The Netanyahu and the Obama camps have each tried to cool things down a bit in recent weeks.
Netanyahu has walked back or “clarified” his hyperpolarizing campaign rhetoric, while Obama has just reiterated to Tom Friedman of the New York Times his deep affinity for the Jewish people and Israel. Today’s damped-down rhetoric helps Netanyahu position his new government both domestically and internationally, while Obama is mollifying Democratic Senators who threaten to joint with the GOP in punching holes in his Iran “framework.”
This new chastened atmosphere may not last long, but it is a good time to look back and assess the consequences of the mutual havoc that has been wrought so far this year.
One take on the politics of the Netanyahu-Obama Affair was offered some weeks ago in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal by Raphael J. Sonenshein. We are all in Professor Sonenshein’s debt for the best book— in fact, the only serious book — about the politics of Black-Jewish relations in Los Angeles during the Age of Tom Bradley. Now, Sonenshein has applied his analytical skills to the emerging realignment of conservative Likudniks and American Republicans in the Age of Obama.
Parts of his analysis are on point, yet other parts are more symptom than explanation of what has happened. In fact, it sometimes seems that Sonenshein—who even fantasizes about Netanyahu coming to the U.S. to campaign for the GOP ticket, top to bottom, in 2016 (or is this meant as satire?)— suffers from a mild case of Netanyahu Derangement Syndrome, the malady that in acute form may also afflict the American President.
First it should be noted Netanyahu’s teaming up with Republican leaders is far from the first partisan bromance between Israeli and U.S. political leaders. Arguably, the first such personal-political symbiosis was not between Bibi and Boehner or Bush II, but between Ben Gurion and Harry Truman and subsequent Democratic presidents, although Ben Gurion privately complained in 1961 about how JFK in a meeting with him shamelessly pandered to American Jewish voters.
Coming out of WWII and the Holocaust, Israel’s Labor Party and the U.S. Democratic Party—each espousing variants of social democratic/welfare state politics—were the natural “governing party” and center of political gravity in both countries. Add the Cold War—despite bumpy relations under Dwight Eisenhower—and there was ushered in an international-domestic alliance between the center-left in both countries, sometimes to the chagrin of American and Israeli conservatives.
Then came Menachem Began and Ronald Reagan and a partial realignment toward conservatism that had a political impact within each country as well as between the countries. The realignment was real but modest. American Jewish voters remained decisively Democratic, partly because Reagan’s courting of the Christian Right turned off Jewish voters in 1984, just as did the “Fuck the Jews” attitude of George H. W. Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker. Bill Clinton and then the Gore-Lieberman ticket had no trouble solidifying the Democratic vote despite Clinton’s unhappy relationship with Netanyahu.
Yet post-2001 tidal shifts involving attitudes toward the security of both Israeli and U.S. resulted in a resumption of the modest political drift in a more conservative direction among Jewish voters in both Israel and the U.S.
Sonenshein is correct about the recent rise, if not exactly of a Likud-GOP international marriage, of a common law union. The problem with his analysis is his implication that responsibility lies exclusively with Netanyahu, and that Obama has had little or nothing to do with it.
Instead, the Likud-GOP alliance is, in significant measure, a “reaction formation” to the hyper-polarization that Obama himself has promoted, particularly in his second term. In 2008, Obama garnered 80 percent of the Jewish voter because he seemed to personify American Jewish pluralist values at the same time he still spoke the language of the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship.”
Enough of this continued to be the case for him to win 70 percent of the Jewish vote in 2012, and even to wow many young Israelis with his speech during his 2013 visit when he articulated the rhetoric if not exactly the substance of the Zionist vision.
Yet gradually but significantly, Obama’s strategy and tactics changed. Rather than appeal to the center as most incumbents seeking reelection do, Obama during 2012 presidential election decided to mobilize his liberal base. Then he decided to “go it alone” politically without Congress, especially after the 2014 off-year election. These Obama decisions not only drove Republicans even further to the right. During the same period, the Obama Administration intensified criticism of Israel and symbolically cut off ammunition supplies to the IDF during the Summer 2014 Gaza War.
These choices by Obama to distance himself from Israel played into the hands of the Likud at the same time as they united conservative Israelis and Republicans in their opposition to Obama Administration policies toward both Israel and Iran. Hence, Bibi as GOP hero.
Of course, it takes two to tango, and Netanyahu—with his unilateral acceptance without clearing it with the White House of an invitation from Boehner to speak before a Joint Session of Congress on Iran’s nuclear menace—bears some blame.
Yet I apportion primary responsibility to the proactive, polarizing pattern reflected in and caused by Obama’s January dismissal of Paris’ Jewish martyrs to Islamic terror as just “random folks,” his Administration’s anonymous characterizations of the former IDF soldier Netanyahu as a “chickenshit” (apparently lacking in the White House’s estimation the courage of Bo Berghdal!), the dispatch of anti-Likud Democratic party operatives to Israel during the recent election, his refusal to accept Netanyahu’s apologies for his hardline rhetoric during the recent Israeli election, his threat to “reassess” Israeli-U.S. relations at the UN, and his freezing out of Israel from the Iran nuclear negotiations.
We can debate nuances, but I don’t see how any balanced assessment can deny that Obama’s inflaming of Likud and GOP perceptions of him as a “villain” has contributed, in no small part, to Netanyahu’s emergence as an international conservative “hero.”
As the old saying goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Netanyahu likely owes political popularity in the U.S. as well as Israel less to a GOP-Likud campaign to glorify him than to dislike of Obama in both countries.
Ironically, Netanyahu and Obama each may each have even profited politically for the other’s hostility, but the relationship between Israel and the U.S. has not benefited.