Obama Was Half Right. Netanyahu Is Richard Nixon, After All

Netanyahu-as-Nixon has never been more evident than in the days following the election. But will he go all the way?

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

On a visit to Cairo in June, 2009, a newly inaugurated Barack Obama urged a newly elected Benjamin Netanyahu to follow in the footsteps of another acknowledged hardliner, and to use his rightist credentials to make a landmark peace with a longtime enemy of key importance.

Voicing hope that Netanyahu would recognize the "strategic need" for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, Obama told reporters: "In some ways, he may have an opportunity that a Labor or more Left leader might not have. There's the famous example of Richard Nixon going to China. A Democrat couldn't have gone to China. A liberal couldn't have gone to China. But a big anti-Communist like Richard Nixon could open that door. Now, it's conceivable that Prime Minister Netanyahu can play that same role."

Nearly four years later, it turns out that Obama was half right. Benjamin Netanyahu has, in fact, shown himself to be Richard Nixon. Only, not the one who went to China.

Just as Nixon had many faces, Netanyahu has donned one Nixonian aspect after another, wearing a number of them in succession over the brief campaign and over his last four years. He began, as Nixon did, with his party's version of the House Un-American Activities Committee, seeing dangerous leftists under every rug and behind every criticism. Like Nixon, Netanyahu at once fostered and kept a cautious formal distance from the Murderers Row of McCarthyism - now conveniently available in one compact package, the Likud-Beiteinu of David Rotem, Yariv Levin, Ze'ev Elkin, and rookie sensation Moshe Feiglin.

As Nixon did, Netanyahu took a deeply polarized society and divided it further. This was the Nixon of hard hats, of an idealized past, present and future, sanitized for our protection. This was the Nixon who did the bidding of big wealth. This was the Nixon whose supporters related to their country's shortcomings, inequalities and injustices with one simple adage: Love It Or Leave It.

And there was the Nixon of Watergate, the incumbent who ran for re-election virtually unopposed, and still could not keep himself from dipping into a bag of cheap tricks – tricks which, in the end, would sap his support and undermine his power. And it's not over yet. His reliance on the disgraced, oddly amateurish, but still omnipresent aide Natan Eshel, is only the latest example of the Nixonian pattern of Watergate-style management.

Netanyahu, like Nixon, is an anomaly among politicians. He is not naturally sociable. There is something painful and distant in his one-on-one encounters. He is not good in a crowd. Ill at ease, his vision and his people skills narrowing by the year, he is distrustful not only of those who vote against him, but also those who vote for him.

But he is a political engineer. He knows where the significant levers are, and how they work. More than that, there is something about the loneliness he gives off, the fact that he keeps his counsel and none other – except the caustic worldview of his family - that keeps allies afraid of him, even as they can't wait to unseat him.

Netanyahu-as-Nixon has never been more in evidence than in the days following the election. Shellacked at the polls, Netanyahu summoned reporters to what amounted to an emergency news conference the day after the voting. It lasted all of a minute and a half. The election results showed a “clear message,” he declared, that “the public wants me to continue to lead the country.”

For a man somewhat less Nixonian, this week's cabinet meeting, the marking of International Holocaust Remembrance Day could have been a point of departure for introspection, for dealing with the widespread neglect of Holocaust survivors in Israel, or with vicious new expressions of racism.

But Netanyahu would have none of it. The lesson of the Holocaust, he told the cabinet, was standing up to Iran and Syria. End of story. He was prepared to do that because he was not prepared to stand up to the expressions of brutal racism in his political home court - the fan base of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, which he had prominently featured and celebrated in a past election campaign.

For the Nixon of Israel, there was no historical lesson in the fact that one in four holocaust survivors in the Jewish state is living in privation and critical need. It didn't fit the narrative of economic boom and prosperity for all. Especially when the current Minister for Senior Citizens, who said not a word about this, is Benjamin Netanyahu.

Not one word. Because, being the Nixon of Israel, he was too busy, too important, too much the global leader to deal with such things. But if this is how he sees himself, is there any hope that Obama's prediction will yet come true, and Netanyahu will pull a Nixon-in-China with the Palestinians? The real question may turn out to be, who is Netanyahu's real model – an issue alluded to by Amos Oz in a recent conversation with columnist Roger Cohen: “Who ever expected Churchill to dismantle the British Empire, or De Gaulle to take France out of Algeria, or Sadat to come to Jerusalem, or Begin to give back the whole of Sinai for peace, or Gorbachev to undo the whole Soviet bloc?”

Richard Nixon in 1973. Credit: AP
PM Benjamin Netanyahu waving to supporters, January 23, 2013.Credit: AFP

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