Here's the CIA's briefing memo for President Obama, in preparation for his talk with Benjamin Netanyahu -- in my fantasy. If the CIA was really giving the president the information he needs, it would read something like this:
The Israeli Prime Minister will tell you that he wants the Palestinians to have their own state. He'll also give you a laundry list of reasons why it can't happen yet, and not for a long time. You should ignore all that subterfuge and focus on what really matters -- what Netanyahu is thinking but not saying.
He's a skillful politician who heads a very shaky coalition government, Nothing matters more to him than maintaining his thin edge in Israeli Jewish public opinion. For years, polls have shown that most Israeli Jews want, above all, to see their Palestinian problem somehow disappear. A majority now agree that the best way to make the problem go away is to give the Palestinians an independent state, as long as it does not threaten the security of Israel. So Netanyahu finds it politically useful to endorse that goal.
Here's the catch, though: The same polls show that a solid majority of Israeli Jews do not believe Israel can ever be secure if the Palestinians have their own state. Most Israeli Jews think that the Palestinians ultimately want to destroy the Jewish state. They assume that a state of Palestine will be a base for endless aggression against Israel. So Netanyahu finds it politically necessary to put a series of insuperable roadblocks in the path to Palestinian statehood.
From a military viewpoint the Israeli fears are baseless, as the CIA has been telling presidents for decades. Israel certainly ranks among the top ten military powers of the world and perhaps (depending on how one calculates) among the top five. A Palestinian state would be among the militarily weakest in the world. Any aggressive moves by the Palestinians would be met with overwhelming Israeli punishment. So Israel's power advantage is absolutely secure.
(Similarly, Israel will surely keep a permanent advantage over Iran, no matter how many nuclear weapons the Iranians may hypothetical produce; see the separate briefing memo on Iran.)
However -- and this is the key point to remember -- the fears of the Israeli Jews are not based on facts. Yes, they and their prime minister talk as though they have assessed the facts empirically and then drawn the conclusion that the Palestinians threaten their existence.
In reality, though, it works the other way around. They begin with the assumption that the Palestinians are an existential threat. They view all the facts through the lens of that premise. Naturally, they see only the facts that can be put together (sometimes rather tortuously) to confirm the assumption they began with. So their assumption can never be falsified by any facts. It is fear that drives Israeli policy.
To take one crucial example: It is rather common for many Israelis to treat the Palestinians as the equivalent of Nazis. This simplistic equation is a sometimes spoken, more often unspoken, foundation of Israeli public discourse about the conflict. Every reference to the Holocaust tends to reinforce (though sometimes unintentionally) the idea that most Palestinians are just itching to finish the job Hitler started. When it comes time to look at the facts, the evidence of Nazi-like anti-semitism among some Palestinians (which does unfortunately exist) is put on parade.
But the vast differences between the Palestinian nationalist movement and the Nazi ideological movement are largely ignored. So are the obvious differences between the powerless Jewish minority of mid-twentieth century Europe and the immensely powerful Jewish state of today, which long ago turned the Palestinians into a powerless minority.
The common-sense observation that the Israeli occupation stimulates Palestinian anti-semitism is pretty much taboo in Israel. Few note that there is rather less anti-semitism among Palestinians than might be expected. All the facts, no matter how glaring, that don't fit the "Palestinians = Nazis" myth have a hard time getting a public hearing. (A similar analysis holds for the newly popular "Iranians = Nazis" myth.)
For most Israeli Jews, the only way to assuage their fear is to see clear public signs that the Palestinians are in a position of inferior power -- militarily, politically, and economically -- and that they have accepted their inferiority as a permanent fact of life. The Israeli majority interprets these signs as evidence that the Palestinians, feeling overpowered, will not act on their supposed desire to destroy the Jewish state.
The particular signs that Israeli governments insist on (regardless of who is prime minister) are mostly policy measures that would materially weaken a Palestinian state: a nation divided into an archipelago of land areas separated by Israeli settlements and security roads; a capital city, Jerusalem, surrounded by Israeli settlements and effectively under Israeli control; a security force effectively under Israeli supervision; a government that excludes one of the two most popular parties, Hamas, so that the government can hardly claim to represent the will of the people; etc.
All these measures serve both to symbolize and to intensify Palestinian weakness vis-à-vis its overwhelmingly powerful neighbor. Thus they satisfy the political demands of the majority of Jewish Israeli voters. That's the main reason Netanyahu will continue to insist on making them part of any proposed peace deal, just as his predecessors have done.
It is equally the reason that no Palestinian leaders can agree to these demands. Their own voters recognize that agreement would not merely weaken a fledgling Palestinian state -- very possibly enough to doom it -- but tag them in the world's eyes as permanent losers in the greatest political battle of their lives. Most Palestinians refuse to accept such an outcome, although they realize that most Israeli Jews will settle for nothing less. The Israelis' emotional motives -- and the Israeli politicians' need to cater to the fears of their voters -- are quite irrelevant to the Palestinians.
However the Israelis' motives are very relevant to you, Mr. President, as you meet Prime Minister Netanyahu. You must move the peace process forward -- toward a truly independent, territorially contiguous, and viable Palestinian state -- because it is crucial for the security of the United States. Yet your logical argument that this is the only way to end the conflict and thus make Israel secure will fall on deaf ears. So you have to find a way to move Netanyahu, and the voters he depends on for his political life, in some non-rational way.
It may be useful to approach your conversation with Netanyahu, and indeed the whole issue, as primarily a problem in applied psychology. Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of the Jewish peace lobby J Street (formed to counter the hawkish "pro-Israel" lobby AIPAC), suggests that Israel should be treated like an addict, hooked on its use of power as an antidote to fear. As in any addiction, the victim is caught in a vicious cycle: Every exercise of power in hope of escaping from fear, like every drink an alcoholic takes, only reinforces the feeling that there really is something terrifying to be afraid of.
Just as a true friend does not buy an alcoholic another drink, so the U.S. can be a true friend to Israel by refusing to buy it more weapons or to endorse its unreasonable demands upon the Palestinians. And just as a true friend refuses to buy into the addict's evasions, so the U.S. can be a true friend to Israel by insisting on the truth about both the facts of the conflict and the Israeli fears that do so much to fuel the conflict.
Above all, it is crucial to maintain a clear distinction between feelings and facts, in your own mind and in your words to Netanyahu. It's a basic psychological principle that one can help frightened people to reduce their fear by first acknowledging and validating their feelings, without validating the version of the facts that their feelings lead them to believe in.
It would be wrong to push this metaphor of addiction too far. The Israeli Jews and their elected leaders are not helpless; they are not in the grip of some biochemical tragedy. They can learn to see the difference between feelings and facts. But they do need supportive friends to help them understand their predicament and encourage them to talk honestly about their fears as emotional drivers of policy. Then they may be able to see the empirical reality more honestly and choose new policies that can make them more secure.
Of courses you cannot say any of this in public, Mr. President. Your own political realities would not allow it. But you can say it privately to Netanyahu. You can make it clear that the U.S. will no longer merely parrot the Israeli government's version of the facts. Rather, we will make our own assessments of all the facts, including the psychological underpinnings of the Israeli political process.
That will put Netanyahu and his government off balance. It will force them to reevaluate their policies, if only to adjust to this new American approach. We cannot predict with any certainty where that reevaluation will lead. But at least it will open up room for new approaches to the peace process and offer some hope for escaping from the current dangerous paralysis.