NetanyaHubris Springs Eternal

NetanyaHubris Springs Eternal

Heading into the Israeli election, fairly confident predictions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s impending political demise peppered the American media. Yet, despite a spiraling housing crisis, skyrocketing cost of living, and polls showing a tight race, Israeli voters handed five or six Knesset seats beyond its nearest rival, and the power to form a coalition, to Netanyahu’s Likud party, which had articulated virtually no policy platform.

Netanyahu invoked Moses in his March 3rd speech to Congress. This is oddly appropriate. As Moses divided the Red Sea to clear an impossible path for his people, Netanyahu divided his right wing supporters against everyone else to clear an improbable path for himself. He has proven to be one of the canniest political operators on the planet. By playing notes of fear and suspicion like an intricate harp, his tune is discordant among friend and foe alike, straining the former and creating the latter. Remaking the polity in his own Nixonian image, Netanyahu politically levitates while leaving a trail of flaming wreckage in his wake. His reelection to a fourth term is like the new heart given to Dick Cheney: a man whose militant hubris should have been left to the dustbin of history, instead was granted a semblance of immortality.

An article on Slate characterized Netanyahu’s narrative and impact:

“The whole world is against us. (He expressed this paranoia during the election when he claimed that international players were trying to oust him.) By focusing on Israel’s enemies and sometimes unabashedly exaggerating the threats to Israel’s existence, while also antagonizing Israel’s only true friend, the United States, he has compounded Israel’s international isolation and Israelis’ sense of victimhood. What is left is a deep need to be protected by a strong leader—something he claims only he can provide.

“In this climate, Netanyahu had a very simple objective in this campaign: to appear tough. No one expected him to articulate anything he would actually do if he were re-elected. Personality was supposed to trump policy. In fact, he forbade members of Likud from issuing a platform. Instead, Netanyahu issued some humorous campaign ads that portrayed him as the ‘Bibisitter’—the only person in Israel you can trust to take care of your kids.”

In order to cast the world as menacingly closing in, and himself as Israel’s savior, Netanyahu vigorously hammered on at least five different wedges between “real Israelis” and their perceived enemies over the course of this campaign, both at home and in the world. All of these will have lasting ramifications for how Netanyahu and his new, likely even more far right, Israeli government proceed and for the Israeli people.

EUROPE

Following a terrorist attack against a Jewish deli in Paris in January, and a synagogue in Denmark in February, Netanyahu announced that Europe was no longer safe for Jews, and that European Jews should immigrate en masse to Israel. A large immigration fund was quickly approved. The comments were “met with fury” from the leaders of France, Germany and Denmark, as well the leaders of Jewish communities in a number of European countries. Copenhagen’s chief rabbi said he was “disappointed” with Netanyahu’s remarks, and said Jews would only leave if they wished to support Zionism, not to run away from terrorism. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that everything was being done to make Jews safe and a welcome part of life in Germany, where issues of Jewish security are sensitive for obvious reasons. French President Francois Hollande, whose country has the world’s third largest population of Jews, at nearly half a million, was deeply rankled by the comment. He replied,

“My message to French Jews is the following: ‘France is wounded with you and France does not want you to leave’. I regret Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks. Being in the middle of an election campaign doesn’t mean you authorise yourself to make just any type of statement… The place for French Jews is France.”

In the last days of the campaign, Netanyahu accused Western governments, “specifically Scandinavians,” of spending millions in an international plot to try to topple him. This paranoid conspiracy theory may sound like overblown campaign rhetoric, but in January, the Swedish foreign minister was forced to cancel a trip to Israel, because no one in the government would meet with her. Netanyahu was apparently miffed over Sweden’s plan to recognize Palestine’s aspiration to statehood, and was giving Sweden, one of the world’s most generally agreeable nations, the cold shoulder.

“It is unacceptable how they have been talking about us and everybody else,” Margot Wallstrom said in an interview in daily Dagens Nyheter. “It has irritated not only us, but the Americans and everyone who has anything to do with them right now.”

ARAB ISRAELIS

At the eleventh hour of the election, apparently to mobilize far right votes and siphon off voters from further right parties, Netanyahu flatly warned that his supporters needed to vote, because liberals were busing in Arabs to vote. This, he argued, was not what real Israelis wanted. This would be roughly analogous to a candidate like Mitt Romney baldly saying that “real Americans” need to vote because Democrats will be busing Blacks to the polls. The New York Times reported,

“Right-wing rule is in danger,” he said. “Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations.”

He said they were being bused to polling stations in droves by left-wing organizations in an effort that “distorts the true will of the Israelis in favor of the left, and grants excessive power to the radical Arab list,” referring to the new alliance of Arab parties. Opponents accused him of baldfaced racism.

“More than a gevalt campaign it was a ‘Let’s blow up the world’ campaign,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political communications at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. “It was a scorched-earth policy to stay in power.”

This also creates problems for his credibility with the United States. In a 2011 speech to Congress, Netanyahu promised that Israel is a model of fairness to its Arab minority.

PALESTINIAN STATE

Perhaps the dumbest thing Netanyahu has said, but the most important to woo the hard right in the final hours of the election, is that he will not support a Palestinian state as long as he’s Prime Minister, and indeed, supports expanding settlements. While this stance is not a huge surprise, it is a reversal of Netanyahu’s official position. That position had the positive effect of being grease in certain diplomatic gears, especially in Israel’s relationship with the US. Removing that policy lubricant will grind gears around the world and alarmingly close to home for Israel. Israelis are likely to be feel tangible blowback from this statement in the coming months and years. Palestinian officials reacted immediately, saying that it should now be clear to all that Israel is an Apartheid state, and Palestine is “obliged to go the ICC [International Criminal Court].” American officials also said there could be repercussions for Netanyahu’s “statement of record,” which could include removing opposition to Palestine pressing its statehood claim at the UN.

The US officially supports a two-state solution. It is important for American diplomacy in the Middle East that it at least wishes to seek peace in the Holy Land. Netanyahu’s official revolt against this position backs America into a corner. There are a number of ways the US could respond. The most immediate ways would be to slacken its unconditional support for Israel at the UN, and to stop standing in the way of European criticism of Israel’s approach to Palestine, the Palestinians’ pursuit of statehood at the UN, and charges at the ICC. No matter how it plays out, Netanyahu’s statement to woo the far right in attempt to secure his own reelection promises to deepen Israel’s international isolation, and ultimately threaten its security acutely.

IRAN

It’s no secret that Iran is Netanyahu’s number one boogie man. For the last two decades, every so often, Netanyahu runs around clanging alarms that Iran is only a couple years from a nuclear bomb, and peddling the myth that once it acquires this piece of hardware, Iran’s theocracy will seek national suicide by apocalyptic nuclear war with Israel. He brought his scaremongering performance to new heights this year by undermining a delicate multilateral negotiation to prevent that exact scenario. When Republicans invited him to address Congress behind the White House’s back, Boehner and Netanyahu weren’t just undermining President Obama, they were undermining the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the United States, the UK, France, China, and Russia, as well as Germany, who are all deeply involved in the negotiation. The idea that those six countries, which together control the lion’s share of world economic and military power, are collectively going to go soft on a major global issue, is preposterous. Furthermore, the idea that great power rivals like the US, the UK, Russia and China, are going to collude on some secret shared interest to screw over Israel is even more preposterous.

Israel might not get everything it wants out of the Iran deal. In fact, it is likely that no one will; that is the nature of negotiation. But even if the carrot and stick regime on Iran is reconstituted in a suboptimal way for Israel, Israel will continue to be far more powerful than Iran. It’s worth remembering that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon, but Israel has had nuclear weapons since the 1950s. Its “secret arsenal is suspected to hold as many as 80 warheads. Israel has even tested a bomb, to which much of the world “turned a blind eye.” Israel is the largest recipient of US military aid, and its security is guaranteed by the United States, unless Netanyahu destroys the alliance.

THE WHITE HOUSE

Netanyahu has been campaigning against Obama in Israel. While in the US, he rather fatuously said that he didn’t mean to offend anyone with his speech to Congress, and that it wasn’t meant to be political. In Israel, his willingness to confront the US and make the White House do his bidding, essentially by being too disagreeable to ignore, was a major part of his pitch to voters.

For all of the above reasons, Netanyahu’s relationship with Obama is in a deep freeze. Secretary of State John Kerry has called Netanyahu, but Obama has yet to contact the Prime Minister. The White House indicated that it will be forced to reevaluate certain aspects of its relationship with Israel, particularly regarding the future of Palestine, in light of Netanyahu’s comments shutting the door on any possible peace negotiation. As the election returns were flowing in, former adviser to Obama, David Axelrod, tweeted,

“Tightness of exits in Israel suggests Bibi’s shameful 11th hour demagoguery may have swayed enough votes to save him. But at what cost?” 

With this reelection, it’s clear that Netanyahu will go down in history as one of Israel’s most influential leaders, but it remains to be seen whether that will benefit anyone other than Netanyahu.

Feature image via Flickr.

Marc Belisle is the Reverb Press World Affairs Editor. He is a writer, activist and teacher. He has a Master’s degree in International Conflict Analysis from the Brussels School of International Studies. READ MORE BY MARC.

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Marc Belisle is the Reverb Press World Affairs Editor. He is a writer, activist and teacher. He has a Master’s degree in International Conflict Analysis from the Brussels School of International Studies. READ MORE BY MARC.

ReverbPress Mobile Apps ReverbPress iOS App ReverbPress Android App ReverbPress App