine - well, Brent Scowcroft used to say that the Israeli-Palestinian problem is treated as a domestic problem, not a foreign-policy one.

CONAN: In the United States.

Mr. CLEMONS: But now - in the United States. But now, with the failure over and over and over again to achieve a different balance, the consequences to the United States are now becoming dramatic enough. The problems and challenges, particularly with the potential coalition with Iran, dramatic enough that there's an enormous spotlight of attention across many spheres of American society and American politics, at a point of perceived weakness for the country that I think that the Israelis will not have the same kind of latitude to dictate the terms of that region as they have in the past. So, perhaps I'm off-base in the sense here that I'm asking for a bit of radicalism to try to educate the United States that it needs to engage much fully - as do the Europeans, as do the Russians, the U.N. and other major stewards in the Arab region as well. But I think flamboyant, crazy behavior might be helpful.

CONAN: Steve Clemons, director of American Strategy at the New America Foundation, blogger for the Washington Note. You can read his posting, "Give Us Netanyahu. Please," at our Web site,; just click on Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.