Bibi clearly believes that the 2020s belong to the geopolitics of Trump, Salvini, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Putin, and Mohammed bin Salman. And, now also a pessimist, I’m less inclined to bet against him. And here my liberal friends—my ideological allies—and I part ways. The Obama theory of history, they tell me, has merely been interrupted. Bibi has merely gained a little time before the inevitable reckoning.
But trapped in debates about Trump and Brexit, liberals have missed how fast the world has changed since their era ended. The West matters so much less. Redrawing the Middle East will no longer come at the wish of the Western bourgeoisie. The great wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen have broken the influence of the Oslo powers. Britain is out, Russia is in. The Europeans are finished, and Saudi Arabia and its quest to stop Iran is what now matters most. The next “peace photo” will feature strongmen in flowing robes, not the heirs of Jimmy Carter.
Obama saw the “world as it is,” his former adviser Ben Rhodes has claimed. But actually, it was Bibi who saw it more clearly. The “democrats” like Mohammed Morsi and Tayyip Erdogan in whom Obama initially saw signs of hope are now either in jail or autocrats themselves. The Middle East is not democratizing. And this means any peace Israel makes will be made with strongmen, and must be guaranteed by them, in a region the West no longer controls.
My camp, the Jewish peace camp, understood this when Menachem Begin made peace with Anwar Sadat. But today, when I listen to the groups I donate to and support on Palestinian rights, they not only talk as if the geopolitics of the region do not exist, they talk as if the Arab tyrants are to be avoided and nationalism will soon go extinct. And this, a beautiful dream, is something I no longer believe. But even should the pendulum swing, Bibi will still be right.
Should backlash produce a left-wing populist as president of the United States, he has ensured that Israel can pivot quickly, opening up new peace talks to satisfy the United States. For all his bluster, Bibi has not moved on the fundamentals. The West Bank is neither annexed nor abandoned. It remains ready to be bargained for, all over again. Bibi has hedged his bets, to the frustration of those like Naftali Bennett to his right, instead of investing in a settler theory of history. Only optimists have such theories.
The price for this, I realized, was one I could feel. Because the Jewish diaspora—its unity, its vulnerability—was something Bibi was willing to compromise, even abuse, to advance the project of Israeli power. Trump, Orbán, Salvini: Jerusalem would not vocally protest the sudden upswing in anti-Semitism these demagogues brought. What were the Jews of Hungary? Or the affinity of young, assimilated Jews toward Israel? And for all my emotions, I knew what Bibi would say: The comfort of the Western diaspora ranks low, when it comes to calculating the core interests of the Jewish state.
I left Salvini, walking home below the walls of the Old City through the Hinnom Valley. I felt, that night, that there will always be something unnerving, something unacceptable, about the meaning of Jerusalem for any progressive narrative. If this city says anything, it is that there is no inevitable justice in history, only conquerors. Justice will always have to be fought for. And if one side secures justice, it will always come at others’ expense.