The latest buzz in Israel concerns a recording of a phone conversation in which Sara Netanyahu reportedly reprimands the wife of one her husband’s critics and says: “If Bibi had been born in America, he would have easily been the President of the United States today.” She exaggerates, of course, but not by much: Netanyahu could have easily been the Republican candidate for President, though for the job itself he might have to fight.
Mrs. Netanyahu’s stipulation, recorded last August, was corroborated this week by Public Policy Polling which found that Netanyahu’s favorability ratings among Republican voters – 57%- are higher than any of the current presidential hopefuls and lower only than those of the party’s last president, George W. Bush. Netanyahu, who has already been dubbed “the Republican Senator from the Great State of Israel”, was anointed in several articles – some mockingly, some adoringly – as the current frontrunner in the Republican race for the President.
After all, besides his coincidental birthplace – and his triple marriage, perhaps – Netanyahu is an almost ideal Republican candidate: he’s white, he’s eloquent, he’s experienced and he’s conservative, or at least he keeps his liberal positions to himself. He’s a true disciple of Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down free-market economics and an avid adherent of Bush’s gung-ho, go-it-alone defense policies. He is a firm believer in American exceptionalism, is adequately tough-minded and suspicious of Iranians, Palestinians and most other Muslims and he comes to the fight against ISIS with the title of “Mr. Terror” already established. No less importantly - and unlike presidential wannabes - Netanyahu won’t have to curry favor with Republican financier and kingmaker Sheldon Adelson: he’s got that corner covered already.
But what really makes Netanyahu into a special Republican hero is his ongoing confrontation with their least favored President, Barack Obama. Senior Republican leaders might mock Obama, insult him or try to block his way, but none of them has succeeded in humiliating Obama or angering him in the same way that Netanyahu has during their joint six years in office. And none of these Congressional leaders or Presidential hopefuls has come close to confronting Obama head-on, blatantly and publicly for the entire world to see, as Netanyahu will on Capitol Hill next Tuesday: not John McCain or Mitt Romney, not John Boehner or Mitch McConnell, not Ted Cruz or Rand Paul. Only Bibi.
For many Republican voters, especially those who are the hard core nucleus of the party, Netanyahu's speech to Congress is a cause for celebration. Obama, after all, isn’t a president whose honor needs to be maintained despite political differences: there’s something different about him, dark and sinister and ominous. 70% of Republicans don’t believe that Obama loves America, just as Rudy Giuliani claimed. 54% are convinced that deep down inside, he’s actually a Muslim, as another poll found. Their hatred for Obama hasn’t abated despite his second consecutive victory in 2012: on the contrary, theirs is a seething resentment that longs for revenge. Netanyahu this week is their knight in shining armor.
Thus, because of the flagrant and unabashed nature of the affront to Obama and because of the knowledge that Netanyahu either concocted, at worst, or collaborated, at best, with Boehner’s shameless political ploy, because of the sparkle in their eye, the drooling from their mouths, the clear cut Schadenfreude that Republicans won’t even try to disguise on Tuesday – because of all these combined, the Democrats find themselves in a bind, their hands tied, their distress signals clear and succinct for all to see. Most of them, it seems, will attend Netanyahu’s address and may even join in the applause, but they will be doing so halfheartedly, against their better judgment. They will know that by doing so they will be contributing to the taunting of Obama, to the utter disregard of his wishes, to a sort of political hazing which is, in many ways, unprecedented indeed.
Thus, despite the harsh criticism and the blatant attacks directed at Netanyahu in recent days, the worst is yet to come. His address in Congress, even if its oratory eclipses Netanyahu’s already formidable rhetorical record, will be, for some, an uncomfortable and suffocating affair. The Republicans will be energized and enthused, for sure, but many Democrats are bound to feel anguished, even nauseous, especially Jewish Democrats in Congress, along with millions of Jewish voters around the country, those who voted overwhelmingly for Obama not once but twice, despite widespread misgivings about his commitment to Israel and contrary to the clear preferences that Netanyahu made no effort to hide.
The Jews will have a hard time coming to terms with this Republican triumph. Jews are the most liberal group of voters in American, the most ardent supporters of everything that ideological Republicans despise, from black voting rights to immigration reform, equality for women, separation of church and state, abortion rights, gay marriage and what have you. Many Jews will find it hard to swallow that the prime minister of their beloved Israel, which many of them have spent a lifetime supporting, is the instrument of their rivals’ great victory and their party leader’s defeat.
It is these Jews – the 28 Democratic Senators and Members of Congress, the scores of wealthy Democratic donors, the legions of Jewish political activists up and down the party echelons and the 60%-90% of Jews who have supported Democratic presidential candidates for the past century – it is because of them, no less than any other factor, that bipartisan support for Israel has endured. Sure, there are shared values and strategic interests, but it is the Jews, more than anything else, that have prevented the Democratic Party from following in the footsteps of similar minded political parties throughout the world. They have held the fort, despite the growing disaffection from Israel among young Democrats and minority voters: their mission has never been easy, but it may have now become impossible.
A taboo has been broken on harsh criticism from the administration and bitter complaints from Congress: things that were unheard of only a few weeks ago are being uttered with increasing frequency and ferocity. They are endangering the continued existence of what one might describe as the fragile cognitive dissonance of many Democrats that allows them to live in peace with what seems to be an inherent contradiction between the liberal and minority rights they hold dear and their unquestioning support for an Israel that sees no end to occupation or settlement and in which democracy is under constant assault.
Netanyahu’s recent moves, especially when he steps up to the podium on Tuesday, could jolt Democrats into a sudden realization that the prime minister of Israel is clearly standing on the other side of the political fence, with their American rivals. Their loyalty to Israel might suddenly entail a disloyalty to their party, to its leader and to themselves.
Most observers don’t foresee any effect of the speech on the fate of the Iranian nuclear deal, with the possible exception of removing a Congressional obstacle from its path; it’s also far from clear whether the speech will have any influence, on way or another, on cynical Israeli voters. But the ramifications of the speech for American, Congressional and Jewish support for Israel might only materialize fully in the long term. What can be diagnosed with near certainty is that we are dealing with severe trauma and with a wound that will be hard to heal – especially if it is Netanyahu who will be called upon to provide the cure.
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