When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pulled out a cartoon drawing of a bomb during his speech to the 67th United Nations General Assembly Debate on Sept. 27, the world laughed. But I didn’t.
I thought he was one bomb cartoon short.
Netanyahu’s Wile E. Coyote-worthy drawing was meant to illustrate the urgency the world faced as Iran rushed to complete its nuclear program. The prime minister drew a red line near the top of the illustration to show the point at which Iran would enter its final stage in the development of a nuclear weapon.
If the cartoon bomb spawned a thousand Photoshop spoofs on the Internet, it also kept the Iran nuclear threat on the front page. But did it change anyone’s mind on the issue? Probably not.
What would have done that trick is a second bomb cartoon. This one would have illustrated the ticking bomb of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
That fuse has been lit since June 1967, when Israel captured Palestinian territories during the Six-Day War.
The second cartoon would have shown the number of Palestinians in “Greater Israel” as a percentage of the Jewish population in 1967 and the number now. Then Netanyahu would draw a “red line” at the point when the number approaches something like parity, when the two-state solution will be officially dead and Israel will face two choices: a single American-style melting pot where Arabs, Jews and Christians put centuries of rancor, bloodshed and nationalistic claims aside and forge a common national identity, or civil war.
Most people think the latter is more likely.
“Even if the minimalist interpretation [of Palestinian population] is largely correct,” Michael Oren, the current Israeli ambassador to the United States, wrote in the May 2009 issue of Commentary Magazine, “it cannot alter a situation in which Israeli Arabs currently constitute one-fifth of the country’s population — one-quarter of the population under age 19 — and in which the West Bank now contains at least 2 million Arabs. Israel, the Jewish state, is predicated on a decisive and stable Jewish majority of at least 70 percent. Any lower than that and Israel will have to decide between being a Jewish state and a democratic state. If it chooses democracy, then Israel as a Jewish state will cease to exist. If it remains officially Jewish, then the state will face an unprecedented level of international isolation, including sanctions, that might prove fatal.”
Oren wasn’t the first to articulate what he called the “Arab Demographic Threat” as an existential threat. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, victorious in the Six-Day War, immediately foresaw the consequences of annexation and pushed for only interim military control. In the 40 years since, more urgent threats to Israel have come and gone, but the issue of Palestinian lives intertwined with Israeli ones remains the most stubborn, and the most toxic.
“The lack of a solution to the problem of border demarcation within the historic Land of Israel — and not an Iranian bomb — is the most serious threat to Israel’s future,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a 2010 interview with Haaretz.
That’s why Netanyahu, to be even more effective, needs to show two cartoons, one of the Iranian bomb, the other of the demographic bomb. What’s more, he needs to offer Israelis, the United States and the world a vision of the future that defuses both.
Linking these two is not as odd or peace-niky as it might seem.
In a little-known paper published by the right-leaning Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, professor Yehezkel Dror argued that the best way for Israel to gain the strategic and moral upper hand following an attack on Iran is to simultaneously pursue a serious peace effort along the lines of the 10-year-old Arab Peace Initiative floated by Saudi Arabia.
Dror outlines the reasons attacking Iran may prove to be the best of many bad options. But even a successful attack, he writes, would risk alienating Israel’s friends and embolden its enemies.
By pushing a comprehensive peace proposal in concert with the Iranian attack, Israel could accomplish four objectives: reduce the danger to Israel of the continuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict (the second time bomb); build international and Middle East support to keep Iran from rebuilding its nuclear program; improve Israel’s global standing relative to any unintended negative consequences of an Iran attack; and, finally, prevent a deterioration in Israel-U.S. relations and help Israel upgrade its relations with China.
“An Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities requires parallel political action to contain and reduce damage to Israel resulting from that attack, which could be serious,” Dror writes. “It would be beneficial, and indeed essential, for Israel, therefore, to put forth a comprehensive Middle East peace proposal. … Such an Israeli initiative would be necessary even without attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. But, given such an attack, the initiative becomes all the more critical, urgent, and opportune.”
Both an attack on Iran and a peace initiative carry grave risks and great potential rewards. Next time the prime minister finds himself in front of an international audience, he might want to consider bringing an extra sheet of poster board and another Magic Marker.