WASHINGTON — During my recent week-long trip to Israel, I visited family and attended the Herzliya conference, which is Israel’s premier security conference. During the trip, one of my hip, 30-something Israeli cousins told me that they supported Israel’s toxic foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.
This is a sad commentary on Israel’s current state of affairs.
It turns out that Lieberman didn’t attend the Herzliya conference, which did attract Israel’s most prominent political leaders, as well as military, diplomatic, business and political leaders from across the globe.
Lieberman’s absence didn’t weaken the tough talk at the conference. Iran, the Palestinians and jihadist terrorism were all central topics. Speakers shared their views about the dilemmas facing Israel, more often depressing, rather than inspiring the audience.
But that should not have come as a surprise, as these are very dark times in the Middle East.
There was a sense of impending doom hovering over the conference. Subtle digs were made about President Obama’s leadership, with even some, such as Mort Zuckerman, reveling in his difficulties and rooting for his demise. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke about how Israeli youth were disconnected from their country’s past. These were not inspiring speeches.
There were also acknowledgements by Israeli leaders, many of whom have political roots in the conservative Likud party, about the need to achieve a two-state solution with the Palestinians. But this argument was rooted in the fear that demography would overtake Israel, with the Palestinians holding the long-term advantage in this regard. The talk was not about peace, but instead about survival.
It was clear, after attending this conference, that the weight of a decade of American neoconservative failure in the Middle East had brought Israelis neither security nor peace of mind.
This situation is problematic for Israeli political elites, who are also concerned that President Obama, unlike his predecessor, will not indulge conservative Israeli politicians in their greatest self-destructive behaviors anymore, especially when it comes to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Compounding this dilemma is the irony that the population supports a hard-line government, despite being frustrated by the policies that it is advancing.
For example, the citizens of Tel Aviv loathe settlers, whose representatives hold sway over the Netanyahu government. While settlers hold on to their vision of maintaining control over the West Bank and the Palestinians that live there, Tel Avivis understand that they are being sucked in to their dangerous, apocalyptic views.
My Tel Aviv cousins, for example, pay more than half their income to national taxes, with a significant portion dedicated to supporting these settlers. They are infuriated by the reality that they are subsidizing the lifestyle of a group of people that has no interest in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through a two-state solution, relegating Israelis to unending conflict.
Worse, while the people of Tel Aviv know that the settlers are holding the country’s politics hostage, they have no idea how to change this.
As for the political elites, despite repeated calls at Herzliya by prominent Israeli politicians, such as Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak, Shaul Mofaz and Dan Meridor, for a two-state solution, it is becoming clear that the Israeli political system is incapable of getting there.
Compounding this dysfunction, there is a fear in Israel that the United States is a waning power. Israelis have thrown in their lot with America, and they are now beginning to worry about whether the U.S. will still be able to carry them on its back.
I left feeling that I had never seen such a demoralized Israel. Both the elites and the population looked tired, frustrated and uncertain.
From an American perspective, this is not surprising. A decade of ruinous neoconservative policies toward the Middle East, which are slowly being rolled back, contributed directly to this malaise. Neoconservative policies, such as promoting regime change in Iraq, creating settlements in the West Bank, terminating diplomacy with Syria and advocating for military action against Iran have clearly not worked either for Israel or the United States.
Is it any wonder then that Israelis support a man like Avigdor Lieberman and the current hard-line government? Israelis want peace. They want security. They also want a government that will protect them in these turbulent times. And so they have sought the warm embrace of the most hawkish government in recent memory.
It is both sad and ironic then that Israelis are nostalgic for the comfort of Bush-era neoconservative tough talk, despite the fact that they are most fond of an American president whose policies were diametrically opposed to those of Bush: Bill Clinton.
Perhaps this fact, that Israelis loved Clinton and his policies, can give us some hope, as Obama’s policies very closely reflect those of Clinton. And right now, the State of Israel needs a little bit of hope, because right now, the state of Israel is not good.
(Joel Rubin, deputy director and chief operating officer of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)