After vote, Pyrrhic victories for both Netanyahu and Obama
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Analysis

After vote, Pyrrhic victories for both Netanyahu and Obama

The PM's defense of his Election Day rhetoric doesn’t quite fit the facts, but the US president's offensive doesn’t exactly match reality either

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacts to exit poll figures late on March 17, 2015 in Tel Aviv (photo credit: AFP/MENAHEM KAHANA)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacts to exit poll figures late on March 17, 2015 in Tel Aviv (photo credit: AFP/MENAHEM KAHANA)

A week after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clinched the election, it’s increasingly looking like he may have lost something important when he won in the hard-fought battle for a fourth term.

Netanyahu managed a victory large enough to ensure a right-wing coalition without meaningful ideological or political gaps among its members, a relief after the experience of his last government, which was fractured by widely divergent views.

But his opponents won a kind of victory as well, handed to them by Netanyahu’s own campaign strategy, in which he may have been too savvy for his own good.

It is the White House, though, and not the Zionist Union party that has worked the hardest to capitalize on Netanyahu’s missteps, though the Americans’ strategy may turn out to be faulty as well.

In the wake of Netanyahu’s warning on Election Day that “Arabs are turning out in droves,” the prime minister’s defenders have insisted that Netanyahu was not race-baiting, but rather conveying a simple political fact: Arabs do not generally vote for the right, and higher turnout among leftists and Arabs meant the right’s continued rule was in danger.

Netanyahu’s comment was clumsy, his defenders acknowledge, but certainly not racist, they contend.

The only problem with that defense is that the “droves” comment came from one of the most politically savvy and careful politicians Israel has ever known, a man far too sensitive to have failed to notice that he was warning about “Arabs” exercising their right to vote rather than, say, “leftists” or “anti-Zionists,” with whom one might disagree on substantive questions.

More importantly, these were not off-the-cuff remarks; they were delivered in a prepared speech in a crucial moment in the campaign. And this reporter was among the millions of Israelis who received the following text message from the Likud campaign on Election Day: “Three-fold [increase in] voter turnout among the Arabs! The fear is becoming real: [Abbas’s] urging and American funding is bringing the Arabs to the polls. Go vote!”

Another text received by this reporter from Likud quoted a news report according to which “Hamas is calling on Arabs in Israel to go out and vote!”

An Arab Israeli girl casts her mother's ballot at a polling station in the northern Israeli town of Umm al-Fahm on March 17, 2015. (photo credit: AFP / AHMAD GHARABLI)
An Arab Israeli girl casts her mother’s ballot at a polling station in the northern Israeli town of Umm al-Fahm on March 17, 2015. (photo credit: AFP / AHMAD GHARABLI)

In other words, Netanyahu’s remark was backed by a nationwide text messaging campaign that lied brazenly to its voters — we now know Likud had no information showing a three-fold increase in Arab turnout, which in any case would be a mathematical impossibility — and consciously sought to link the notion of Israeli Arabs voting with Hamas.

It was a carefully considered choice, not a “Hebraism” or “poor choice of words,” as some have argued.

In his campaign for the far right, Netanyahu grasped that “Arabs” played more powerfully as a bogeyman — and he was right, considering the apparent rally in right-wing turnout in the last hours of Election Day.

The strategy wasn’t simply race-baiting; Netanyahu linked Arab Israelis’ politics to Palestinian politics, essentially telling Israelis that Arab votes are a front in the conflict with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu’s insistence in the days that followed that he was not warning about Arabs voting as such, but about organized, foreign-funded get-out-the-vote drives, simply fails to account for the actual content of Likud’s statements and the obvious organization invested in the effort.

A similar problem faces Netanyahu’s defenders when it comes to his pre-election comments on the Palestinian state. Netanyahu did not, they point out, rule out Palestinian statehood outright.

If one carefully parses what he said, and compares it with the conditions he has long demanded for any future Palestinian state, there are ways to bridge his previous declared commitments and his electioneering statements.

A fake Hamas member in a Likud ad accused of comparing union workers to terrorists. (Screen capture: Ynet)
A fake Hamas member in a Likud ad accused of comparing union workers to terrorists. (Screen capture: Ynet)

In a pure semantic sense, that is true, but again it ignores the most salient factor in the equation: Netanyahu himself.

Netanyahu knew what he was doing. He was trying to convince Jewish Home voters to vote Likud, and thus attempted to sound as though he was rejecting Palestinian statehood outright. That was the entire point behind making such a statement.

And so Netanyahu’s defense fails to convince, because he clearly intended to be misunderstood in the very way some of his defenders now claim he was misunderstood.

These observations are not left-wing attacks on the prime minister. Jewish Home voters were the target of this last-minute rhetorical blitz, even if its content referred to Israeli Arabs.

The latter found themselves bluntly shunted aside from the Israeli body politic by the sitting prime minister; the former were lied to on the issue most fundamental to their political identity — at least if Netanyahu’s post-election pseudo-retractions on the Palestinian state are to be believed.

The White House goes to town

It is significant that the Israeli left, beyond some unimpressive press releases, has failed to act on this rhetorical slipperiness, Netanyahu’s only real weakness in this week of victories.

There were no conferences, no marches, no political theater at all. Just one week in, the likely opposition has already fallen asleep.

This is a failure for the left, if only because its showing in the election, particularly in voter turnout, was so much better than in the recent past.

The left’s greatest strategic error in this election may have occurred the day after the vote, as it became clear that it had fallen short, as it failed to push convincingly a narrative of dramatic rehabilitation to a despairing base that could sustain their enthusiasm and set the stage for further gains.

Instead of Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog, the first to take advantage of Netanyahu’s verbal acrobatics was the Barack Obama White House.

Washington’s rhetoric about Netanyahu has been carefully constructed.

In his phone call with the prime minister, the president reaffirmed his absolute commitment to US-Israel defense cooperation — not for Netanyahu’s sake, of course, but because it is a key plank of America’s strategy for Mideast stability — and then set about overturning nearly every accepted principle in the US-Israeli treatment of the Palestinian issue.

Denis McDonough speaking at the J Street Conference in Washington on March 23, 2015. (Screen capture: YouTube)
Denis McDonough speaking at the J Street Conference in Washington on March 23, 2015. (Screen capture: YouTube)

The White House’s message: Israel has been occupying another people for almost five decades; Israel’s prime minister cannot tell his voters one thing and the world another; when it comes to Palestinian aspirations, America will not side with an Israel whose intentions America finds immoral.

There’s no doubt to some that the escalation of the crisis over the Palestinians is meant to weaken Netanyahu’s hand as a critic of the impending Iran deal. And there is little doubt it draws at least some of its impetus from the administration’s deep-seated personal animus toward Netanyahu (which is mutual).

In that sense, the Palestinians are once again being played cynically on the world stage by powers that do not really intend (or more importantly, know how) to achieve their independence.

But it isn’t just that. Israel’s story is too close to American politics and religion, to the identity of American Jews, to the two-century-old tradition of American Protestant Restorationism, even to the Founding Fathers’ sense of what the new America was to become, for American politics to ignore.

Much of the White House’s engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian issue in recent years has actually worked to undermine the administration’s position.

But it has all been authentically felt, driven by ideals and a sense of engagement and responsibility for Israeli behavior that, for good or ill, is rooted in America’s deep history.

It is hard to now offer a convincing argument, from the Obama administration’s perspective, for it not to launch a full-bore assault on Netanyahu over the Palestinian issue. The president wants it, and there aren’t any obvious downsides for him.

Well, there is one small downside, and it has a lot to do with the reason Netanyahu won last week’s election.

Prime Minister and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu seen with Likud member Miri Regev during a visit at the Jerusalem Mahane Yehuda market on March 9, 2015. (photo credit: Flash90)
Prime Minister and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu seen with Likud member Miri Regev during a visit at the Jerusalem Mahane Yehuda market on March 9, 2015. (photo credit: Flash90)

Israeli voters don’t actually like Benjamin Netanyahu personally. He lives lavishly in a country with growing income disparities (tens of thousands of dollars spent on sushi for his residence, charged to the taxpayer, won’t be forgotten so quickly).

He’s been on the job for six long years, and many people, including on the right, are simply tired of seeing his face. But Netanyahu has one quality with irresistible appeal to many Israelis: he’s a skeptic.

He thinks the Islamic State terror group and Hezbollah and Iran and Hamas can’t be negotiated with, can’t be “contained.” They must be resisted and fought or they will expand and destroy ever-growing parts of the region.

Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi agrees. Whenever they are asked off-camera, so do the Saudis, the Jordanians, and other Arab autocrats.

And Netanyahu doesn’t believe it’s safe to withdraw from the West Bank. Israel withdrew from South Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005; both are now enclaves of non-state Islamist groups that have sacrificed their own peoples’ well-being on the altar of their unending war against Israel.

A withdrawal from the West Bank will see the same outcome, a large majority of Israelis tell pollsters.

As the Middle East gradually grows more distant in the American popular psyche, because America is slowly but steadily withdrawing, it is growing more dangerous and more frightening in the Israeli psyche — in part because of the sense that America is withdrawing, and that America’s traditional stabilizing role isn’t being shouldered by anyone else.

So Israelis voted for the skeptic, right-wing hawk who says bluntly and publicly that things are bad in the region, rather than for the left-wing leaders who continue to urge faith in the ability of Palestinian politics to reciprocate Israeli territorial withdrawals with peace.

US President Barack Obama, March 19, 2015 (photo credit: AFP/Chris Jackson/Getty Images North America)
US President Barack Obama, March 19, 2015 (photo credit: AFP/Chris Jackson/Getty Images North America)

This strategic view of last Tuesday’s results suggests a startling conclusion: In a limited but important sense, Obama helped pave Netanyahu’s path to victory.

That is, the widespread perception of American withdrawal, engendered by the Obama administration’s belief in a minimalist use of American power abroad, is one important impetus for Israelis choosing Netanyahu’s brand of security-conscious skepticism.

It is hard to announce and then ignore a “red line” in Syria, to have none of the region’s West-aligned governments trust in America’s will to actually prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, and to prove in countless engagements America’s deep aversion to costly action in the region — and then expect regional players like Israel to put their own future security on the line to satisfy America’s moral impulses, however noble.

In other words, the Obama administration can rake Netanyahu over the coals all it wants; until it convinces the Israeli electorate that a West Bank pullout isn’t all but guaranteed to turn out the way the Gaza pullout did, Netanyahu will remain essentially untouchable

And as long as it insists on focusing on the distraction — Netanyahu — rather than the actual obstacle — the Israeli public’s conviction that its safety cannot be assured if the IDF does not control the highlands of the West Bank — it will continue to waste political capital and time on its dismayingly narrow grasp of the conflict.

That’s the downside.

And so Israel’s election may have been a momentous one after all — or at least a clarifying one. The US-Israel relationship may be “unshakeable,” but that doesn’t mean it isn’t bitter and dysfunctional.

On the Palestinian issue, the world’s focus on Netanyahu may be understandable, but Netanyahu the man isn’t the reason for his continued reelection, a fact the world, and the White House, ignores at the Palestinians’ own peril.

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