Netanyahu, Israel and President Obama’s Re-Election

With his crude political support of a personal friend and his attempts to badger the President of the United States into a war with Iran, Prime Minister Netanyahu has deeply damaged the American-Israeli relationship. Yes, many things at the working level will proceed, but at the higher level, one can only suspect that the President does not want Prime Minister Netanyahu in America’s national house. And with good reason. Prime Minister Netanyahu committed the cardinal sin of a national leader: he confused what he wanted and what would benefit him with the good of his country. L’etat, c’est moi! is how a Persian-Israeli sabra friend who is “Likud and love(s) Bibi” described him to me.

There are deep, old ties between Israel and the United States: an enormous amount of two-way traffic and business between the countries, and many Israelis have a great and real love for America. However, on a national level, Israelis have also tended to look at America as Uncle Sugar, not because American aid is so generous (it’s not) but because so many Israelis have lived or travelled in America (often before moving back to Israel), worked hard, made good, and sent money and gifts back to family and friends in Israel.

The result is that Israelis tend to think of Israel as the 51st state, forgetting that Israel is not, that Israelis generally don’t vote in American elections unless they are dual nationals, and that they also generally don’t pay US taxes.

What Israelis don’t do is understand the United States. Worse, they think they do. And much worse, when Americans try to explain America to Israelis, they run into the Israeli attitude of, If we don’t know it, it’s not worth knowing. Their attitude is, we live in a tough neighborhood. Which is true: look at Syria and shudder. And at least that’s in a civil war with real-world power at stake. Look at Egypt, where as girls, most women were and are still mutilated expressly to deny them sexual pleasure so that men with few real-world options can lord it over them, and tremble. Syria and Egypt’s political brutality and the domestic sadism from which it springs and in which it is embedded is more-or-less the norm in the Arab world. While Israel is largely populated by the immediate descendants of people who were driven out of communities they had lived in for generations, often centuries, and in the case of the North African and Arab exiles, for millennia. Indeed, Israel is the only country on earth whose existence is debated and people express the opinion that it would somehow be a good thing to destroy a nation of some seven million human beings. Scratch an Israeli and tremendous pain wells up; it ought to be the cruelest country on earth, and it isn’t even close. Yet all of this is an explanation, not an excuse for Israeli ruthlessness, self-centeredness and coarseness. That is because Israel is a minor power and could easily become one of the most remarkable countries on the planet. When you aspire to play in the big leagues, you need to behave according to big league rules.

One of those rules is: one country does not owe another country a war. Certainly great powers do not owe client states wars: and Netanyahu reduced Israel to the status of a client state when demanding that America make war upon Iran on Israel’s behalf; in the past, Israel has always insisted upon fighting its own wars. Let alone when that great power is trying to extricate themselves from two other wars that have wrecked its economy and military. Above all, a great power that has rejected religious messianism as the basis for national policy does not owe a client leader a war so he can continue to pursue religious-based messianic policies. Even if that great power owes Iran some serious payback in an undeclared war waged since 1979.

And no country should ever be in haste to go to war. War should only ever be a last resort, when advocates of war put all and every one of their cards on the table in a transparent fashion—the how, the why, the when, the means in troops and material and funding as well as the opportunity costs of those lives and that money, the ends, the threats, the reasons the threats can’t be contained. The national leader who says, “Can’t tell you. National security. Classified.”, who is any less than completely, entirely forthcoming and honest should be permanently stripped of all creditability. The wreckage, the waste, the callous, unforgivable loss caused by America in Southeast Asia and now in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the sheer deceit and national self-delusion that attended those wars should serve as a profound warning to anyone who is tempted to roll the iron dice and engage in a war of choice—no matter how deliberately provoked.

America is in the process of deciding what country it wants to be; to a significant extent Americans contemplated an ultra-religious agenda on Election Day and said, No. You’re ugly, mean and ignorant, and those are your good points. This is a problem for Israel because Netanyahu has helped turn good relationships with Israel from a bipartisan consensus into the province of America’s ultra-religious, just as his coalition partners in Israel are largely the ultra-religious, and Netanyahu is known to have few, if any, limits in satisfying them.

Now, facing their own January elections, Israelis find themselves in the position of Americans. What do they want their country to look like? Is Israel to be the plaything of the ever-fewer and richer, its policies based upon old stories and myths, when slavery was acceptable and half the population was the sexual and reproductive property of the other half? What is its role in the world and yes, in the occupied territories? Will it continue to tolerate the states within the state that are subject to different laws than secular Jews? The Israeli left, like the American left, needs to begin to create a serious, coherent philosophy to govern their country, and the Israeli (and American) left needs to do so without sneering at people who disagree with them because they genuinely fear for themselves and the future of their country.

As Israelis ponder these questions, it would be well for them to remember two things. In the end, the survival of Israel—and of the Middle East generally—does not depend on the existence of the Palestinian state that Israel is helping to create on the West Bank, or who controls the last few square kilometers under dispute.

America has problems of its own and it is going to take America some time to get right with itself. To the extent that America needs to get right with itself, the Israeli-Palestinian issue serves as a distraction from issues that America does not wish to talk about, such as Chinese influence in American political and economic institutions. (Americans also fail to understand that a lot of Palestinians and other Arabs don’t want a two-state solution and are prepared to kill Palestinians and other Arabs who do.)

Like America, Israel has serious problems that it needs to resolve, and until Israelis get right with themselves about such issues as the structure of the economy and the role of religion in public life, they aren’t going to be able to get right with the Palestinians, either, presuming the Palestinians want a two-state solution, which is extremely questionable. To the extent that Israel needs to get right with itself, Iran and other related security questions are deliberately used to distract Israelis from the even more important issue: how do we wish to live? Who do we wish to be?


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