I find myself wondering if Bibi Netanyahu is completely out of control.
I have followed the Prime Minister’s career for decades, met with him often, and despite disagreements, have always been an admirer. He is tough, savvy, and knows America and American Jewry. In innumerable speeches I have said, “No Israeli politician understands America as well as Bibi Netanyahu.”
Events of the last month have therefore left me in a state of stunned disbelief. The cardinal rule of American-Israel relations is that neither country interferes in the national elections of the other. Yet Mr. Netanyahu has inserted himself into the American election campaign, with predictable and catastrophic results.
American Jews are scratching their heads in puzzlement and distress. Important elements of the pro-Israel constituency have been angered. And Israel’s ability to win the support she will need to combat the Iranian threat has been diminished.
Precisely because Netanyahu knows America so well, it cannot be said that this was unintentional. Bibi Netanyahu knows what happens when the Prime Minister of Israel speaks out in the midst of a heated American Presidential election; he knows that if he rebukes the American administration, making his displeasure a public affair and suggesting that the actions of America are immoral and irresponsible, his remarks will create a firestorm with unmistakable electoral implications.
For that reason, I keep waiting for the Prime Minister to limit the damage. As an American Jewish leader dealing with religious crises between Israel and America, I found that Mr. Netanyahu did not usually resolve these crises but was masterful at diffusing them. He would find a conciliatory vocabulary that would stress common values and offer words of reassurance to all sides. But I see no evidence that Netanyahu understands the need to do the same now. In his recent interview in the Jerusalem Post, he had many opportunities to say clear, positive words about the American administration; and yet he chose to emphasize differences and disagreements, as he has done in other media appearances. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that so many Americans think that the Prime Minister has chosen sides.
The dangers of this approach are less a question of potential “payback” by a reelected President Obama than they are of alienating elements of the pro-Israel coalition that are confounded by what is happening. To understand the damage, one need only read the letter of Senator Barbara Boxer to Netanyahu. Boxer, who has impeccable pro-Israel credentials, expressed “deep disappointment” at Netanyahu’s remarks at his September 11 press conference. The letter expresses anger and dismay; she was, she wrote, “stunned” by the implication that President Obama was abandoning Israel, and that America was not Israel’s closest ally. It has been a long time since a senior pro-Israel politician has written such a letter.
And the fact is that many in the Democratic camp share Boxer’s views. At the Republican convention, Governor Romney did not simply criticize Obama’s position on Israel but accused Obama of “throwing Israel under the bus”—a charge that the Democrats see as groundless and irresponsible. When that charge was followed by a barrage of sharp criticism by the Prime Minister of the American government, many Democrats felt that Netanyahu was backing Romney’s accusations, and while they remained silent, they were thinking the same things that Boxer wrote.
It is important to note that I am a hawk on the threat of Iran to Israel and western interests. I believe that military action will ultimately be necessary to prevent Iran from going nuclear. This means, of course, that the Prime Minister must work hard to secure vital American and international support for such action.
But the poll data is clear: The American people do not want their government to attack Iran, or even to offer support for an Israeli attack. No matter who is elected, the next President will need to carefully build a case with the public and Congress for American military involvement. Mr. Netanyahu, with his strident, partisan approach, is making it harder, not easier, for that to happen.
My advice to the Prime Minister whom I have long admired: You are working to exploit the moment and extract a pre-election commitment that you will not get. But the day after the election, regardless of who wins, Israel’s influence will diminish, and the broad goodwill of the public and their elected representatives in both parties will be needed.
A better strategy for now: Try restraint and humility. Pull back. And no matter what, don’t do anything to lend credence to the view that you are interfering in the American election. Don’t even think about rebuking or embarrassing your American allies.
And this above all: Work on reestablishing communication and trust with American officials. If you do that, it should be possible to coordinate a joint Israeli-American position on Iran, despite the differences that now exist. Security for Israel and the Middle East requires nothing less.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.
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