World leaders of all stripes criticize each other privately and candidly when substantial issues separate them. French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “a liar” and U.S. President Barack Obama’s seeming sympathy should hardly be surprising, even if the bluntness of the accusation is noteworthy. It’s Mr. Sarkozy’s bad luck that he was heard by unwanted ears in an unguarded moment during last week’s G20 summit in Cannes.
This faux pas could be overcome, for instance, by Mr. Netanyahu’s saying he was certain the two presidents were quoted out of context, after which the issue would probably disappear. But he’s unlikely to do so, because he’s combative in defending his country’s interests. This combativeness has paid off throughout the history of the Zionist project stretching back to the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Indeed, Israel’s creation was ultimately a function of such tactics.
Mr. Netanyahu is also a disciple of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the 1920s Revisionist Zionist movement whose key principle was not only the creation of a Jewish state but the redemption of the entirety of “the Land of Israel,” including what we now call the West Bank. Motivated by this commitment and pushed by the ultra-nationalist parties in his fragile coalition government, Mr. Netanyahu has assumed the role of redeemer with gusto. He has devoted much of his life to ensuring that as much of the West Bank as possible is integrated into the Jewish state, thereby dictating the redistribution of population through settlements and the reorganization of space by expropriation.
Mr. Netanyahu’s reality does not sit easily with the Palestinians or with much of the international community, which believes that a viable two-state solution is a sine qua non for peace and mutual security. With a chopped-up West Bank, they see peace as impossible not only for reasons of morality but for the demographic reality that the former British Mandate territory currently houses as many Arabs as it does Jews. This dictates that the societal norms of both peoples must be accommodated.
Most Western leaders believe Mr. Netanyahu’s goal is an impossible one: marrying a maximalist territorial agenda with rhetorical flexibility respecting negotiations. Mr. Netanyahu is therefore driven, as he was during his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, to try yet again to tie Palestinians of whatever stripe, including moderate Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, to the anti-Semitic tirades of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Constrained as Mr. Netanyahu is by ideology and political imperative, Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Obama don’t accept the Israeli Prime Minister’s promises of flexibility at the negotiating table.
The portrayal of radical Muslims as a threat to Israel’s welfare is well-documented. When one combines Mr. Ahmadinejad’s threats to wipe Israel off the map with Iran’s unquenchable thirst for nuclear weapons, there can be little doubt that Israel faces existential threats. But to maintain that most Palestinians share this goal and are able to implement it stretches logic.
Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Obama believe that it’s the Revisionist Zionist ideology that drives the Israeli Prime Minister rather than any security threat emanating from Ramallah. They believe that what they see as the running sore of the occupation must be cauterized. They see Mr. Netanyahu’s government of territorial maximalism running counter to their own beliefs. This is the reason they’re so frustrated.
Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, is the Paul Martin Sr. Scholar in International Diplomacy at the University of Windsor.