Lawrence Rifkin

Yes, Bibi, Israel is a banana republic. Watch out for the peel

The first time I heard an Israeli leader deny that Israel is a “banana republic” was late in 1981, when prime minister Menachem Begin dressed down US ambassador Samuel Lewis during a private meeting.

“Are we a vassal state of yours? Are we a banana republic?” Begin was said to have angrily stated.

A dramatic orator if there ever was one, the Israeli leader was miffed that the Reagan administration had sanctioned Israel following a Knesset vote undertaken at the instigation of Begin’s government to annex the Golan Heights, the strategically valuable northeastern plateau seized from Syria during the 1967 war.

Private though the meeting may have been, the Prime Minister’s Office gleefully revealed in an official statement what it said were Begin’s remarks, firmly introducing into the nation’s political lexicon a term to be hauled out again and again by future officials equally miffed by Washington’s interference, real or imagined, in Israel’s affairs.

“Banana republic” has become such a go-to retort, in fact, that I’ve lost count of the times Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his political associates have speedily reached for the term when annoyed by the Biden administration – which is to say as often as someone with hay fever lunges for a Kleenex in the spring.

Sometimes I get it. Like last month, when Majority Leader Charles Schumer said it was about time Israelis voted Netanyahu out of office. He said this from the floor of the Senate and not during a coffee klatch with constituents in a Park Slope parlor.

His sentiments I agree with. The venue from which he uttered them? Not so much. That made the swift-to-come retort “banana republic” sound pretty apt.

What’s strange, though, is that no one of any importance has, to my knowledge, ever called Israel a banana republic. But if a lot of people have come to view the country as being akin to some sleazy and corrupt rat hole in steamy Central America, you can definitely blame Bibi.

Since Israel let loose in the Gaza Strip in the wake of the horrific October 7 massacre and spree of rape, hostage-taking and looting by Hamas, many of Israel’s friends have begun looking at it askance, whether over the wide swath of destruction in the coastal enclave, the steep death toll or the resulting humanitarian disaster.

These friends include Biden. His administration has consistently been a bulwark of support for Israel. This continued even when the president – on numerous occasions – made it clear that he is no fan of Netanyahu, who pieced together the most right-wing, anti-Arab government in Israel’s history solely for the purpose of fortifying his political survival in light of his ongoing corruption trial.

Biden’s initial response to October 7 – verbally and in terms of implementing immediate policy – was probably the most heartwarming and encouraging that Israelis have witnessed amid a dire emergency and feelings of deep uncertainty and helplessness. Yet in the interim, the president’s empathy and supportive grit have made way for cold impatience over Netanyahu’s conduct of his anti-Hamas campaign, whether it’s the prime minister’s continuing threats to flatten what remains of Gaza, his hinderance of humanitarian aid or his refusal to clarify his plans for the “day after.”

Bibi is notorious for avoiding crucial decisions. He generally prefers to kick the can down the road lest it threaten to ruin the glory with which he’d like history books to recall him. Yet now, with his continued leadership based on the support of far-right, hate-filled messianic zealots who see an opportunity to bulldoze the Gaza Strip and resettle Israelis, his political and diplomatic meanderings have taken him far, far off the road.

Everything positive has been squandered by a prime minister alarmed at his plunge in domestic popularity and the prospect that his fascistic coalition partners will up the ante for sticking with him. But what makes Israel the very banana republic he repudiates is his tendency to play tough and loud for his immediate political survival only to quietly cave to Washington’s demands once Biden blows his stack.

Were he to listen to the frenzied entreaties of allies and find a way to mollify them, even if only through compromise – and even if only for the optics – it would be far better than antagonizing them just to end up knuckling under to their demands once he remembers how much he needs them.

Banana republics almost always do what their powerful patrons tell them to do. So I ask you, Bibi: Why alienate your patron and others like him when, at the end of the day, you’re only going to do what they say? Why set yourself up to slip on the peel? Those history books will only portray you as having fallen flat on your ass.

About the Author
Lawrence Rifkin is a retired Israeli journalist.
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