Benjamin Netanyahu: The new Republican hero

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just won a startling re-election by linking his fate not to the United States as a whole, but to the U.S. Republican Party.
March 26, 2015

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just won a startling re-election by linking his fate not to the United States as a whole, but to the U.S. Republican Party. Risking opprobrium for alienating President Barack Obama as well as Israel’s international support, he nevertheless bet the house on uniting a militant right in Israel with an already mobilized American conservative movement. He ran to the right, not to the center. Netanyahu is now a Republican hero.

All the while, the White House and Democrats had quietly hoped that a center-left coalition would oust Netanyahu. Had Israel’s center left been victorious in Israel’s March 17 election, it would have bolstered Obama’s domestic case for a negotiated deal with Iran and would have made it more difficult for Republicans to portray him as anti-Israel.

To a degree never before seen, Israeli politics is now integrated into American politics. It is almost impossible to predict where this will lead, but it is well worth consideration. No other nation shares this kind of relationship with the U.S. Consider, by contrast, how little interest Americans are currently showing in the closely contested electoral battle between Labor and Conservatives in the United Kingdom. Does it really matter for American foreign policy which party wins?

The attention so many Americans devoted to last week’s Israeli elections is certainly a testament to how intimate the Israel-U.S. relationship is now, for better and for worse. It is also due very specifically to the deep affinity and connection between right-wing political parties in the two nations. (England’s conservatives are quite liberal by the standards of the American Republican Party and therefore unlikely candidates for a political marriage.)

An Israeli election these days, especially for Republicans, is starting to seem like a domestic political bellwether, much like an American off-year gubernatorial election in a major, closely watched “purple” industrial state. Say Wisconsin. Republican Scott Walker wins re-election by running a hard-right campaign for governor that mobilizes his conservative base, not by reaching out to the center. Winning this way in a state that normally votes Democratic makes Walker an instant hero to Republicans and a serious candidate for his party’s 2016 presidential nomination.

There’s lot of pundit commentary about how “irrational” this hyper-partisan path is as a political strategy, because it turns off the “center.” But a strategy can be unreasonable without being irrational. It is certainly working for Walker. In a system like ours — historically made up of two soft, flabby parties — when one tightens up and becomes unified, aggressive and mobilized, it can be very successful, at least until the other party wakes up and becomes itself less soft and flabby.

In following the Walker model, Netanyahu is now a Republican hero and may well become the most revered Republican leader since Ronald Reagan. He will certainly be more popular and more uniting among Republicans in the U.S. than among the people he serves in Israel, where he remains a divisive figure. And because he is not actually running for office here, he won’t be subject to careful ideological scrutiny in Republican politics.

To a degree never before seen, Israeli politics is now integrated into American politics. It is almost impossible to predict where this will lead, but it is well worth consideration. No other nation shares this kind of relationship with the U.S.

Republicans have suffered for years from a shortage of political heroes; since Reagan, they haven’t had one. I can easily imagine Netanyahu campaigning openly for the Republican ticket in 2016 — from the presidential candidate down to congressional and state races. He could appear in campaign commercials paid for by Sheldon Adelson, a deep-pocketed American funder of conservatives in both Israel and the U.S. whose Adelson’s Israeli free newspaper, Israel
HaYom is heavily pro-Netanyahu. Explicit cross-national partisanship worked for Netanyahu in 2015, despite dire political predictions to the contrary. The barrier already had been crossed with his speech to Congress. House Speaker John Boehner and a delegation of congressional Republicans are heading to Israel this week for a hero’s welcome.

Netanyahu’s embrace of the Republican Party dovetails well with the Republican imperative to move the American political debate away from domestic issues, on which Democrats may soon enjoy a decisive edge in a strengthening economy and in the wake of successful health care reform. Republicans already have begun trying to center the 2016 election around foreign policy and terror threats. Just as Netanyahu moved his own nation’s debate away from talk of income inequality and other shaky domestic ground to focus on foreign policy and security, he can help Republicans do the same in the U.S.

There will be tactical lessons from the 2015 Israeli election. Don’t be surprised when, the week before the 2016 presidential election, if the polls look good for the Democrats and they sit on their lead, the Republicans warn that “buses are bringing (fill in the blank) to the polls” in order to mobilize white voters or say that terror threats are imminent. Both resemble Netanyahu’s last-minute appeals in 2015.

Netanyahu also certainly will try to break the Jewish link to the Democratic Party by arguing that he alone represents Israel on the world stage and that Jews who support Democrats are not supporting Israel. Republicans will enjoy watching Democrats struggle to hold together their multiracial coalition, which is very supportive of Obama and deeply resents Netanyahu’s approach. We don’t know how many Jews will move right in response to these appeals or whether Jewish Democrats will respond in angry defense of their party.

Democrats will have to be better prepared for these developments than the Israeli left was. A militant party that unites the American and Israeli right is very formidable. Many Democrats continue to believe that positive polling on issues and an image of “reasonableness” can combat a passionate, united, angry and mobilized conservative movement. Republicans in the United States and conservatives in Israel are, by contrast, building electoral strength by uniting and mobilizing their base.

There are, however, weak links in this tight conservative alliance. Conservative foreign policy leaders, including Netanyahu, brought us the disastrous Iraq war, and some are making noises about starting another one with Iran. Voters are much more supportive of “strength” than of actual war. Democrats could argue that we listened to these people the last time and look at the mess the Iraq war created. Why should we listen to them this time? (This is one way Hillary Clinton might deal with the problem of having voted for the Iraq war.) Of course, Democrats will have to avoid being drawn into an election season that focuses only on foreign policy and neglects the domestic issues that are their ticket to victory.

For their part, Israeli voters may decide one day that tying their nation’s fate to an enraged American political party whose stance is in total opposition to and disrespectful toward a U.S. president who won two electoral majorities and actually directs foreign policy may not work outside the hermetically sealed binational right wings.

By tying himself to the Republicans, Netanyahu risks blocking Israel from gaining ground with the rising multiracial generation of Americans who, inevitably, one day will play a major role in America’s relationship with Israel. They are not as easy to reach with Israel’s story as today’s Republicans, but it may be unwise to give up trying.

Finally, what will happen to this political alliance if the Republican base realizes how socially liberal, cosmopolitan, scientifically sophisticated, and only moderately religious much of Israel is? Right now, Republican voters likely see Israel just as a symbol of the approach they support in the world, but this comes at the cost of not knowing the diversity of opinions and worldviews within Israel itself. I doubt Netanyahu will choose to enlighten them on this front.

Hoping that one party in another country has the answers is not completely the province of Netanyahu and the Republicans. Obama and the Democrats may find that tying U.S. policy in the Middle East to the electoral success of a center-left coalition in Israel is a weak reed on which to rely. Any peace agreement in the Middle East requires more than one coalition; it will require a greater comfort level among the broad swath of Israelis. Just because Netanyahu has painted himself into a partisan corner doesn’t mean the Democrats have to. The real test will be America’s ability to win the trust of at least some of those Israelis who do not support the center left.

To see another path, we have only to look back at how Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Tory Prime Minister Winston Churchill managed to overcome ideological differences over domestic politics to forge the relationship that saved the world from the Nazis during World War II. Their collaboration proves it isn’t necessary to have a partner in another nation whose political views mirror one’s own.

In fact, agreements often have a better chance of lasting if leaders from different political camps can join together across nations. The price of such a successful relationship is giving up the pipe dream that any leader can or should control the internal politics of any other nation, let alone one with which a productive alliance is sought.

All electoral results are transitory. Although political struggles within both Israel and the United States are going to continue, our common interests still may overcome domestic fluctuations in power bases. The electoral victory of either the left or the right confers only momentary standing to speak for the nation.

Israel can elect and re-elect Netanyahu, but this hard-won election also suggests that the voters might sooner, rather than later, knock him out of office. Obama’s two election victories followed the two-term George W. Bush, and who knows who will win the U.S. presidency in 2016? In just two years from now, there could be a Republican in the White House working with Netanyahu’s opponents in power in Israel.

I spent a semester teaching in France during the 2008 American presidential election. Europeans told me that they had been shocked by past U.S. presidential races — not that Bush won in a disputed 2000 election but that voters had with full knowledge of him re-elected Bush in 2004. Many Europeans were also extremely skeptical that this same nation would elect the first African-American president just four years later. I thought: “It’s the same country!” America is neither red nor blue. We’re purple, and if you are going to love America, you have to love all of our political colors.

The same goes for Israel. Like us, it’s purple — we are both passionately divided democracies, but tied together in an unbreakable family pact. Elections come and go, but national affinities like ours with Israel must outlast the twists and turns of domestic politics.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.

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