You want to give Benjamin Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt. You prefer to assume that he knew not what he was doing, that he fell in love with his own wisecrack, as he is wont to do, and simply didn’t think things through. You want to believe that we have not reached the stage when the Israeli prime minister would wantonly detonate a stink bomb in an American president’s face, as if he couldn’t care less.
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Nonetheless, you have to wonder. You can say a lot of things about Netanyahu: Stupid isn’t one of them. So how could have gone down the route of declaring White House criticism of his government’s moves in East Jerusalem “un-American”? How could he have ignored the multiple numerous alarm bells and whistles that should have warned him to think twice and even thrice before taking this road? How could he have exposed himself to the kind of withering reaction issued by the White House yesterday, summed it up in one loaded little word: “odd.”
In other words - what was he thinking?
It’s not only Netanyahu’s presumptuousness in appointing himself the arbiter of what “reflects American values” and what doesn’t. Just try to imagine the mortified mayhem that would break out if Obama had retorted that construction in East Jerusalem that could kill off the moribund peace process is “un-Jewish” or “un-Israeli” or runs to contrary to “Jewish values.” Israeli politicians would hit the roof, American Jewish leaders would plotz all over the place and Fox News would stop its regular programming in order to foam at the mouth and run John Bolton’s inevitable call for the president’s impeachment in an endless loop.
And it’s not only that anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of modern U.S. politics – or access to Google - would know that “un-American” is a concept uniquely associated in the American psyche with Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on un-American Activities (HUAC). That anyone trying to impugn a White House for “not reflecting American values” immediately aligns himself with the worst political muckrakers in American history. That the instinctive response to such an accusation is the immortal one hurled at McCarthy by U.S. Army counsel Joseph Nye Welch on June 9, 1954: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
And we still haven’t gotten to the worst of it: How Obama is the one American president that no foreign leader should ever dare describe as “un-American.” That this is the malicious refrain of the cuckoo birthers and other crazy Obama-haters: That he was born in Kenya, and even if he wasn’t, that he is somehow alien, foreign, “un-American.” And that by stooping to such reprehensible rhetoric, Netanyahu may have burned whatever crumbling beams remained of his bridges, not only with the White House but with its senior staff as well.
And if you need to connect the dots, as they most certainly will in the president’s closest, most protective and possibly most paranoid surroundings, this the way it will go: That it is no coincidence that Netanyahu used the “un-American” analogy after hobnobbing so brazenly with Sheldon Adelson, arguably public enemy number one of the president’s Democratic Party. That this is the kind of crap, excuse me, that people who admire Adelson are wont to utter, when they think no one else is listening.
But Netanyahu was so oblivious that he didn’t keep his thoughts to himself or even to his closest surroundings. He felt the need to hit back for what may have indeed been a U.S. overreaction. First he told the Israeli media and then he repeated the odious comment for each and every Sunday morning talk show to hear. He didn’t mention Obama by name, but he nonetheless slammed the president as if he was a Tea Party brawler rather than the leader of a country with a “special relationship” with America.
Never mind that the claim itself is thoroughly ludicrous. Building in East Jerusalem or the occupation of Silwan apartments by fanatic settlers is a matter of “property rights”? Really? It has nothing to do with Israel’s stated objection of claiming Jerusalem all to itself and heading off any effort to divide it? How disingenuous can you get, without people bursting out in laughter?
The same kind of laughter that was heard in Washington when Netanyahu described his relations with Obama as those between “a couple.” A mutually homicidal couple, perhaps, like Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in the 1989 black comedy War of the Roses, one veteran observer told me. And even if they were like a couple, he added, then Obama is in court right now, asking for a permanent restraining order.
Of course, relations between the two countries are still good, even great, at most official levels, though the dysfunction at the top cannot but radiate negatively to the lower echelons. You might think, as Netanyahu perhaps believes, that this is as good as it gets, given the substantive disagreements between the two countries. You might believe, as Netanyahu perhaps does, that Obama may soon turn into a lame duck anyway, if the Republicans take the Senate in the November elections.
Still, you have to wonder: Israel and the U.S. are fast approaching a watershed moment which would test their relations even if their two leaders were getting along famously. If Washington and Tehran reach a nuclear agreement, it will take Herculean efforts to avoid a real rupture between the two governments. In light of the overriding importance that Netanyahu ascribes to preventing a nuclear Iran, you have to ask yourself how he could find it appropriate, at this critical juncture, to score such cheap points at the American president’s expense.
Perhaps, as I’ve written before, the right answer can be found in the famous fable about the scorpion that stings the frog that is carrying him across the river, drowning them both. Asked why he would do such a thing, he replied: “It’s in my nature.”