However much Israel’s prime minister has tried to influence the U.S. presidential election on behalf of Mitt Romney (an old acquaintance from their days as CEOs-in-training with the Boston Consulting Group, in 1976), we have little doubt that two-thirds or more of the American Jewish vote will go to President Obama on November 6th. An American Jewish Committee poll conducted among Jews in the swing state of Florida in September found that only 5 percent considered U.S.-Israel relations to be the key issue determining how they will vote, and only 1 percent cited Iran’s nuclear aspirations. With Social Security, Medicare, and whatever’s left of government regulation and assistance up for grabs in this election, Romney’s virtual subcontracting of Mideast policy to Benjamin Netanyahu is not likely turn the Jewish vote in the Republican’s favor one bit.
What, then, has motivated Netanyahu to place his bets against the odds — and alarm his own electorate in Israel about alienating their ally?
The first explanation that springs to mind is that he is truly hoping to muster support for a U.S. attack on Iran. At home, Netanyahu must contend with the fact that a majority of Israeli Jews oppose a unilateral Israeli strike, and that his own government is seriously split on the issue. He would like nothing more than to help usher in an American government like George W. Bush’s, for whom going to war was a favored policy option. At the very least, in calling for President Obama to set “red lines” for Iran, Netanyahu has introduced into America’s discourse the idea that Obama’s diplomacy is bloodless and weak.
And what has Netanyahu to lose, after all? Judging from the Congressional applause meter when he speaks in Washington, and judging from the adulation of most mainstream Jewish “leaders,” Netanyahu could push a cream pie into Obama’s face and still count on bilateral “support for Israel.”
Yet after more than a decade of costly, highly questionable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, only a quarter of the American public now supports even a unilateral Israeli strike, let alone American military action, to prevent Iran’s nuclearization. Even among Republicans, 58 percent in that poll backed the strategy of diplomatic pressure that Obama has pursued. There must be more to Netanyahu’s gambit than the vain hope that the U.S. will go and beat up Tehran.
Writing in the New York Times on September 24th, columnist Roger Cohen noted that one outcome of Netanyahu’s “Iran obsession” has been “to relegate the critical question before Israel — the millions of Palestinian people on its doorstep — to somewhere between the back burner and oblivion. The best primer for Netanyahu’s thinking,” Cohen continued, “is these words from his coached buddy Mitt Romney: ‘I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel . . .’”
It has been clear from their earliest encounters that Netanyahu’s animus toward Obama is based on the President’s intention to hold Israel responsible for fulfilling prior agreements made with the Palestinian Authority — agreements designed to lead to a two-state solution, as well as to fulfill the requirements of international law. Throughout his career, Netanyahu has never given sincere support to a two-state solution, and as prime minister he has succeeded at setting back the political clock on peace-making by two decades. Within AIPAC, for example, advocating the creation of a Palestinian state is now anathema, as it was back in the years before Oslo. Virulent anti-Palestinian discourse was also brought center-stage during the Republican primary season, with Rick Santorum stepping into a time machine to rant that “all the people that live in the West Bank” are “Israelis. There are no Palestinians . . . This is Israeli land.” The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, is close to bankruptcy, Gaza is sinking deeper into poverty and claustrophobia, and Israel’s settler movement is more arrogant and rejectionist than ever.
This is the world as Netanyahu wants it. Now at the height of his power (“Putinyahu,” as one Ha’aretz columnist called him), he could have peace with a demilitarized Palestinian state, at least in the West Bank, were he willing to confront Israel’s settler movement, symbolically acknowledge the Palestinian right of return, and restrain his lifelong ambition for a “Greater Israel.” Palestinian leaders, said Bill Clinton in a New York roundtable on September 22nd, “have explicitly said on more than one occasion that if [Netanyahu] put up the deal that was offered to them before [just before Clinton left office in 2000] . . . they would take it.” Saudi Arabia, too, Clinton noted, “started lining up all the Arab countries to say to the Israelis, ‘If you work it out with the Palestinians . . . we will give you immediately not only recognition but a political, economic, and security partnership.” Imagine the course U.S.-Arab relations might have taken had Israel not ignored that offer.
But Benjamin Netanyahu is a man who boasted on videotape, in 2001, “I actually stopped the Oslo Accords.” He is a man confident in the knowledge that the U.S., as he said in that same video, “can be easily moved . . . 80 percent of the Americans support us. It’s absurd.” He is a man who, unlike his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, has never recognized Israel’s own interest in securing a two-state solution in order to have a stable and democratic future.
Wrongly described on Meet the Press as “the leader of the Jewish people,” Netanyahu deserves to have red lines drawn around his influence and power, before he leads Israel to war and the Jewish people to political fratricide.