Last Saturday marked 20 years since the 1995 murder of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. At a rally commemorating the politician's passing, former US President Bill Clinton described news of the murder as the worst moment in his eight-year tenure. He told the crowd in Tel Aviv:
"The next steps will be determined by whether you decide that Rabin was right, that you have to share your future with your neighbors, that you have to stand for peace, that the risk for peace isn't as severe as the risk of walking away from it. We are praying that you will make the right decision."
President Clinton should pray a little harder and for something different, perhaps a reversal of a decision that has already been made by Israel.
Twenty years ago, the leading opposition headed by no other than Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud party, led a venomous incitement campaign against Rabin for choosing the path of peace. I was a kid in my early teens at that time, but I still remember posters of Rabin clad in Nazi uniforms being distributed all over Israel. The Likud-led campaign helped create an atmosphere of extreme hatred that encouraged Yigal Amir to murder Rabin. Many would say that the Likud's inflammatory rhetoric was as much to blame for Rabin's murder as was his murderer.
Today, Netanyahu and the Likud are at the helm, leading Israelis on a dark path to the future. Twenty years later, Israeli politics and society have regressed to their lowest point in history, with racism flourishing at unprecedented levels and the occupation becoming the de facto state of affairs. The fact that Netanyahu has been voted into power for the fourth time this past March has proven beyond any doubt that Israel has chosen occupation over peace and has normalized the brutal domination of the Palestinian people rather than liberate itself from becoming a modern-day apartheid state.
When President Clinton addressed his audience, he assumed that Israel was lost and still pondering which path to choose. The reality is that its decision had already been made; its path had already been chosen over and over again, each time with more conviction, each time with less hesitation.
The average Israeli today is a right wing supporter with varying degrees and those who incited against Rabin are in power, stronger than ever before. It is clear where Israel stands and it is too late to pray for its salvation. Israel is a determined nation.
Two years ago, President Obama had urged Israelis to decide on a better path for the future. When President Obama visited Jerusalem in March 2013, he spoke to Israeli university students instead of addressing the Israeli Knesset. Many interpreted his choice of audience as a sign that he had given up on Israel's present-day politicians and that he was attempting to leave an impression on its future leaders. As per usual, President Obama delivered an exceptional speech which included the following:
"Only you can determine what kind of democracy you will have. But remember that as you make these decisions, you will define not simply the future of your relationship with the Palestinians - you will define the future of Israel as well."
Nonetheless, when the Israeli public went to the polls last March, a golden opportunity presented itself to vote Netanyahu out of power and perhaps allow other less-extreme politicians a chance to lead. By the time elections took place, President Obama's wise words to those Israeli students were long forgotten, and Netanyahu's venomous, racist outburst, including his infamous "Arabs are voting in droves" comment, trumped the President's vision for a better future.
The fact that two US presidents have implored Israelis to think hard and decide about their future indicates an implicit acknowledgement of a problem that exists in Israel today. As opposed to President Jimmy Carter's more explicit criticism of Israel's practices, both Clinton and President Obama resorted to hoping, praying, and pleading with Israelis to choose a more reasonable path for the future. Time and time again, the Israeli public shunned their pleas, unheeded their prayers, and disregarded their hopes.
For us Palestinians, there were no surprises in the recurring choice of the Israeli public. What surprised us was that each time the Israeli public chose the path of occupation, US presidents returned with yet another set of pleas. It is as though they believed in a society that did not believe in itself. In reality, for American presidents to be more influential in Israeli political discourse, US policies vis-à-vis Israel need to become more action-oriented and less hope-based. It is action rather than prayers and hope that might lead to a better future.
The US did not budge when the Likud won the most recent elections in March 2015, despite the Likud running on a platform that rejected the two-state solution, admitted that the true intention behind settlements was the disruption of natural growth among Palestinian communities, and emphasized the need to control Palestinians indefinitely. On the contrary, it continued to provide billions of dollars in military aid, which further entrenched the occupation, and shielded Israel unconditionally in the alleys of the UN. There were no punitive, action-oriented measures in response to Likud's decisive victory, just some residue hope that Israel will one day come to its senses and choose a better path for itself and its neighbors. In the meantime, we were all expected to wait, pray and hope for that outcome.
Israel's current policies are worthy of punitive measures, not prayers. A right-wing Israel that has done nothing to promote peace and that has done everything to entrench the occupation and the settlement enterprise is worthy of a cessation, or at least a reduction, of billions of dollars worth of military aid.
Every time the Palestinians were seen as somehow disrupting the course of peace, the US was at the forefront of punishing the Palestinian people, whereas despite the fact that the Israeli government of today is the most racist, most aggressive and most destructive government in Israel's history, the US continues to support it blindly. It is pointless to hope for an Israeli change of heart, yet it may be more reasonable to hope for a change in the traditional and outdated policies of the US vis-à-vis Israel.
Both Clinton and President Obama know what kind of government is in place in Israel today; a government that is not serious about peace to say the least. Netanyahu's phobia-induced politics and his blatant negative comments about Palestinians are a stark indication.
If US engagement with Israel continues to be based on wishful thinking and expired hopes, history will judge it for not forcing Israel to change its course of action. The US has given Israel the chance to decide for itself, and despite its prayers, its decision was contrary to what it had hoped for.
Is it not time for the US to shepherd Israel to a new way? Is it also not true that a shepherd cannot lead his herd without a stick? Clinton, President Obama, it is time to wield a stick.