Obama is not going to admit he was born in Kenya and resign. Bill O’Reilly isn’t going to quit Fox News to open a Buddhist retreat in Nepal. Justin Bieber isn’t going to admit he’s a talentless spoiled brat and apologize for being a total asshole. Donald Trump isn’t going to do the same. Tom Cruise isn’t going to finally let on that Scientology was a scam to part celebrities from their money. But something is up. Something seems about to change, something that will force a rethink of what we think. It was a rally in Jerusalem. The fellow that the Republicans say is the real leader of the free world may be gone soon:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned supporters at a rally here Sunday that he and his Likud party may not win Tuesday’s election, a potentially dramatic fall for a consummate political survivor whose nine years in office transformed him into the public face of contemporary Israel.
A loss by Netanyahu – or a razor-thin win and the prospect that he would be forced to enter into an unwieldy “government of national unity” with his rivals – would mark a sobering reversal for Israel’s security hawks, in a country where the electorate has been moving steadily rightward for the past 15 years.
The final round of opinion polls Friday showed Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party facing a surprisingly strong challenge by Isaac Herzog, leader of the center-left Labor Party, and his running mate, former peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, who hold a small but steady lead. Their campaign has emphasized economic issues and the soaring cost of living.
What, the economy matters? What were these whining Israelis thinking? Something had to be done, so something was done:
Under pressure on the eve of a surprisingly close election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Monday doubled down on his appeal to right-wing voters, declaring definitively that if he was returned to office he would never establish a Palestinian state.
The statement reversed Mr. Netanyahu’s endorsement of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a 2009 speech at Bar Ilan University, and fulfilled many world leaders’ suspicions that he was never really serious about peace negotiations. If he manages to eke out a fourth term, the new stance would further fray Mr. Netanyahu’s ruinous relationship with the Obama administration and heighten tension with European countries already frustrated with the stalled peace process.
“I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel,” he said in a video interview published on NRG, an Israeli news site that leans to the right. “There is a real threat here that a left-wing government will join the international community and follow its orders.”
So, Israel doesn’t the need the international community of nations. They’re all fools, dangerous fools. Israel welcomes the scorn of every other nation on earth – or something like that.
The other guy doesn’t think that way:
Mr. Netanyahu’s chief challenger, Isaac Herzog of the center-left Zionist Union, backs the two-state solution and has promised to try to restart talks with the Palestinians, though he has warned an agreement may not be possible. He has, however, made Mr. Netanyahu’s alienation of allies, especially Washington, a prime campaign point, and said Israel’s international isolation is itself a security threat.
That’s one way to see it. Shedding all allies, by systematically insulting them, leaves you with no allies, doesn’t it? This isn’t rocket science, but something has gone sour for Bibi:
With his conservative Likud Party trailing the Zionist Union in the last pre-election polls, Mr. Netanyahu has ratcheted up his statements in a panicky blitz of interviews and campaign stops in recent days. He accuses rivals of colluding with Arabs and moneyed antagonists in a global conspiracy to oust him. He has also belatedly begun to address the pocketbook questions that polls suggest will drive most people’s votes.
But in many corners, these efforts and the Palestinian flip-flop only underscore a longstanding critique: that Mr. Netanyahu, 65, who led Israel for three years in the 1990s and returned to the premiership in 2009, places staying in power above all else.
He himself called these early elections three months ago, confidently aiming to replace a governing coalition fractured over the Palestinian conflict and matters of religion with one he could more easily control. Instead, as Israelis head to the polls Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu is struggling for political survival in a nation itself riven over those issues and consumed with the high cost of housing and groceries.
Suddenly, the man crowned “King Bibi” – whose hardline stance against the Iranian nuclear program and continued construction in West Bank settlements hurt him in some foreign capitals but resonated in an increasingly fearful and religious Israel – is being asked whether he would retire if he were not re-elected.
They’ve had just about enough of this guy, and there are other issues:
Mr. Netanyahu’s emphasis on security, his strong suit, backfired somewhat with the sharp Democratic criticism of his speech to Congress this month opposing the emerging nuclear deal between six world powers and Iran. He got the standing ovations he expected, but also provided an opening for attacks on his preferred playing field.
Mr. Herzog and others argued that he was actually threatening Israel’s security by angering the White House and that all his strident speeches had not yielded results on improving the terms of the Iran negotiations.
The Zionist Union, meanwhile, hammered Mr. Netanyahu on domestic issues, especially housing, helped by a harsh state comptroller’s report showing prices shot up 55 percent from 2008 to 2013 and had continued to climb since. (A previous comptroller’s report on spending at the prime minister’s residences, including a $40,000 take-out tab one year, hardly helped the Netanyahu fatigue.)
The economic platform was also seized by Yesh Atid, the centrist faction that had stunned Israel by winning 19 Parliament seats in the last election, 2013, and Kulanu, a new party led by a popular former minister who broke from the Likud and had few nice things to say about his former boss.
“What’s striking is that the Israeli public seems to have lost interest with the Palestinian question – the general feeling is that it’s like the weather, nothing you can do about it,” observed Guy Ben-Porat, a political scientist at Ben Gurion University. “Economy, housing, all these issues where nobody’s sure what the difference is, exactly, between the parties, there’s a feeling of government failure. I think it’s really a personal election, meaning anti-Netanyahu.”
That’s the broad view of things, but Netanyahu had an answer:
As Israelis prepared to head to the polls in a tightly contested national election, embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday got one last bit of help from septuagenarian tough guy Chuck Norris.
The former star of “Walker Texas Ranger” stumped for Netanyahu in a YouTube video posted to the star’s own account, simply titled, “Please vote for Prime Minister Netanyahu!”
“I watched Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech before Congress, and I saw a man who loves his country with all his heart and soul,” Norris said in the video.
The actor and martial arts enthusiast stressed that only Netanyahu’s Likud Party could bring Israel peace and security.
“I have done three movies in Israel, Delta Force being my favorite, and I formed many friendships while there,” he went on. “You have an incredible country, and we want to keep it that way.”
That may not swing things back in Netanyahu favor. Chuck Norris is a pleasant forth-rate actor in preposterous movies and in an equally preposterous television show, from long ago, but then Ronald Reagan was the same. Who knows? The only thing even vaguely interesting about the endorsement was this:
Norris said that Americans needed a leader like Netanyahu just as much as Israelis, in order to ward off “evil forces” in the Middle East and throughout the world.
Americans wish Netanyahu were their president, not Obama. Saying that may shift a few more Israeli votes to Netanyahu, even if it may not be true. Chuck Norris needs to get out more. Mention of Delta Force and Walker Texas Ranger, however, certainly won’t shift any votes over there. Who the hell is this Chuck Norris person anyway?
Jeffrey Goldberg at the Atlantic Online sees issues that are far beyond Chuck Norris:
Of the many differences between Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and the man who may unseat him, Isaac “Buji” Herzog (I’ll post separately on the ridiculousness of Israeli nicknames), none strikes me as more immediately consequential than the contrasting ways in which they view President Barack Obama.
Yes, Netanyahu and Herzog differ stylistically and dispositionally, and yes, their views on a range of economic, security, and social issues are miles apart, but it is their diverging approaches to management of the American file that is most dramatic.
Compare and contrast:
About Netanyahu’s approach, what else is there to say? The prime minister decided to turn the leader of the United States, the country that is Israel’s chief benefactor, diplomatic protector, weapons supplier and strategic partner, into an adversary by, among other things, making common cause with Obama’s domestic political adversaries. Netanyahu has legitimate criticisms of the Obama administration’s handling of the Iranian nuclear issue, but he mismanaged the relationship so badly that the doors of the White House are practically closed to him. (And yes, it may be unpleasant to acknowledge, but it is true that responsibility for the maintenance of the relationship rests with the junior, dependent, partner, not with the superpower…)
We know, alas, what Netanyahu thinks of Obama – last year, people close to the prime minister told me that he had “written off” Obama, which is, of course, a geopolitical impossibility. But what does Herzog think about Obama – and specifically, about his handling of the Iran nuclear talks? Here is what he told me in December, when I interviewed him at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Forum: “I trust the Obama administration to get a good deal.”
That’s his advantage:
Whether he actually does, I do not know. But I do know that he is clever enough to talk about the U.S.-Israel relationship with discretion and nuance. Herzog is more hawkish than his right-wing foes have painted him, and his principal adviser on defense affairs, Amos Yadlin, a former military intelligence chief who was one of the eight Israeli pilots who bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, is not soft on the issue. But what he is – and what Herzog is – is practical. Both men know that Israel loses in the Iran equation if it alienates the U.S. president, and both men believe that Obama’s pursuit of a deal is not Chamberlain-like, but instead a regional necessity – so long as Iran is kept at least a year away from nuclear breakout.
Herzog does not downplay the Iran matter, but nor does he cast it in apocalyptic terms, as Netanyahu does. “I agree that a nuclear Iran is extremely dangerous, and I believe that it must be prevented,” Herzog told The Washington Post recently. “No Israeli leader will accept a nuclear Iran. All options for me are still on the table,” including the military option. But when asked if a nuclear Iran posed an “existential threat,” he demurred: “It is a big threat. That’s enough.”
On another pressing, possibly existential issue, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, Herzog argues that the status is quo is unsustainable, which puts him in line with Obama’s own thinking on the subject: “This is not a situation where you wait and the problem goes away,” the U.S. president said in an interview I conducted with him in 2013.
Herzog seems to know that spitting in everyone’s face gets you nowhere. That sort of thing only worked for Dick Cheney, and even that is debatable. Here Netanyahu “heroically” spit in the face of the international community – there will NEVER be a two-state solution as long as he’s around – but also seemed to spit in the face of his Republican allies over here. Igor Volsky at ThinkProgress explains the problem:
Republican President George W. Bush was “the first American President to call for a Palestinian state” and invested his presidency in building support for a “two-state solution.” During a speech in 2008, Bush described that goal as “one of the highest priorities of my Presidency” and to this day the Republican platform calls for the establishment of “two democratic states – Israel with Jerusalem as its capital and Palestine – living in peace and security.”
Netanyahu announced his support for Palestine in a landmark 2009 address and reiterated his commitment to Congress just two years later.
“Palestinians should enjoy a national life of dignity as a free, viable and independent people living in their own state,” he told a joint session. “They should enjoy a prosperous economy, where their creativity and initiative can flourish.”
At the time, Republican leaders eagerly echoed Netanyahu’s remarks and praised his commitment to peace.
“Israel has demonstrated time and again it seeks nothing more than peace … a peace agreed to by the two states and only the two states,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told a Jewish group in Cincinnati that year. “Like every prime minister before him, Prime Minister Netanyahu knows peace will require compromise – and he accepts that. He welcomes that.”
Netanyahu has now put these folks on the spot:
“American politicians who have aligned themselves with Netanyahu must now be asked where they stand in relation to the two-state solution,” Matt Duss, President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, told ThinkProgress in a phone interview from the West Bank. He expressed concern that Netanyahu misled U.S. lawmakers about his true intentions for attaining peace with the Palestinians.
Boehner’s office did not return ThinkProgress’ request for comment about Netanyahu’s opposition to the two-state solution.
John Boehner needs to think about this, but Paul Waldman does the thinking:
In recent years, the Republican Party has elevated “support for Israel” to a level of passion and consensus usually reserved for things such as tax cuts and opposition to abortion rights. But that happened during a string of conservative Israeli governments. If Israel is led by a Labor Party prime minister and begins to change some of its policies, will Republicans decide that “support” is more complicated than they used to think?
Waldman wonders about that:
It may be hard to remember now, but Israel became a Republican fetish object relatively recently. At times in the past, support for Israel was seen as a liberal cause, but as the Labor Party’s long dominance of the country’s politics faded and policy toward the Palestinians hardened, Republicans became more and more devoted to the country. The real shift probably started in 2001, when Ariel Sharon took over for the last Labor prime minister, Ehud Barak. Since then, the opinions of Democrats and Republicans about Israel have diverged, and the Republican evangelical base has grown intensely interested in the country. These days, one of the first things a freshman Republican member of Congress does is book a trip to the Holy Land (lots of Democrats go too, it should be said). Mike Huckabee leads regular tours there. Sarah Palin used to brag that she displayed an Israeli flag in her office during her brief tenure as governor of Alaska. Given the rapturous reception he got from GOP members when he came at John Boehner’s invitation to address Congress, Netanyahu could become the 2016 Republican nominee for president in a landslide, if it were possible.
But what you don’t find within the Republican Party when it comes to Israel is anything resembling a debate. As far as Republicans are concerned, Israel is just right; whatever Israel wants to do is right; and whatever Israel asks of the United States is precisely what we should do. The only question is whether you’re “supporting” the country with the proper zeal. Republicans don’t concern themselves much with the lively debates over policy within Israel, because the government is controlled by conservatives (Netanyahu’s Likud Party has ruled since 2001, with an interregnum of control by Kadima, a Likud offshoot). “Support for Israel” just means support for the current Israeli government.
That could change now:
Republicans could learn that by the standard they’ve been using, most Israelis are insufficiently pro-Israel. And then what? What if a Labor-led government moves toward a two-state solution, or a curtailing of Jewish settlement in the West Bank? And what if those changes are enthusiastically supported by President Obama and Hillary Clinton? “Support for Israel” sounds great when the country’s prime minister and a Democratic president regard each other with barely disguised contempt, but things could get complicated.
That might actually force Republicans to think about Israel, and America’s relationship to it, with a little more nuance. They’d have to admit that when they used to say “I support Israel,” what they actually meant was that they support the Likud and its vision for Israel’s future. More broadly, they’d have to acknowledge that one can disagree with what the Israeli government does and still support the country, since that’s the position they would find themselves in. They might even realize that you can take a one-week trip to the country during which you climb Masada and go for a dip in the Sea of Galilee and still not know everything there is to know about the Middle East.
Maybe expecting Republican politicians to arrive at a complex understanding of an important foreign policy concern is a little too much to ask. But there’s always hope.
They may soon have no choice but to come to that complex understanding. Or if not now, one day they will have no choice, but Ed Kilgore worries about a post-Netanyahu Republican foreign policy:
The crisis a Netanyahu loss could produce for Republicans goes far beyond how they talk about Israel or the Middle East. If Israel’s no longer the measure of all good things in a “world on fire” what becomes the organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy? Straight out Islamophobia?
“U.S. leadership” as defined by the determination to remind the bad actors of the world that Americans have gotten over their “Iraq Syndrome” and are again prepared to fight a war, or maybe multiple wars? It has been pretty easy up until now for Republicans to point at Bibi and intone: “What he said!” I’m not sure they are ready for the possibility of losing their foreign policy spokesman.
What’s this about the world on fire? Ashley Killough at CNN explains:
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz was delivering his normal rhetoric during a New Hampshire speech on Sunday, hitting the current administration on the economy, Obamacare and national security.
“And the Obama-Clinton foreign policy of leading from behind – the whole world is on fire,” the senator from Texas declared.
But he was stopped by a 3-year-old girl sitting in the front row.
“The world is on fire?” she yelled out.
Cruz took it and ran with it.
“The world is on fire – yes! Your world is on fire,” he exclaimed, seizing the moment as the crowd burst out into laughter. “But you know what? Your mommy’s here and everyone’s here to make sure that the world you grow up in is even better.”
The scene – while cute – captured Cruz’s determination to remain unwavering in his views and language, never backtracking. There was no “just kidding” or “that was only a metaphor” to assuage the little girl.
That’s the new post-Netanyahu Republican foreign policy? It could be, but as Thomas Friedman explains, Netanyahu does have friends:
As anyone who watched Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech last week in Congress knows, one of the people prominently seated in the House gallery was the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a primary financial backer of both the Republican Party and Netanyahu. As The Washington Post’s Colby Itkowitz reported, at one point Adelson’s wife, Miriam, accidentally knocked her purse off the House gallery railing and it hit Representative Brad Ashford, a Nebraska Democrat seated below. The Post noted that Adelson had given $5 million to the GOP’s Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, which had spent $35,000 in a failed effort to defeat Ashford in his 2014 race against Representative Lee Terry. Ashford later joked to The Omaha World-Herald: “I wish I’d opened the purse. Do you think she carries cash?”
We certainly know that Mr. Adelson does. And when it came to showering that cash on Republican presidential hopefuls and right-wing PACs trying to defeat President Obama (reportedly $150 million in 2012), and on keeping Netanyahu and his Likud party in office, no single billionaire-donor is more influential than Sheldon. No matter what his agenda, it is troubling that one man, with a willingness and ability to give away giant sums, can now tilt Israeli and American politics his way at the same time.
Perhaps so, but the guy bought his influence fair and square:
Israel has much stricter laws on individuals donating to political campaigns, so Adelson got around that in 2007 by founding a free, giveaway newspaper in Israel – Israel Hayom – whose sole purpose is to back Netanyahu, attack his enemies in politics and the media, and enforce a far-right political agenda to prevent any Israeli territorial compromise on the West Bank (which, in time, could undermine Israel as a Jewish democracy). Graphically attractive, Israel Hayom is now the biggest-circulation daily in Israel. Precisely because it is free, it is putting a heavy strain on competitors, like Yediot and Haaretz, which both charge and are not pro-Netanyahu.
Adelson then bought the most important newspaper of the religious-nationalist right in Israel, Makor Rishon, long considered the main backer of Netanyahu’s biggest right-wing rival, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. Last March, in an interview with Israel Army Radio after the Makor Rishon sale, Bennett said: “It saddens me. Israel Hayom is not a newspaper. It is Pravda. It’s the mouthpiece of one person, the prime minister. At every junction point, every point of friction between the national interest and the interest of the prime minister, they chose the side of the prime minister.”
The Washington Post said that last November at a conference of the Israel American Council, a lobbying group Adelson has funded, he joked in a public discussion with a wealthy Israeli: “Why don’t you and I go after The New York Times?” Told it was family owned, Adelson quipped, “There is only one way to fight it: money.” At this same conference Adelson was quoted as saying that Israel would not be able to survive as a democracy: “So Israel won’t be a democratic state,” he added. “So what?”
That’s pretty straightforward, and there was March, in Las Vegas, where Adelson summoned Jeb Bush and Chris Christie and John Kasich and Scott Walker to explain why he should fund any of them, and this was about Israel:
When Christie, in his speech before Adelson, described the West Bank as “occupied territories,” some Republican Jews in the audience were appalled. So, Politico reported, Christie hastily arranged a meeting with Adelson to explain that he had misspoken and that he was a true friend of Israel. “The New Jersey governor apologized in a private meeting in the casino mogul’s Venetian office shortly afterward,” Politico reported. It said Adelson “accepted” Christie’s “explanation” and “quick apology.”
Friedman is not happy:
When money in politics gets this big, when it can make elected officials bow and scrape in two different countries at the same time, it is troubling. I’m sure Adelson cares deeply about Israel, but he lacks any sense of limits in how he exercises his extraordinary financial power – power he is using to simultaneously push Israel and America toward eliminating any two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, toward defunding the Palestinian Authority and toward a confrontation with Iran, not a diplomatic solution. People need to know this.
People may actually know this. A good number of folks in Israel seem to be tired of being jerked around by the American guy in Las Vegas, who makes most of his money in Macau. They may not know about him, specifically, but that hardly matters. They know his man, Netanyahu, and that’s enough. Something is going to change there, and here, eventually if not now. No last minute adjustments will work. And Tom Cruise won’t be able to save Scientology either. A scam is a scam.