With one month to go, Netanyahu’s election manipulations
This week, Alpher discusses Netanyahu's real reasons for speaking to Congress next month; the damage the Congress speech initiative has done to US-Israel relations; whether Israel has any serious objective criticism of US policy regarding Iran, or whether it is all election hype and politics; and what message was PM Netanyahu sending the electorate last week, when he attempted to manipulate the Israel Prize for literature and weaken “leftist” trends?
Q. It now seems clear that PM Netanyahu’s speech to Congress next month has provoked enough Democrats to “circle the wagons” around President Obama on the Iran nuclear issue and ensure that Congress does not override a presidential decision on a possible agreement. Yet Netanyahu insists on speaking. What are his real reasons?
A. One involves the Israeli electorate. The other, Netanyahu’s US support base.
As we have noted in recent weeks, Netanyahu believes he can convince the Israeli electorate that security is the primary issue at stake in these elections and that he and only he can deliver security. He also energetically cultivates what we might call Israeli “security paranoia”: about Iran, the Islamic State, the Palestinians, and anti-Semitism in Europe, all wrapped in Holocaust memories. (For the most recent example, note Netanyahu’s public call to Danish Jewry to move to Israel following deadly attacks by an Islamist in Copenhagen. Netanyahu knows that his appeal has no affect on Danish Jews’ decision about where to live and only antagonizes European leaders. But by highlighting the danger European Jews face, he reinforces his image in Israel as a tough leader who looks after Jews everywhere.)
Netanyahu knows that Israelis place high value on the US-Israel relationship as a pillar of Israeli security. But he apparently believes he can persuade voters that the “real” America, as represented by Republicans, evangelicals, and AIPAC, is behind him and waiting for him to lead the campaign against a bad agreement with Iran.
Indeed, it appears that the Republican leadership and financial backers of both the Republicans and Netanyahu, like Sheldon Adelson, are by now somehow counting on Netanyahu to represent their position negating an Iran deal. In this sense, Netanyahu’s insistence on going through with the speech represents not only his message to Israeli voters but his close Republican political and financial links.
Q. Can you explain the damage the Congress speech initiative has done to US-Israel relations?
A. We have already learned that the administration is now limiting the information on the Iran negotiations that it passes on to Israel lest Netanyahu manipulate and misrepresent it for his political purposes. But this is the tactical tip of the iceberg. The way the congressional speech was concocted behind the back of the administration and Netanyahu’s ongoing insistence on speaking have almost certainly inflicted substantive damage to the two countries’ “special relationship”.
For one, Netanyahu, through his highly political ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, has willingly humiliated the president of the United States. Secondly, rather than ride above the fray of American politics, Netanyahu has allowed Israel to be exploited by House Speaker John Boehner to drive a wedge between Republicans and Democrats and between Congress and the administration. Thirdly, Netanyahu is damaging the credibility of the pro-Israel lobby, spearheaded by AIPAC, which has always prided itself on its capacity to work with both Democrats and Republicans.
Finally, Netanyahu’s behavior is further alienating the American Jewish liberal majority. When Anti-Defamation League head Abraham Foxman calls on Netanyahu to cancel his congressional speech, you know the mainstream, which usually offers Israel uncritical knee-jerk support, has been alienated by his behavior.
Q. Does Israel have any serious objective criticism of US policy regarding Iran, or is it all election hype and politics?
A. That’s the sad thing about this affair. Mainstream Israelis, including many who do not vote for Netanyahu, have plenty of significant criticism to level at the direction the administration is moving. But Netanyahu’s politics, including gutter politics, make it difficult for them to be heard. The latest Likud clip suggests that a vote for the “left” (meaning the Zionist Camp, which is really centrist) would bring Islamic State into Jerusalem, while an extremist settler group supported by the government has actually portrayed the left groveling to serve Nazi Europeans. In this atmosphere, it’s hard to have a serious discussion about a serious issue like Iran.
Israeli nuclear experts are concerned that the US negotiating position has moved from a demand for no centrifuges to a growing readiness to compromise on thousands. The more centrifuges Iran is allowed to have and the higher the enrichment level it is permitted, the shorter its breakout time if and when it decides to produce a nuclear weapon. Israel is also concerned that, under these circumstances, Iran will be able to bypass international verification and enforcement procedures, as it has in the past and as countries like North Korea have done. Israel’s concerns over the administration’s readiness to compromise with Iran on these issues are echoed by a number of senior US statesmen. Nevertheless, it is still possible that a compromise deal with Iran would constitute an improvement on the status quo.
But why, Israelis ask, compromise with Iran? In the eyes of many, Washington is prepared to compromise because it believes that Iran could emerge as a relatively stable major power with which the US could work to manage a very troubled and unstable Arab Middle East that is increasingly characterized by dysfunctional states and extremist Islam. In so doing, Washington is ignoring Iran’s own support for Shiite or pro-Shiite extremists and Tehran’s hegemonic designs on the region, beginning with the Shiite arc of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In Israeli eyes, Washington is also ignoring the extremist camp in Tehran, led by the Revolutionary Guards and the supreme leader; it is seemingly assuming without foundation that a nuclear deal would enable the moderates to prevail in Iranian politics.
An Iranian nuclear capability or even nuclear breakout capability would seriously enhance Iran’s regional hegemonic sway. Just last week we witnessed the start of a Syrian campaign, with Iranian backing and Hezbollah muscle, to push the last moderate anti-Assad rebels out of the part of southern Syria bordering Israel and Jordan.
Israel is not alone in warning of the dangers of an aggrandized Iran. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are in the same boat. Netanyahu’s policies make it difficult for any of these warnings to be heard. It would be easier for mainstream Israeli strategic thinkers to consider accepting a compromise nuclear deal with Iran if Tehran did not appear to have a green light from Washington to expand its extremist Shiite agenda in the Levant. Some of these Israelis are already warning of an impending war on the ground with Iran--not triggered directly by the nuclear issue but rather by the gathering presence of Iran and its proxies on Israel’s northern border.
Q. Last week, PM Netanyahu attempted to manipulate the Israel Prize for literature and weaken “leftist” trends. The resultant storm caused him to back off. What message was he sending the electorate?
A. Netanyahu has long sought to champion, especially at election time, the “cause” of supposedly marginalized Israeli sectors like the religious, the settlers, and eastern Jews, against the “old Ashkenazi elite”. Here he conveniently ignores the facts: the religious settlers have already become a new elite; Netanyahu’s own trickle-down economic policies are responsible for Israel’s huge income gaps; and the only political parties really championing the cause of the lower socio-economic strata are Meretz, Shas, and the (Arab) United List. Accordingly, where better for Netanyahu to demonstrate his anti-elitist credentials than in the field of culture where, like it or not, most prominent writers, artists and experts have liberal and even far-left tendencies and are critical of the Likud and the right?
Having dismissed most of his coalition ministers in order to trigger elections, and until a new coalition is formed, Netanyahu holds the education and culture portfolios which include the privilege of appointing the judges for the prestigious annual Israel Prize. Last week he seized on the opportunity to dismiss three of the literature prize judges who had been appointed earlier by his coalition ministers. Netanyahu argued that their appointments were not balanced and that one of the judges had even advocated refusal to serve in the IDF. “Over the years,” he wrote on Facebook, “more and more radical figures, including anti-Zionists. . . have been appointed to the panel along with too few authentic representatives of other parts of the nation.” Thus, he added, “extremist judges are handing out prizes to their friends.”
It is indeed possible to make the case that on occasion the Israel Prize has been politicized and that judges are not always pluralistic enough in looking at candidates. I myself once witnessed a left-wing minister of education cherry-picking judges, then dictating to them which candidate to award a prize to. Several years ago, the State Controller issued a report suggesting that the entire award process be detached from politics, meaning from the control of ministers who appoint judges. Had Netanyahu criticized a lack of pluralism in the process a year ago, he might have been applauded. Indeed, had he noted that among the “other parts of the nation” Israeli Arabs, some 18 percent of the population, are almost never recognized for the Israel Prize, he would have been truly courageous.
But at election time? The political backdrop to his act was obvious: he wanted to whip up support from the (Jewish only) “non-elites” by bashing Israeli culture and its representatives. And the reaction was laudable: a number of judges resigned in solidarity; a number of prominent candidates for the literature prize and additional prizes withdrew their candidacy. The attorney general admonished the prime minister that his act was unacceptable at election time. Netanyahu cancelled his dismissal of the judges.
At the time of writing, most of the judges who had resigned refused to return to duty; most of the literature prize candidates refused to restore their candidacy. All agreed that, this year at least, the integrity of the Israel Prize had been hopelessly sullied.
This year’s Israel Prize winners (there are a number of other categories besides literature and cinema that were not affected by this scandal) will be honored on Israel Independence Day, April 23, in the presence of the president and the prime minister. It almost makes one wish that Netanyahu could still be prime minister then, so that he is obliged to confront the additional damage he has done to the cohesion of Israeli society.