Regardless of who is sworn in as president next January 20, Israeli-American relations are headed for a period of profound uncertainty. We’ve been so focused on debating whether and how Barack Obama gets along with Israel that we’ve completely overlooked a more important question: Can Benjamin Netanyahu can get along with the United States?
The question might sound frivolous, but it’s very serious. Netanyahu has served as prime minister opposite two presidents, Obama and Bill Clinton, both Democrats. Relations with both were terrible. What’s not clear is whether things would work any more smoothly if he faced a Republican president. Were Bibi’s strained ties with Clinton and Obama a product of his ideological and partisan leanings, and likely to ease if Romney’s team retakes the White House? Or are they expressions of his famously chest-thumping, confrontational political persona, hard-wired into him regardless of whom he’s facing?
It’s hard to know. For all the glib talk about his “speaking fluent Republican,” he’s never been tested in a real-time working situation. What we do know is that some of his nastiest confrontations with the White House in the past have involved gratuitous provocations of the sort he’s famous for in Israel — the kind of behavior that’s unremarkable in bare-knuckle domestic political infighting but remains decidedly non-standard in international diplomacy, especially for a small country dealing with its closest ally and protector.
The most notorious of these was Netanyahu’s visit to Washington in January 1998 to meet President Bill Clinton and strategize Israel’s ongoing negotiations with Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. Arriving on Monday evening, January 19, hours after Clinton’s humiliating deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case, Bibi went straight to the Mayflower Hotel for a religious-right rally sponsored by televangelist Jerry Falwell.
Falwell was known as one of the leading purveyors of anti-Clinton conspiracy theories, to the point of peddling a video, “The Clinton Chronicles,” which accused Clinton of drug-running and complicity in the supposed murder of former aide Vince Foster. As Bibi entered the Mayflower ballroom and strode up to the dais that night, Falwell greeted him as “the Ronald Reagan of Israel,” to rowdy applause and cheers from the audience. Falwell was later quoted saying it “was all planned by Netanyahu as an affront to Clinton.”
That’s the sort of thing you do if you’re trying to outmaneuver a domestic political foe. It’s not the way you behave in dealings with foreign nations. For Bibi, though, Washington has never been a foreign capital. His forays into American domestic politics are the stuff of legend, from his finger-wagging rebuke of Obama during a White House press briefing to his numerous strategy meetings with leaders of the congressional Republican opposition to his nervy appointment of an American emigre as his ambassador in Washington. He treats Washington as an extension of his domestic political arena. In turn, he actively encourages Republicans to treat Israel as their own domestic political asset.
It’s not hard to see why he’d behave this way, given Israel’s outsize profile in American politics, not to mention his own comfort and familiarity with American society and culture. But the familiarity isn’t reciprocal. Washington, on both sides of the aisle, views him as a foreign leader, and not a particularly tactful one. Republicans value him as a useful foil to prod the Democrats, and many of them adulate him as a leader in their global crusade against Bad Guys. But no one mistakes him for an American, certainly not for a fellow Christian conservative. As for Democrats, they tend to loathe him, if for no other reason than because he makes them look bad on the Israel issue.
Compounding the uncertainty is Netanyahu’s new alliance with Avigdor Lieberman under the merged Likud-Beiteinu banner. Lieberman is regarded in nearly all corners of Washington as a bully and a racist. He’s so radioactive that despite holding the title of Israeli foreign minister, he’s been a virtual non-person in the capital for the last four years. Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, has acted informally as his country’s chief diplomat. The prime minister’s office has bizarrely treated the foreign minister’s periodic outbursts about Arabs, Mahmoud Abbas, peace and more as the ravings of a crazy uncle, unrelated to Israeli government policy. That won’t be so easy now that Lieberman is number 2 in Netanyahu’s political organization.
That’s assuming, of course, that Netanyahu is reelected, which isn’t guaranteed. Israelis go the polls on January 22, two days after America’s Inauguration Day. Current surveys show the Likud-Beiteinu ticket winning between 36 and 41 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. That’s enough to guarantee that Netanyahu is tapped to form the next government, all things being equal.
But things aren’t equal. The alliance with Lieberman is expected to drive numbers of Sephardic and Orthodox to bolt the Likud. Bibi’s most popular young minister, Sephardic social-justice activist Moshe Kahlon (KACH-lon), announced October 12 that he was quitting politics, only to show up two weeks later as a possible spoiler. He’s rumored to be mulling a possible re-entry at the helm of a new, social justice-oriented party. Polls show him winning 20 seats on his own and 26 if he joined forces with former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni.
Moreover, former prime minister Ehud Olmert has yet to decide whether he’ll enter the race on a peace platform that could unite the disparate opposition factions. Recent polls show he would pose the most serious electoral threat to Netanyahu. As of this writing, Olmert is said to be waiting for the results of the American election. Unlike certain other Israeli leaders, he wants to sure he can get along with the incoming administration.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).