The Year of Bill and Bibi

Whatever others may say of it, Jewish history will surely record 1998 as the Year of Bill and Bibi. It was a split-screen, slow-motion cliffhanger of a year, part soap opera, part science fiction. Plotline: the political hara-kiri of two of the world’s most promising, most disappointing politicians.

Of course there are other things to remember from 1998: a world economic crisis, mass murder in Kosovo, chaos in Russia, Saddam Hussein’s defiance, El Niño’s havoc, all that rain, all those home runs, no more “Seinfeld.”

For Jews, though, the twin meltdowns of President Clinton and Prime Minister Netanyahu remain the singular and central drama of the year. What happened was not just the separate humiliation of two leaders, but something larger: the meltdown of politics in the two democracies where most of the world’s Jews happen to live.

Through it all, the American Jewish community had almost nothing to say about it. After generations of struggling to help build the Jewish state, and to remake America as a nation where Jews could live in freedom, the organized Jewish leadership fell strangely silent as those two nations were wracked by leadership convulsions of historic scale. Few wanted to take sides in Israel’s agonies. No one, with the sole exception of the American Jewish Congress, saw a Jewish issue in America’s constitutional crisis. It was a year of falling leaders in America and Israel and no leaders in Jewish life.

This is no joke. “Sooner or later Jews will look at this community that demands their loyalty, and see that it has nothing to say about the most important issues of the day, and they’ll wonder why they should bother,” says Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

The Year of Bill and Bibi began and ended with state visits. Netanyahu was en route to Washington in January when the world first heard of Monica Lewinsky. Clinton was en route to Jerusalem in December when the House Judiciary Committee voted on his impeachment. His appearance in Gaza two days later, blessing Palestinian national aspirations while Israelis watched in disbelief, was the beginning of Netanyahu’s end. Netanyahu had lost America. But then, so had Clinton.

Just a few years back, Clinton and Netanyahu were being hailed as bright newcomers cut from a single mold: beguiling Baby Boomers, the first of their generation to lead their two countries. Both were scandal-prone outsiders, charming rogues with an uncanny knack for rebounding. Pundits predicted a special rapport when they first met, just after Netanyahu’s election in mid-1996. In short order they were at each others’ throats, sharing little beyond mutual loathing.

By the end of 1998, they shared much more. Both teetered on the edge of political oblivion, undone by their own arrogance and their opponents’ relentlessness. Both were victims of an eerily similar phenomenon: a small, determined, right-wing minority, imposing a political agenda — removal of the president, freezing the peace process — that was adamantly rejected by a clear majority of the public. Both nations were helpless to stop it. Both leaders failed to get it.

Both underestimated the power of the forces arrayed against them. Clinton evidently thought he could make his Lewinsky problem go away by denying it. Netanyahu evidently thought Clinton’s problem, however long it did last, would relieve the pressure on him for concessions.

Both were wrong. Clinton couldn’t slow the Republican drive for impeachment. Netanyahu couldn’t make the peace process stand still. Both sank ever deeper into their respective problems as the year progressed.

The loathing Clinton stirred among his foes would remain a mystery to him and the nation, even as the Senate was preparing to try him for his low crimes. House Democrats speculated that Republicans hated him for coopting their agenda. Senate Republicans explained it as revenge for Bork, or Nixon. House Republicans insisted they were driven by simple concern for the rule of law. But these were the same House Republicans who named an airport after a president who ran an illegal war out of the White House basement, financed by selling arms to Iran. And lied about it.

Whatever the reasons for the loathing, even Clinton’s backers shared it by the end. His habit of campaigning as a liberal and governing as a conservative left everyone feeling betrayed. The constant odor of scandal, his repeated lies, his nominating of aides and abandoning them — all left him virtually friendless at the end. His allies defended him only because of who his enemies were. “Nobody up here can stand him anymore,” said an aide to one House Democrat on the eve of impeachment. “That’s his trouble.”

As for Netanyahu, his troubles were built into his election platform, which simultaneously opposed the Oslo peace accords and vowed to uphold them. He led a mismatched coalition, half pro-Oslo, half anti. To preserve it he talked both and did neither. Eventually nobody believed him.

Netanyahu’s strategy for holding together his pro- and anti-Oslo flanks rested on proving the Palestinians didn’t truly want peace. His tactic was to pose conditions they could never accept: a too-small 13 percent redeployment, a reduction in terror, final annulment of the Palestinian covenant. To his dismay, the Palestinians kept meeting his terms. In the end he ran out of hoops to put them through, and could no longer avoid choosing sides. So he called elections.

What happens next hardly matters. Clinton probably will survive. So may Netanyahu. If they fall, others will replace them.

In the final analysis, what matters is the force that trapped them. Both were caught in the ever-widening cultural rift that divides their two nations, each in its own way.

In America the faultline is lingering resentment over the legacy of the 1960s counterculture, which Clinton came to embody in the eyes of the right. In Israel it is continuing rage over the abuses of past Labor governments, which Netanyahu exploited but could not control. In both countries a timid, exhausted liberalism faces a religious-led right that is passionate in its absolutism and disdainful of compromise.

If the rage and absolutism continue, they will make these two countries — the two places where Jewish history is now located, for better or worse — all but ungovernable.

And that is indeed a Jewish issue.

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.