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Netanyahu’s scorched earth anti-Biden rant

In his fiery Knesset speech, the disgruntled outgoing PM doubled down on partisanship and defied a US request to keep disagreements private
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on April 12, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on April 12, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

It is a known cliché that politics makes strange bedfellows, and certainly the new coalition government in Israel is an amalgam of parties with the ousting of Benjamin Netanyahu from the Prime Minister’s Office as the key common ideological denominator. Only time will tell if Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, and Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, and their partners can survive the political hardships outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had promised he will put them through in his first speech in the Israeli Knesset as the head of the opposition.

What seems to have been largely lost in the coverage of the vote, the speeches that followed, or the swearing-in of the ministers was Netanyahu’s recap of the highlights of his record after twelve years in office. More specifically, it was surprising to see the underwhelming media coverage of the comments he made regarding his policies vis-à-vis the United States.

After boasting about various achievements including the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Israel’s GDP, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and signing multiple peace agreements with Arab countries. Netanyahu then turned to praise the Trump Administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the relocation of the American embassy from Tel-Aviv, the recognition of Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights, and a change in the legal definition of settlements in the West Bank. But then Netanyahu did something quite remarkable: he decided it was politically beneficial for him to mock Bennett’s ability to protect Israeli’s national interest by openly embarrassing and bashing the Biden administration.

It is no secret Netanyahu was a staunch and vocal opponent of the Iranian nuclear deal and during the speech, he claimed the Biden administration recently asked him not to express his opposition in public but rather discuss his objections confidentially. Netanyahu then said he flatly rejected the request and divulged the exchange he had with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin who visited Israel in April to discreetly discuss any differences about the American intention to reenter the Iran nuclear deal and the steps to be taken afterward.

Holocaust analogies

Moreover, Netanyahu justified the decision to expose his disagreements with the Biden administration by referencing what he described as Franklin Roosevelt’s refusal to bomb the railways leading to the concentration camps or blow up the gas chambers in such camps, a refusal that, Netanyahu argued, could have saved millions of Jews. “Our voice was not heard among the nations. We had neither a state nor an army,” Netanyahu told the members of the Knesset, “But today we do have a voice. We do have a state, and we do have defensive power.”

Once again Netanyahu employed his favorite set of WWII-inspired historical analogies: Iran as the modern incarnation of Nazi Germany and the Iranian nuclear program as the contemporary manifestation of the Final Solution leading to the Jewish Holocaust. What was especially unprecedented was that this time it was US President Joe Biden who was assigned the role of the appeaser of the Iranian regime and, by extension, the ultimate culprit in the possible extermination of the Jewish people should Iran develop nuclear weapons. From Netanyahu’s perspective, accommodating the Biden administration’s request to keep any disagreements private and address them behind closed doors was akin to allowing the continued extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust.

During the last decade, Israel growingly became a partisan issue in American politics and Netanyahu bears the lion’s share of the blame for this regrettable outcome. In the last four years, Netanyahu fully aligned himself with the Republican Party and former President Donald Trump specifically. In June 2019, for example, Netanyahu pushed to approve in the Israeli cabinet the establishment of a new settlement in the Golan Heights named Trump Heights honoring the President’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over that territory. In August 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Israel as part of an official visit to the region and recorded his personal address to the Republican National Convention with Jerusalem in the background. Netanyahu relentlessly worked to help Trump get reelected during the presidential election and used this relationship to benefit his own political campaigns to stay in power.

If the White House has been trying to wait until the political imbroglio in Israel is resolved, and maintain some decorum despite the ideological differences between Biden and Netanyahu, such inflammatory comments were certainly the last straw. For as long as Biden is in office, Netanyahu will be a persona non grata in the White House whether he remains in the opposition or manages to miraculously win back the Prime Ministership.

But beyond the fate of Netanyahu, who was possibly consumed by his political failure to form a coalition government under his leadership despite numerous attempts, it seems the former prime minister allowed his personal feelings to overshadow what might be a genuinely legitimate disagreement with the American administration. Use of the Holocaust analogy to vilify the new American administration, however, was nothing but a scorched earth tactic. It did not resolve the fundamental disagreement between the United States and Israel with regards to the Iranian nuclear deal nor did it help to reestablish Israel as a bipartisan issue in American politics. Furthermore, it revealed the scale of US-Israeli disunity and embarrassed President Biden and his team personally.

In sum, it was the act of a disgruntled politician who deliberately wanted to sabotage the ability of the newly formed Israeli government to engage the American administration and gain the necessary public support to withstand the geostrategic challenges the two countries will undoubtedly face in the future.

About the Author
Dr. Ilai Z. Saltzman is a Professor of Israel Studies and the Director of the Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a board member at Mitvim – the Israel Institute of Foreign Regional Policy.
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