Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference on November 18, 2014 in Jerusalem. Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
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Why Bibi Deserves the Nobel Peace Prize

Unless we change the award’s silly criteria, there’s a good case to be made for the Israeli prime minister’s significant contribution to regional stability

Liel Leibovitz
October 14, 2016
Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference on November 18, 2014 in Jerusalem. Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images

Because I am the sort of sad and stooped dope who still believes institutions are indispensable for the cultivation of human life, I was confused by the announcement earlier this month that the Nobel Peace Prize this year will be awarded to Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos.

I adore the Nobel Peace Prize, or, rather, the idea of the Nobel Peace Prize. I am grateful to know that somewhere in Norway, cooler heads deliver a collective nod to those of us who’ve toiled for harmony and reconciliation. This is why I was willing to forgive the Nobelists their moments of folly, like anointing the unrepentant terrorist Yasser Arafat, say, or honoring F.W. de Klerk, who dispatched his troops to murder five Azanian separatists—the oldest was 17, the youngest 12, and all were napping in front of the TV when the government’s gunmen burst in—just weeks before traveling to Oslo to collect his medal. Such politicking, I suppose, is hard to avoid if you’re trying to inspire real change; the inspiration business is all about playing the odds, and sometimes you’re going to put all your chips on a recipient who offers nothing but platitudes that quickly curdle. That’s pardonable. But Santos? That’s much harder to understand.

The Colombian, after all, was awarded the Nobel for a peace deal with the FARC guerrillas that his people rejected in a referendum just the week before. It’s not too hard to see why the nays had it: The deal—negotiated by Cuba’s Castro regime, a major military supplier of the Marxists terrorists—would have rewarded the FARC for nearly half a century of bloodshed by guaranteeing the group’s leaders 10 seats in parliament and no prison time. This was clearly and intimately understood in Colombia, but something must’ve been lost in translation as news of the deal’s rejection made its way north, and the Norwegian arbiters of peace remained convinced that their insights trump those of the poor saps who would actually have to live with the deal and its consequences.

That’s a troubling departure, and one that should prompt us all to reconsider the prize and its role as an engine for good. What criteria ought we apply when elevating someone to the ennobled rank of peacemaker? It’s not too complicated a question: If you’ve sought out peaceful solutions when violent ones were ready at hand; if you’ve helped bring stability to a region submerged in chaos; if you’ve curbed the worst angels that everywhere guide the hearts of men and pursued the path of least bloodshed and suffering—then surely you deserve our gratitude and our laurels. And if that’s the case, the next Nobel Peace Prize ought to go to Bibi Netanyahu.

I say this not as a big fan of the Israeli leader, about whom I’ve been griping since he was first elected two decades ago, and whom I believe to be a deeply imperfect leader. Nor am I interested in mere provocation, a substance too many of us who live much of our lives online freely abuse. I care only for observable reality, where, if we’re being honest, it’s often sunny in Jerusalem these days.

Consider the evidence: With three of his country’s four neighbors ravaged by turmoil, Netanyahu, Israel’s second-longest-serving prime minister, has kept things rock-solid. Despite being engaged in a limited-scale military operation in Gaza that reduced GDP by 0.3 percent, the country’s economy continues to grow at a rate that a Wharton-issued report called “admirably steady.” And despite a flurry of Palestinian terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians and endless provocations from Hamas to the south and Hezbollah to the north, Netanyahu, unlike some of his more heralded predecessors, has skillfully avoided major conflagrations, using force judiciously and effectively, even as he would’ve been justified to succumb to those who called for less-measured retributions.

Never mind all that. In our brittle culture, it’s hard to make the case for rewarding a leader for simply doing his job and being responsible, which is also why I won’t dwell on the merits of Netanyahu’s decision to avoid repeating the precedent set by his predecessors and refuse to unilaterally bomb the nuclear facilities of Israel’s most bitter enemies. But the case for Netanyahu extends further, and to grasp it you’d need to look beyond Israel’s borders. You’d need to look to Egypt, say, where Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime, at war with jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula, is benefiting from what some officials are calling an “unprecedented” level of collaboration with Israeli intelligence. The notoriously chilly peace between Israel and Egypt is warming up on other fronts as well: In July, Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, arrived in Jerusalem for an official visit, the first of its kind in nearly a decade. In other diplomatic news, Netanyahu’s government has succeeded in considerably strengthening Israel’s ties with other Arab nations, which is why the Jewish state is set to open a diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi, and why you can now read pro-Netanyahu op-eds in the Saudi press. Finally, understanding the crucial importance of a sound energy policy to the future stability and prosperity of the region, Netanyahu managed to curb the crisis with Erdogan’s belligerent Turkey, rekindling relations and dispatching his energy minister, Yuval Steinitz, to Istanbul to meet with his Turkish counterpart and discuss a collaboration that is only likely to grow with the recent discoveries of natural gas in Cyprus and elsewhere in the region.

Far from the isolated pariah some fashionable academics and opinion writers like to portray it as, Israel under Netanyahu is safe and stable, enjoying fruitful relations with neighbors near and far, and leading some of the key military and economic initiatives the region needs to stave off Armageddon. Add to that Israel’s repeated aid to the suffering people of Syria—everything from taking a risk and opening its borders to facilitate aid to those who need it most to taking in more than 2,000 Syrian refugees and treating the wounded to excellent medical care—and you have a solid case for Bibi, peace Nobelist.

Of course, his isn’t the kind of peace they like in Norway. It’s not about grand, symbolic gestures. It produces no heartwarming and easy-to-understand narratives about miraculous transformations. It’s a more difficult peace. It’s peace achieved by a thousand cunning and largely invisible calculations. It’s peace that realizes it has no meaning unless it is ready to use force when its subjects need to be kept safe from harm. It’s peace as it is lived not on vaunted podiums in faraway capitals but in the dusty streets of nations intimately acquainted with war: flawed, maddening, tired, and a thousand times better than any alternative.

So give Netanyahu his due, and give him the prize next year. Or, alternatively, radically reconsider the category, and give out an award not for peace—an ephemeral thing not even the most soulful among us can fully grasp—but for justice, a far more earthly notion, entirely measurable and rooted in the unshakable idea that actions have consequences and that consequences speak louder than a hundred lofty Oslo toasts. Either way, to paraphrase another one of the prize’s laureates whose peacemaking promises quickly turned sour, it’s time the Nobel committee gave us nothing short of change we can believe in.


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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.

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