The arc of history was not supposed to look like this, I thought, as I followed Matteo Salvini, the most powerful man in Italy, through the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. Another day, another world leader was in Israel to meet Benjamin Netanyahu, known to most here simply as “Bibi.” And just like Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Rodrigo Duterte, and Jair Bolsonaro before him, Italy’s populist interior minister was not coming to scold the Israeli prime minister. Here was another strongman both happy to be in Jerusalem and ready to work with Bibi.
That night, as Salvini relaxed on his market walkabout and shared a beer with his Israeli handlers, he smiled for the cameras in order to show how safe he felt in the hands of such an expert counterterror force. “I love the people,” he said, telling me how much he was looking forward to working with Bibi. I felt a crushing weight on my shoulders: the feeling of having been wrong.
Without a resolution to the Palestinian question, the arc of history was supposed to have bent toward consigning Israel to pariah status—not this. The U.S. embassy has transferred to Jerusalem. A slew of other nations have moved to support some or all of Israel’s claims to the city, including Guatemala, Brazil, the Czech Republic, and even Australia. Meanwhile, the threat of a common anti-Israel European foreign policy, sanctions and all, has imploded so utterly that Bibi can snub Federica Mogherini, the bloc’s foreign envoy, as though she were an irritating pro-Iranian NGO chief—then play the lavish host to Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian strongman.
And there is more: the love-in with India; senior Chinese officials flying in; not-so-secret talks, and even coordination, with Saudi Arabia; photo ops with the sultan of Oman; regular audiences with Vladimir Putin. And all with not even a hint of the peace process or pressure over settlements. Israel, it seems, is paying no price for its treatment of the Palestinians.
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In Ramallah, too, pessimism is the order of the day. There is a deep sense of abandonment. Nasser al-Qudwa, a senior Fatah official and a nephew of Yasser Arafat, dejectedly told me he feared that the populist, anti-Arab “transformation” of the West had only just begun. “There has been an unexpected rise of Christian Zionism in countries like Brazil,” he lamented. “America succeeded in persuading Saudi Arabia,” he added, “that Israel and the United States can protect them from Iran.”
Salvini met with nobody from the Palestinian Authority.
Watching Salvini’s press conference, I felt forced to admit that Bibi was right and I was wrong about the shape of the 2010s. My theory of history had failed me. Back when Bibi was elected in 2009, I believed fervently that Obama was on the right side of history—and that Netanyahu, and Israel, were destined to suffer for their failure to reach a just settlement with the Palestinians.
I was convinced that Obama and yet more Obama was the future of Western politics; that demographic and generational change would lead, inevitably, to a more liberal, less Israel-friendly approach. Bibi, it was clear to me, was endangering the future of his country by resisting.
I was frightened. Taking my lead from the late David Landau, the former editor in chief of the newspaper Haaretz, I believed that unless Israel made painful, unilateral sacrifices, all would be lost. I even felt that it was the duty of the Jewish diaspora to wake Israel up to this inevitable tomorrow. Like Peter Beinart, I advocated boycotts of settler leaders and their produce.
But Bibi took the opposite bet: that ethnic and cultural change would lead to an anti-liberal backlash making Orbán, not Obama, the model for European leaders. Rather than populism being a hiccup on the road to a grander, woke tomorrow, Bibi bet that it was the tomorrow. Deep, fierce attachment to nation and state was not going to fade away. It was going to fight back and win. And systematically, Bibi began courting the illiberals, authoritarians, and strongmen who, instead of fading, just kept on multiplying.
As Salvini sat watching a soccer game, beer in hand, perfectly at home in the Israel that the Likud Party has built, I watched from the corner of the bar, trying to work out where I’d gone wrong. It was my optimism. It had led me to imagine my desired politics as the future of actual geopolitics. What I saw was what I wanted: a growing, unbeatable Obama coalition in the U.S., producing progressive majorities that would win every election, while the European Union pursued a consolidating common foreign policy, with Human Rights Watch diplomacy and Merkelism for all.
But it was Bibi’s deep pessimism—about the Middle East, Islam, and Europe—that made him guess right. There is no pariah status for Israel. Instead, the right is ascendant across the EU, and national-populist leaders are parading to Jerusalem. Having assiduously cultivated the backlash, Bibi has expertly navigated Israel among the strongmen.
What I hadn’t realized, especially at the time, was that the Obama theory of history was only about the West. Not only did it have nothing to say about China, it also dismissed Vladimir Putin as some kind of throwback—a “19th-century” phenomenon, to quote Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry—destined to swift irrelevance. It still has nothing to say about the bloodbath that followed the Arab revolutions, or about the strongmen, not the democrats, consolidating power across the Middle East. There was not supposed to be any future for authoritarian capitalism.
Maybe it was the fierce pessimism of Bibi’s father, the historian Benzion Netanyahu, that shaped his views (an influence brilliantly explored by Bibi’s biographer, Anshel Pfeffer). Or perhaps it was the belief, inherent in Zionism itself, in the inevitability of nationalism and ethnic struggle. But instead of aligning himself with John Kerry and Cathy Ashton, Bibi positioned Israel to work with the emerging demagogues. And now we are living in the world that Bibi expected.
Only watching from Jerusalem, keeping a tab on his visits and his visitors, can you see just how successful Bibi has been. Never before have the leaders of Russia, Brazil, India, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and now Italy had such strong ties with Israel. Never before have they seen the leader that sits in Jerusalem as indispensable to their objectives. And this, not John Kerry’s “solutions,” has earned the respect of the strongmen who now rule from Cairo to Ankara to Pakistan.
Israel among the strongmen: It is hard not to feel impressed by Netanyahu’s achievement. Zionism was born when the strongmen were after the Jews. Obama’s heirs are the ones who now seem isolated: cut down to size on the world stage. The history that I thought was inevitable is fringe. Justin Trudeau is a delightful, charming, and marginal figure while Emmanuel Macron is already yesterday’s tomorrow. I would have wanted an Israel to please them both, but I can no longer pretend to myself that Israel needs to do so.
Bibi feels this Hegelian weltgeist, this spirit of the world, that the German philosopher saw in Napoleon, and that the Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman now sees in Donald Trump. But more than this, the prime minister, who is also the minister of defense and foreign affairs, and responsible for health and immigration, embodies it.
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.