How Badly Has Bibi Misread U.S. Politics?

Netanyahu took an ugly path to reelection. Does he understand how it will cost his relationship with the U.S.?

By Nathan Pippenger

It must have felt like sweet vindication, to stand before an audience of cheering American politicians while the president and his staff sat stewing just a mile away. Perhaps, when Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress earlier this month, he saw strength and power where many saw desperation and a striking breach of diplomatic protocol. The unprecedented step of an opposition party inviting a foreign head of state to the U.S. to criticize the president—in the middle of sensitive diplomatic negotiations—might have convinced Netanyahu that his contemptuous treatment of the White House was working perfectly. What other foreign leader could go over the head of the president in this way and be rewarded with an invitation to address the U.S. Congress, in the very same space where the president himself stands to deliver the State of the Union? If Bibi was looking for proof that he was merely damaging his own relationship with Obama, not his country’s long-term relationship with the U.S., this might have been it. And it might also help explain why he felt safe, in the final days of his campaign, to make racist appeals to his base while rejecting outright the possibility of a Palestinian state while he is in office.

These are the actions of a politician who feels, with respect to his own voting public, either emboldened or desperate. But either way, Netanyahu’s behavior reveals a costly misreading of American politics. His rejection of the two-state solution is causing not just shock and dismay, but stark reevaluations of the U.S.-Israel relationship, on the U.S. center-left. His admission of present intransigence and past bad faith will strengthen Palestinian statehood efforts at the UN, where the U.S. is threatening to back away from its traditional staunch support for Israel. Perhaps Netanyahu is betting that the White House, worried about political fallout at home, will shy away from that step. If so, he should be chastened by the appalled reaction, in centrist as well as left-wing American outlets, to the way he won reelection—as well as by growing evidence that younger Americans are more sympathetic to Palestinian complaints, and more skeptical of Israeli policies, than older generations have been. Imagine how those trends will accelerate when Israel’s own head of state is publicly rejecting the two-state solution and encouraging settlement expansion.

If he is on the verge of losing the American left, alienating the American center-left, and generating almost unheard-of skepticism of Israel among American centrists, there is one other possibility: that Netanyahu thinks the future of Israel’s relationship with the U.S. lies with the American right. If this is his gamble—and it increasingly seems to be—then Netanyahu’s reading of American politics may turn out to be not only cynical, but catastrophic. The bellicose, short-sighted allies he will find there will never be mistaken for credible brokers of a peace deal. They will encourage the worst instincts of the Israeli right. They will only hasten its alienation from the new generation of American voters. And in a few decades, when demographic realities catch up with Israel, they will have played handmaiden to a new kind of state: neither Jewish nor democratic, no longer especially closely tied to the U.S. (or any world power), and still not at peace.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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