How Netanyahu won America and lost Israel
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is as much American as he is Israeli. While other Israeli leaders have made a strong relationship with Washington a cornerstone of their politics, Netanyahu’s political style was essentially American from the start.
Netanyahu spent many of his formative years in the US and opted to live there, not Israel, following his studies. Presumably for family reasons — namely the death of his brother Yonatan — Netanyahu returned to Israel in 1978 to head the anti-terror Jonathan Institute. This did not last long. He went back to the US in 1982 and served in diplomatic posts until 1988. At this time, Israel was ruled by a coalition government that saw the rotation of two prime ministers, Labor leader Shimon Peres and Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir. Back then, these parties’ names meant very little to most American politicians. The US Congress was, seemingly, in love with Israel. For them, Israeli politics was a mere internal matter. Things have changed in the years since, with Netanyahu playing a major role.
Even in the last three decades, when Netanyahu became more committed to Israeli politics, he remained, at heart, American. His relationship with the US elites was different from that of previous Israeli leaders. Not only were his political ideas and intellect molded in the US, he also managed to generate a unique political brand of pro-Israel solidarity among Americans. In the US, Netanyahu is a household name.
One of the successes attributed to his approach to American politics was the formation of deep and permanent ties with the country’s burgeoning Christian fundamentalist groups. These groups, such as John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel, used support for Israel as a point of unity and a stepping stone into the world of politics. Netanyahu used them as reliable allies that, eventually, made up for the growing lack of enthusiasm for Israel among liberal and progressive circles across the US.
The start of this Israel-evangelical connection may have seemed, at the time, like a masterstroke that could be attributed to the political “genius” of Netanyahu. Indeed, it looked as if he had guaranteed American loyalty to Israel indefinitely. This assertion was demonstrated repeatedly, especially as the fundamentalists came to Israel’s rescue whenever it engaged in war or was faced with any threat, whether real or fabricated.
As American politics shifted toward more populist, demagogic and conservative ideologies, the evangelicals moved closer to the centers of power in Capitol Hill. Note how Tea Party conservatism, one of the early sparks of the chaotic Trumpism that followed, was seemingly madly in love with Israel. The once-marginal political camps, whose discourses are driven by a strange amalgamation of messianic predictions and realpolitik, eventually became the base of President Donald Trump’s support. Trump had no option but to make support for Israel a core value in his political campaign. His base would not have accepted any alternative.
A prevailing argument suggests that Netanyahu’s mortal error was making Israel a domestic American issue. Whereas the Republicans support Israel — thanks to their massive evangelical constituency — the Democrats have slowly turned against it; an unprecedented phenomenon that has only existed under Netanyahu. While this is true, it is also misleading, as it suggests that Netanyahu miscalculated. In fact, Netanyahu had fostered a strong relationship with the various evangelical groups long before Trump pondered the possibility of moving to the White House. Netanyahu simply wanted to change the center of gravity of America’s relationship with Israel, which he accomplished.
For Netanyahu, the support of the American conservative camp was not a mere strategy to garner support for Israel, but an ideologically motivated choice, linking his own beliefs to American politics using the Christian fundamentalists as a vehicle. This assertion can be demonstrated in a recent headline in the Times of Israel: “Top evangelical leader warns: Israel could lose our support if Netanyahu ousted.”
This “top evangelical leader” was Mike Evans, who last week declared, while speaking in Jerusalem, that “Bibi Netanyahu is the only man in the world that unites evangelicals.” Evans vowed to take his 77 million followers to the opposition of any Israeli government without Netanyahu. Much can be gleaned from this but, most importantly, that US evangelicals consider themselves fundamental to Israeli politics; with their support for Israel being conditioned on Netanyahu being in power.
In recent weeks, many comparisons between Netanyahu and Trump have begun surfacing. These comparisons are apt, but the issue is slightly more complex than merely comparing political styles, selective discourses and personas. Actually, both Trumpism and Netanyahu’s doctrine — call it “Netanyahuism” — have successfully merged US and Israeli politics in a way that is almost impossible to disentangle. This will continue to prove costly for Israel, as the evangelical and Republican support is clearly conditioned on its ability to serve the US conservative political — let alone spiritual — agenda.
Even in the last three decades, when Netanyahu became more committed to Israeli politics, he remained, at heart, American.
The similarities between Trump and Netanyahu are obvious, but they are also rather superficial. Both are narcissistic politicians who are willing to destabilize their own countries to remain in power, as if they both live by the French maxim, “Apres moi, le deluge” (after me, the flood). Both also railed against the elites and placed fringe political trends — often marred by chauvinistic and fascist political views — center stage. They both spoke of treason and fraud, played the role of the victim, posed as the only possible savior, and so on.
But popular political trends of this nature cannot be wholly associated with individuals. Trump and Netanyahu tapped into, and exploited, existing political phenomena. The painful truth is that Trumpism will survive long after Trump is gone and Netanyahuism has likely changed the face of Israel, regardless of Netanyahu’s next step.
Whatever that next step may be, it will surely be situated in the same familiar base of Netanyahu’s angry army of Israeli right-wing zealots and Christian fundamentalists in the US and elsewhere.
- Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. Twitter: @RamzyBaroud