Few if any national leaders were more closely allied with the disgraced US President Donald Trump, inciter of last week’s assault on the Capitol in Washington, on American democracy, than Benjamin Netanyahu.
Few if any nations would consider themselves to have been greater beneficiaries of Trump-backed policies than Israel, even though Israelis were deeply conflicted over the man now nearing the end of his White House term in such ignominy.
The implications of these two facts are already being felt, and will continue to resonate in the coming days, weeks, months and years. And not for the good.
Netanyahu nurtured his relationship with Trump — so heavily financially backed by their mutual supporters, the Adelsons — from the get-go, celebrating the anticipated volte-face from the administration of the loathed president Barack Obama.
The prime minister had openly battled Obama, all the way to lobbying against the president in the US Congress in a failed effort to prevent the US-led appeasement of Iran in the 2015 JCPOA, and resisted Obama’s efforts to strong-arm Israel into relinquishing overall security control of the West Bank. In stunning contrast, the joint efforts of Netanyahu, his key aides and like-minded empathetic figures in the Trump administration helped ensure that the 45th US president — whose direct role and interest in any of this is open to debate — withdrew from the Iran deal and presented a vision for Israeli-Palestinian peace as comfortable as anything Israel could ever expect.
Trump supplied a seemingly endless stream of further diplomatic gifts — recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy here from Tel Aviv; recognizing Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights; ending the automatic designation of settlements as illegal and the labeling of settlement goods; and latterly brokering an astonishing series of normalization accords and processes with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. The Trump administration’s positions on Jerusalem, the Palestinians and the Golan are overwhelmingly supported by Israelis. Its stance on Iran is widely backed. Its positions on the settlement enterprise likely enjoy majority backing here. The normalization process with Arab states is a cause for veritable national delight.
The administration’s policies on Israel have thus combined to help keep Netanyahu in power — with several significant steps timed to coincide with some of Israel’s endless elections — and created a complex reality in which Israelis were united or near-united in support of a range of policies determined by an individual some of them mistrusted and were personally appalled by.
As of last Wednesday, when Trump inflamed the assault on the US Capitol, and continued to indulge it even as the deadly consequences became clear, that complex reality became immensely more problematic. Israel’s White House ally is a figure of shame, and all who have celebrated associating with him are at risk of being stained.
Netanyahu was wary enough to avoid the trap Trump set for him during October’s surreal “happening now” Oval Office broadcast of the phone call in which the US president, our prime minister and the leaders of Sudan announced normalization. (“Do you think Sleepy Joe would have made this deal? Somehow, I don’t think so,” the president asked the prime minister. Netanyahu, nonplussed and seeking to avoid a partisan response, replied carefully, “Well, Mr. President, one thing I can tell you. We appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America, and we appreciate what you’ve done enormously.”)
But in an America where the very notion of bipartisanship has faded rapidly these past four years, the US president and the Israeli prime minister made it all too easy for Israel to be redesignated as a partisan cause — a nation repeatedly embraced by a Republican president where it had been obsessively critiqued by his Democratic predecessor, in a shift delightedly highlighted by Netanyahu, the only Israeli leader with any resonance in the US.
Given his longevity in office, few know better than Netanyahu that the US political pendulum swings, and yet the prime minister appeared to give little thought to the consequences of his gushing alliance — the consequences for relations with subsequent Democratic administrations, the consequences of that diminished bipartisan support, the consequences for Israel’s ties with the US Jewish community, well over two-thirds of which remains staunchly Democratic.
Until last Wednesday, Netanyahu may have reckoned the situation was salvageable. He may have been betting on a second Trump term, but he would also have calculated that he could forge a workable relationship with Joe Biden, a far more conciliatory figure than Obama. The incoming president is less likely to suffer from Obama’s insistent blindness to the dangers of seeking to mollify and buy off the ayatollahs, and has a wider understanding of the complexities of peacemaking with the Palestinians.
But the Trump-fueled insurrection at Capitol Hill has left Netanyahu near-frozen — for all we know he may yet have been awaiting US military action against Iran, or further normalization breakthroughs — and with his attention focused elsewhere. He is preoccupied with overseeing Israel’s world-leading vaccination drive, a project that our HMOs and healthcare workers are implementing with extraordinary efficiency, and one that the prime minister believes can help finally lift him to a definitive election victory in March after three near-defeats. And he patently remains unwilling to so much as hint at distancing himself or Israel from his now-notorious partner.
The prime minister who waited long hours before congratulating Biden when his presidential victory was called two months ago, and then did so without specifying what exactly he was congratulating Biden for, again waited long hours last week before condemning the “disgraceful… rampage” in DC, and did so without referring to the circumstances in which it had occurred. Not only did he make no reference to Trump’s role in the affair, but he took pains, in remarks issued by his office in a second press release shortly afterward, to jarringly praise Trump “for all you have done and are doing for peace” in our region.
Netanyahu’s rivals are cautioning that he risks leading Israel down the very same road down which Trump has led America. That the likes of Yair Lapid, on the center-left, warn that the prime minister is destroying Israeli democracy is nothing new. That his own former close colleagues are abandoning his Likud party to challenge him over this issue most certainly is.
His most potent rival, Gideon Sa’ar, warned on Saturday night that when leaders dispute election results and batter the institutions of the state — seeking to discredit “everything from the president to the police to the Central Elections Committee,” as Sa’ar charged Netanyahu has done relentlessly — people draw dangerous conclusions and democracy is imperiled. (Netanyahu might yet manage to fend off the growing array of rivals on March 23, or he might be defeated. Our electoral choice, it would appear, will be between a serial batterer of Israeli democracy, and hawks like Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett who are vowing to protect our democracy but would undermine it by other means, including annexing large portions of the West Bank and “reforming” our judiciary.)
Netanyahu has long styled himself as the leader not only of the Jewish state but of the Jewish people, the head of a near-miraculously revived sovereign nation that has developed the protective power millions of Jews fatally lacked 80 years ago. Time and again, he has invoked the Holocaust when issuing warnings to a sleeping world leadership against the rapacious ambitions of the ayatollahs in Tehran, and vowed to utilize all means necessary to thwart them.
But after scenes replete with overtly anti-Semitic participants and signals, after events celebrated by the enemies of freedom worldwide, and not least by the enemies of Israel who scent opportunity amid superpower weakness, the usually articulate Netanyahu has managed only vague and perfunctory censure and concern.
It was Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Austrian-born son of a volunteer member of the Nazi party, who issued the most chilling warning in the wake of last week’s DC horrors. The former Republican governor of California described Wednesday as the “Day of Broken Glass right here in the United States,” and recalled that the rise of the Nazis “all started with lies, and lies, and lies, and intolerance.”
Schwarzenegger was pleading for America to right itself, pleading for tolerance, hearing the echoes of history. Netanyahu — who eulogized his own father by recalling that Benzion Netanyahu saw the Holocaust approaching but was powerless to prevent it, and vowing to learn his father’s lesson to “face reality head-on” — has had nothing of significance to say. Israel’s prime minister, the would-be leader of the Jewish people, has busied himself with other matters, constrained by his alliance with a president he has never dared to challenge, much less upbraid.
And we as a nation, partnered for four years in a complex relationship with a president we passionately loved or loathed, and from whose policies we overwhelmingly believe we benefited, are all a little silenced too. A little damaged. A little weakened.
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