New Yorker editor David Remnick put his finger on an important aspect of the current U.S.-Israel relationship, overlooked by most observers, that contributes to the current tensions between the two governments. In his Comment piece in the magazine’s current issue, Remnick writes that for all the pride Israeli leaders take in their grasp of American politics, “some right-wing members of the Israeli political élite, along with some ordinary Israelis, often seem to derive their most acute sense of Barack Obama from Fox News and the creepier nooks of the blogosphere.” The cartoon image many Israelis have of the president laid some of the groundwork for the blowup, he writes.
This month’s diplomatic drama, which was set off during Vice-President Biden’s visit by the announcement of sixteen hundred housing units planned for Ramat Shlomo, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, reached its sad nadir last week, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother-in-law, Hagai Ben-Artzi, declared on Israeli radio that Obama was an “anti-Semite.” No one, not even Netanyahu, should be denied his right to an idiot relation, but the remark is less readily dismissed when one recalls reports (later denied) that the Prime Minister himself has referred to David Axelrod (whose West Wing office featured an “Obama for President” sign in Hebrew) and Rahm Emanuel (a civilian volunteer in the Israeli Army during the first Gulf War) as “self-hating Jews.” The Netanyahu government suffers from a troubling degree of instability, thanks to its far-right coalition partners (including its bigoted foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman) and its ineptitude. The insult to Biden, an ardent Zionist, was just the most recent blunder, following the humiliation of a resident diplomat from Turkey (Israel’s closest friend in the Muslim world) and of the Brazilian President, to say nothing of its presumed role in the assassination of a Hamas military leader on the soil of one of the few open-minded countries in the region. The professionals in Washington and Jerusalem share sufficient diplomatic agility to paper over this latest unpleasantness, but the memory of the trivial-seeming aspects of the dispute—the affronts, the lacerating phone calls—obscures a more unsettling pattern: a deep Israeli misreading of the President and an ignorance of the diversity of opinion among American Jews and in the United States in general.
He might have thrown in the recent editorial in the Shas party organ Day to Day (see my post, below) in which Obama was brandede an “Islamic extremist.”
There’s more to be said about this. Netanyahu’s misreading of Obama is of a piece with a longstanding tendency among Israeli elites, Likudniks and Laborites alike, to rely on the hard-line wing of America’s pro-Israel community for their intelligence on American political thinking. It’s just one more bit of havoc wrought by the neocon stream of American Judaism.
Watch for more such mischief-making as the AIPAC policy conference unfolds in Washington this week.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).