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Everywhere But There

The only consolation about Benjamin Netanyahu’s second government is that two months into office it appears to be the most universally disliked in Israel’s 61-year history. Whether at home or abroad, no one, it seems, has anything good to say … Read More

By / June 15, 2009

The only consolation about Benjamin Netanyahu’s second government is that two months into office it appears to be the most universally disliked in Israel’s 61-year history. Whether at home or abroad, no one, it seems, has anything good to say about it. Following Bibi’s predecessor Ehud Olmert, that’s an impressive achievement. On the eve of the Prime Minister’s long-awaited speech about his approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, US President Barack Obama was already hotly rumored to disapprove of Israel’s new policy, the European Union was busy meeting with Hezbollah, and 80% of Israelis polled were reported to have said they could live with a nuclear Iran–even, as the Tel Aviv University study stated, a nuclear-armed Iran.

It’s not like this situation appeared out of the blue. During Bibi’s first month in office, another poll showed that over fifty percent of Israelis already disapproved of his coalition. So what would compel the Likud leader to continue to emphasize links between Iranian weapons of mass destruction and the Palestinians? Maybe the Americans? Not likely, judging from Senator John Kerry’s statement last week to the Financial Times that America could live with a nuclear Iran. Reiterating Obama’s debut of this opinion in Cairo, the American position couldn’t be any clearer. How about the newly rightist Europeans? They didn’t poll well enough to make a difference, and even if they did, these conservatives are purported to hate Israel even more than Europe’s left.

Indeed, its a nightmare scenario for Israel’s most fluent English-speaking head of state. How did Bibi get himself into such a mess? Was it his inability to do anything besides assert leadership over the country’s right-wing parties? Was it Tzipi Livni’s refusal to enter a coalition government? What about Netanyahu’s deep ties to Jewish power-brokers in the Diaspora? Couldn’t they have tipped him off better? Why did his aides not serve him with better information on the Americans? None of this was hard to predict, especially Europe’s continuing ambivalence and the seemingly new American attitude.

Throughout the presidential campaign, rightist activists and pundits across the Jewish world warned repeatedly of the dangers of an Obama-led US government. It would be friendlier to Muslim states and seek diplomatic over military solutions to problems. And it would be led by a mixed-race black politician with a far more troubling intellectual pedigree than any previous president—a pedigree that would insist, for example, on the difference between “Likud” and “Israeli.” Contrast that to a predecessor who when first asked couldn’t say where Afghanistan was located. Much to the right’s chagrin, everything that Obama has done since entering office has affirmed their predictions.

Nevertheless, the Netanyahu government has gone about its business assuming that the status quo would somehow stand, and that Israel and America would share the same policy goals and the same general approach. This US government was supposed to support Israel like other administrations had, if not perhaps as much as the Bush administration. And Israel would continue to perform itself as it always had, paying lip-service to the peace process, disciplining the Palestinians, and dealing with its neighbors as it so chooses. No wonder Bibi’s aides have been so surprised at the lack of cooperation from the Americans.

Blame it on the differences that inevitably characterize the clash of two distinct governments. Pin responsibility on Ehud Olmert’s inexpert handling of the Lebanon war, his corruption, or Tzipi Livni’s inability to successfully negotiate a coalition agreement with Labour, let alone all of the other parties with whom she could have signed deals. Lots of players can take the blame. The point is that even without these variables, we’d be facing the same conflicts between Bibi and the rest of the world due to the pathology that the Prime Minister represents—not to mention his already problematic relations with the Clinton administration during the 1990s.

To put it bluntly, Netanyahu was the worst conceivable contender for the job. He’s displayed a stunning obliviousness to the changes in US strategic thinking, let alone American society, as a consequence of the Bush years. To borrow from the language of psychoanalysis, denial comes to mind. What else could one infer from Bibi’s words of frustration—"What do they want from me?"—following his first meeting with Obama? It’s indeed unprecedented that his negotiating team wouldn’t be prepared for the Americans to insist on a total freeze to settlement building, and that Israel’s leader would choose to persist in differing with the US so far as allowing ministers and military leaders to continually criticize the Americans.

Did Netanyahu ever count on the US Jewish community backing President Obama’s approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict? Did the Prime Minister ever imagine that Congress might endorse the new administration taking such an initiative? No-one of any consequence in the US—not even AIPAC—has been able to extend Netanyahu an effective helping hand. The situation is that bleak. This represents enough of a massive miscalculation that it could almost be seen as the diplomatic equivalent to being snookered by a surprise attack. Netanyahu’s failure to work with prior intelligence and adequately prepare makes this episode comparable to the 1973 War, albeit with the Americans.

Bibi’s memory of his relations with the Democrats has similarly failed. Even the faintest overview of the Clinton era would make it impossible to conjecture that the present administration would want to work with an Israeli leader who caused them so many problems—including legitimizing the incitement that led to the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, on whom the White House was counting on to deliver a peace agreement. What about the Bibi who befriended Newt Gingrich when he was leader of the congressional opposition to then-President Clinton and seeking his impeachment? Wouldn’t that inspire a sense of mistrust in a government largely made up of officials from that era?

Certainly, for anyone with a knowledge of that era, Bibi comes across as a harbinger of the negative that transpired over the next decade. Championing every major idea about the Middle East common in neocon circles today, the Israeli leader was every bit the forerunner of the Bush administration, and its emphasis upon Islam, totalitarianism and terror. Why Netanyahu never had the luck to coincide as Prime Minister with a US leader of his ideological bent will surely never cease to frustrate him. That it had to be Sharon and Olmert to sit across from Dubya, and not Bibi, will forever be his fate. The best Netanyahu could do at this point would be to invite Dick Cheney to address the Knesset. After all, Olmert already did it. Why can’t Bibi?

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