Prime Minister Netanyahu has deeply damaged the relationship between America and Israel. His attitude is that America owes Israel a war with Iran, and to get that war, a war many respected Israeli security professionals are deeply opposed to, he has politicized Israeli-American ties, making them the province of America’s ultra-religious. No American, which I am, can avoid the feeling that Prime Minister Netanyahu believes America owes Israel a war against Iran. (In the past when Israel has attacked Arab nuclear sites, it has done so at least as much on behalf of the larger world, especially the Arab world, as on its own.)
Yet Israelis, which I also am, cherish their country’s ties to America. Being overwhelmingly secular, trust the religious right about as much as they can throw the Kotel, and are really reluctant to rush into war with Iran. So why is Netanyahu being allowed to carry on like a messianic warmonger?
The first is that going all the way back to Ben Gurion, there have been no real alternatives on the Israeli political scene. For decades, Ben Gurion isolated, marginalized and drove out of the country every possible successor. He confused himself with the country, doing damage at the time, and leaving as a legacy a profoundly warped and stunted political life. Israeli politicians tend to stay in power until they are carried out; Menachem Begin, one of the few first-class politicians Israel has produced, was also one of the few to retire when he realized he was no longer adequate to the task of governing. Today, Israelis do not see a viable alternative to Netanyahu.
Second, Mr. Adelson, a prominent Republican backer, owns an Israeli newspaper, Yisrael Hayom (Israel Today) that is given away for free, doing tremendous harm to the Israeli newspaper industry. I will allow others to speculate about his political influence in Israel and America. But he does have it, and not for the better.
Israelis do worry about Iran: many Israelis are the children and grandchildren from the 800,000 Jews who were expelled from the Arab world when Israel in the aftermath of Israeli independence, often with little more than the clothes on their backs. Palestinians, by contrast, tended to leave Israel more-or-less voluntarily because they expected Arab armies to do their fighting for them. Incidentally, this is one of the things Israelis don’t like to talk about: it is very painful. Israel likes to pretend that Arab Jews came here voluntarily, because they were Zionists. They had about as much choice as the European Jews who survived but were unable to return home. Israelis were European once, just as they were Arab, and the exile from that culture hurts too.
However, Israelis also know that if Israel—or for that matter anyone else—attacks Iran, Iran will hit back, including through its proxies of Hezbollah and Hamas. Every square centimeter of Israel is within rocket range, so the first thing Israel will have to do is use fuel-air-explosives on rocket-launch sites such as Lebanese caves. And then Israel will have to get really nasty. Needless to say, Israelis don’t want to do this. They have lived through a lot of wars; they would simply like to be a normal country. More often than not, Israelis would like to live in some kind of alliance with the Palestinian state that is—far too slowly and messily and painfully—being created. Chiefly by Israel, in fact, with a lot of help from America and Russia and not enough help from Palestinians. And, needless to say, much less from other Arab states.
Another thing Israelis don’t talk about is how familiar they are with the fact that Arabs kill each other with enthusiastic cruelty. Most of Israelis don’t particularly want to add to that—and that includes an awful lot of Israeli soldiers. The line, The world’s most moral army, is a myth—but it is also a myth that many Israelis cherish very deeply and try to live up to. To this day, there is enormous bitterness and disgust about the Lebanon War and Israeli tolerance of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila—even though those massacres were payback by Lebanese Christians, not Israeli Jews, for Palestinian massacres of other Lebanese Christians.
There’s a final thing Israelis don’t talk about, and that is that old, wise Israeli saying, We will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East—or the third. You could say that Israelis don’t talk about this because they are still subject to censorship, and talking about nuclear weapons is a real red line in Israel. But that is because it is so serious. Israel has one use for nuclear weapons and one use only, and that use is not rhetorical brandishing and threatening. Israelis have lived through the Holocaust—which is ancient history, even here, except when it is, say, your grandmother, as it was a friend’s, or the neighbor, who–sincerely—compliments you on your German manners. They have lived through the destruction of their ancient communities and witnessed the world’s indifference to genocide since. They know the world cares about what happens to Israel about as much as it cared about what happened in Rwanda, or Bosnia, or Cambodia. So there is a national resolution about survival, but it’s nothing they brag or boast about, nothing Israelis are proud of.
As for what Israelis think about Bibi Netanyahu, rather recently HaAretz, the big liberal paper in Israel, and perhaps the most dignified, published an op-ed describing Bibi’s willingness to satisfy his ultra-religious coalition partners in coarse English that cannot be repeated with any decency. A friend of mine swears she loves Bibi but when I asked her if she would buy anything from him, laughed. “I’m not crazy! she told me. “L’etat, c’est moi!” was how she described Netanyahu’s opinion about himself.
Israelis know what Netanyahu is: a problem. They just don’t know what to do about him.
And that is why this Israeli will be supporting President Obama during his reelection campaign.
Because—neither—America—nor Israel—need Presidents or Prime Ministers who wage either class warfare against their own people or wars of choice against foreign powers. And yes, because the example America sets in the world still matters. We were once a great force for good in the world. We can be again. Just as Israel—endangered and grief-haunted as it is, is a startlingly decent place in a very ugly neighborhood—but it can and should do better. And neither country will be able to do so if Mr. Romeny becomes president.