Obama: ‘If Not Now, Bibi, Then When?’

To save Israel as a Jewish state, the West Bank settlement project must be reversed.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu beside a picture of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl (Sebastian Scheiner / Reuters)

Last year, shortly before Benjamin Netanyahu made one of his periodic visits to the White House, I interviewed Barack Obama about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The president has been consistent on the subject: Time is running out for a two-state solution—the only viable, practical solution to the crisis—and he believes that it is up to Israel, as the stronger power, the one that controls the land on which a Palestinian state would be created, to take the lead in establishing conditions for this new state.

The president told me that his questions for the Israeli prime minister, when they meet, are simple and direct: “The essence of my conversation,” Obama said, is this: “If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who? How does this get resolved?”

People familiar with Jewish history know that the president was trolling Netanyahu a bit here by paraphrasing the sage Hillel, who asked, more than 2,000 years ago, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”

Obama has long understood Netanyahu to be the indispensable man of Middle East peacemaking. Obama believes that, alone among Israeli leaders, Netanyahu possesses the credibility to deliver as much as 70 percent of the Israeli public to a difficult compromise with the Palestinians. “[F]or Bibi to seize the moment in a way that perhaps only he can, precisely because of the political tradition that he comes out of and the credibility he has with the right inside of Israel, for him to seize this moment is perhaps the greatest gift he could give to future generations of Israelis,” the president said.

I’ve argued that Netanyahu has long been a plausible candidate for the third seat in the Zionist pantheon: Theodor Herzl, who envisioned the physical return of the Jews to Zion, holds the first seat; David Ben-Gurion, who made that return a concrete political reality, holds the second. The third seat remains empty. This seat is for the person who guarantees Israel a permanent place under the sun, with fixed, recognized borders and something close to universal legitimacy. Yitzhak Rabin was meant for that third seat, but an assassin ended that dream; Ariel Sharon was a credible candidate, but a stroke felled him. Netanyahu has been the most likely living candidate for that seat.

But over the past 18 months, since Obama issued that challenge, Netanyahu has shown very little interest in changing, in any sort of dramatic way, the reality on the ground, in particular the reality of slow but inexorable settlement growth on the West Bank—settlements that are meant, in many cases, to obviate the birth of a Palestinian state. Netanyahu has also shown himself, over and over again, to be deaf to the concerns of Israel’s (dwindling band of) liberal supporters in the West, Jewish and non-Jewish, who worry about the direction his country is taking, and he has appeared to be deaf to the sort of pragmatic concerns articulated by Obama and others regarding the seeming inexorability of a one-state non-solution (I call it a “non-solution” because the idea of a single, even semi-functional state containing two warring Middle East tribes is farcical).

Here is what Obama said last year about the illusion that the current status quo can be maintained indefinitely: “[M]y assessment, which is shared by a number of Israeli observers, I think, is there comes a point where you can’t manage this anymore, and then you start having to make very difficult choices. Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank? Is that the character of Israel as a state for a long period of time? Do you perpetuate, over the course of a decade or two decades, more and more restrictive policies in terms of Palestinian movement? Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?”

Unlike Obama, several of his predecessors, and most American diplomats who specialize in the Middle East, I no longer believe that a reversal of the settlement project would necessarily set in motion a process that culminates in the conflict’s end. The 100-year conflict between Arab and Jew was not initiated by the 48-year-old occupation of the West Bank. As the latest round of Palestinian terrorism directed at Israelis suggests, the conflict is about something more than settlements. For many Palestinians, and certainly for many Palestinian leaders, Israel is an illegitimate state, and the Jews are not a people. There will be no permanent end of the conflict until Palestinians bring their understanding of Jewish history into line with reality.

But: There will certainly be no progress toward a possible two-state solution—there will certainly be no chance that the Palestinian narrative will ever soften—if the settlement movement continues apace. And more to the point: There will be no hope for Israel as a democratic state that is home to a Jewish majority—the one place in the world in which Jews, after 2,000 years of exile and persecution at the hands of Christians and Muslims and fascists and communists, can take control of their own destiny—if the West Bank is absorbed into Israel proper. The separation of two warring tribes is the actual goal of “peace” negotiations; a reversal of the settlement project is a necessary step in these divorce proceedings.

We’ve gotten word over the past week that the Obama administration has given up, for the time being, the pursuit of a comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is a recognition of the obvious, of course. But I hope that Obama, when he meets with Netanyahu in Washington on Monday, continues to ask the question: “If not now, when, and if not you, then who?” Netanyahu should reverse the settlement project for the sake of the Palestinians, but mainly for the sake of Herzl’s dream.