So now Lindsey Graham has called Bibi Netanyahu to congratulate him on his great victory and to reassure him that Congress will be passing its gimlet eye closely over any deal the Obama administration strikes with Iran. This news comes hard on the heels of John Boehner’s announcement that he suddenly feels moved to go visit Israel.
I can’t begin to conceive what these people are thinking. What does Netanyahu think he’s accomplishing by making Israel a right-wing cause? Does he really think this is how he saves Israel? Does he forget that this is a country in which 70 or 80 percent of Jews vote Democratic? Did he not see the recent poll that had his approval rating among Democrats at 17 percent? I see here that last November in a J Street poll, his approval rating among U.S. Jews was 53 percent. I bet after this past month, they’re down in the low 40s or high 30s.
Netanyahu knows this country. He lived here—high school in Philadelphia, college in Boston, and a stint in New York (when he was Israel’s UN ambassador, during the Reagan years). He knows our political culture. He understands what a radical-right party the GOP is becoming, and thus he presumably understands that the vast majority of U.S. Jews are never going to be able to vote Republican, whatever the two parties’ Israel lines. He knows full well that the perfervid support for Israel in evangelical-right precincts has far less to do with love of Jews than with hatred of Arabs, or, for many, the belief that Armageddon in the Middle East means Jesus is coming.
He knows all this as well as most senators and congressmen. So why does he persist in making Israel a Republicans-first issue, and for that matter why do Republicans do it too?
Well, it’s not hard to figure why Republicans are doing it. It’s partly about Barack Obama, and the visceral loathing of him among their base; the Muslim Other-ing of Obama and all that. But they clearly must think this is going to get them more Jewish votes at the presidential level. They think back to Ronald Reagan’s time. In 1980, Reagan got 39 percent of the Jewish vote, against Jimmy Carter’s 45 percent (independent candidate John Anderson got the rest). That’s as close as a GOP presidential candidate has ever come to winning the Jewish vote since Israel became a state. (Amusing side note: In 1948, the year of Israel’s creation, the Republican candidate, Tom Dewey, did worse among Jews at 10 percent than left-wing third-party candidate Henry Wallace, who polled 15 percent; Harry Truman got 75 percent.)
But there’s no remotely Reaganesque figure on the horizon. And anyway, by 1984, things were back to normal—Walter Mondale, even as he was getting pasted by Reagan overall, won 67 percent of the Jewish vote. And more to the point, as I noted above, this Republican Party is not the Republican Party of Reagan’s time. That was a conservative party that still had a large number of old-line moderates, like senators Charles Percy and John Heinz. Today’s party is far more right wing than that one was. Very few Jews are going to vote for a party like that—especially against a Clinton, if Hillary is the Democratic nominee, but in fact against pretty much anyone.
So that’s what they’re thinking, farkakte as it is. But this doesn’t explain Netanyahu. He truly believes that a nuclear Iran is an existential threat, fine. But that doesn’t explain this behavior. If he truly believes that about Iran, then the logical, self-interested thing for him to do, especially knowing that most Jews are loyal Democrats, is to get as many Democrats in Congress as possible to choose his point of view over Obama’s. Given AIPAC’s muscle and the traditional pro-Israel posture of most Democrats in Congress over the years, that should not be a heavy lift.
But instead he does the opposite. Recall that about a month ago, he pointedly refused to meet with Senate Democrats. Dick Durbin and Dianne Feinstein, who invited him, were obviously tossing him a lifeline, saying to him: However bad your relationship with Obama, come square things with us, and we’ll still have your back. But no. He said he feared it would look partisan, you see, because his speech to Congress, well, that was bipartisan! Once you’ve entered the Hall of Mirrors, it can be hard to find your way out, I guess.
It’s one thing to alienate Obama (and Obama, to be fair, has done his part to sour the relationship as well). But it’s quite another to alienate rank-and-file American Jews, and still another to alienate Democrats in Congress. Not an easy trifecta to hit, but he is managing it.
If he can’t see the consequences for his country, he’s just a madman. Let’s just say hypothetically that the Obama administration follows through substantively on spokesman Josh Earnest’s astonishing comments last week about the potential policy implications of Netanyahu’s pre-election comportment. Let’s say, for example, that the United States decides to stop blocking a vote at the United Nations on recognition of a Palestinian state. Right now, about 135 nations recognize Palestine. Very few Western European countries are among that number. Many of them withhold their support simply or mainly for the sake of not crossing the United States.
Once we signal that we won’t block a vote, the map of nations that recognize Palestine will presumably expand across Europe rapidly. The British and French have worked on the proper resolution language. As it happens, the Arab League is meeting this weekend in Sharm-el-Shiekh, and you can be sure that its officials are alive to this reality. And so Netanyahu might lose Western Europe, and then he’ll come crying to Washington, and it might be too late.
Strange way to save a country.