Labor MK: Netanyahu Is Playing With Fire in the U.S. and Leaving Scorched Earth Behind Him

Venture capitalist Erel Margalit decries the PM’s bleak address to Congress and his talk of a Gog and Magog war with Iran.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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MK Erel Margalit campaigns with Zionist Union co-leader Tzipi Livni.
MK Erel Margalit campaigns with Zionist Union co-leader Tzipi Livni.Credit: Moti Milrod
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a dark and stark address to Congress that played to people’s primeval fears and celebrated them – this is the bleak review of Labor MK Erel Margalit who took part in this week’s annual AIPAC Conference in Washington DC.

Margalit defines the current state of U.S.-Israeli relations as nothing less than "catastrophic." He claims that the deterioration at the top between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama is causing "serious damage" to Israeli security and is being felt in many other areas of the relationship - including some that he is dealing with as head of a Parliamentary Task Force on Development of the Negev and the North.

“I'm sitting with American administration and former administration officials on all sorts of regulations that are needed to enable American cyber companies to take certain projects and to operate in the park we set up in Beer Sheva. This could bring work to 30,000 Israelis. I know it's possible, but you need approval from the administration because there are projects that they are afraid of taking out of America,” Margalit says.

“But in our talks this week,” he adds, “the atmosphere was very difficult, and this is an issue that has no connection to politics. ‘There is a lot of tension in the air,’ we were told. ‘This is not the time for testing new things.’”

Margalit, considered by many to be Israel’s top venture capitalist, says “Israel and the U.S. do a lot of things together but right now there is no trust and no confidence for the kind of joint consultation and behind the scenes dialogue that’s really needed. We stand outside the American circle and outside the circle of world leaders, not only on Iran but on many other issues as well.”

Margalit believes that Netanyahu insulted American lawmakers in his speech. “I think what happened to [Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi happened to a lot of people in Congress on Tuesday,” Margalit said. “Israel has been working with the Americans for many years on security challenges in the Middle East, on Iran, on Hezbollah, on Yemen, on Syria, and yet there was this subtext of 'let me tell you something you’re not aware of' which was, as Pelosi said, an insult to the intelligence. It's okay to talk like that to the general public, which may not know as much, but there was a condescending element when you're talking to people who sit on all the relevant committees and who have been talking to Israelis on these matters for many years.”

Margalit faults Netanyahu for failing to present constructive proposals on Iran in particular and on the Middle East in general. “There was no effort to find a common denominator for the continuation of the nuclear talks and there was no alternative vision to a nuclear Iran in a nuclear Middle East. Why didn’t he mention the new atmosphere in the Middle East, the fact that other countries are fighting extremist groups? After all, Egypt is fighting Al-Qaeda and Jordan is fighting ISIS, and the Gulf countries and Morocco and others are fighting extremist elements – that doesn’t mean anything?”

“Why wasn’t there any ray of light in his speech to AIPAC? And why not a word about the Palestinians, if not an actual solution then at least a presentation of an Israeli leader with a vision? Why present yourself only as someone preparing himself for a war of Gog and Magog with the Iranian arch enemy?”

Margalit was less impressed than others with the warm reception accorded Netanyahu in Congress. “Israel is very popular in Congress, and Netanyahu is a good speaker and is very knowledgeable about American politics, and the pro-Israel lobby, which was in town, has a lot of influence; any prime minister from Israel would be received with pats on the back and applause.”

“But I also saw coolness from many of the benches, both Democrats and Republicans. I saw people who could hardly believe their ears, with a look on their face that said – why are you being so patronizing?

"It’s okay to bring Elie Wiesel,” Margalit says, referring to the tribute Netanyahu paid in Congress to the author and Holocaust survivor – but there was someone else that you should've pointed to: Sheldon Adelson. He was sitting there. Maybe he was the one responsible for all of this event more than anyone else.”

Netanyahu intervened in internal American politics and left “scorched earth” behind him, Margalit adds. “Instead of uniting the Republicans and the Democrats on the Israeli issue you tore them apart. You humiliated the president. You did all sort of things that are none of our business – and this when it’s clear to everyone that you are playing on your own Israeli political field.

“I met with about 30 congressmen and had closed meetings with all sorts of people, some of whom I'm working on with on all sorts of projects, as well as past and present administration people, and the most amazing thing was people asking me whether this relationship was the worst between a president and an Israeli prime minister since 1948. It was a very telling question.

“This challenge to the U.S. president and the office of the presidency is unacceptable and inconceivable for loyal Jewish Americans, even if they are loyal to Israel as well. Netanyahu is playing with fire. It’s as if, knowing he is going to lose in the elections, he is now behaving like the biblical Samson who cried, 'Let me die with the Philistines.'

“What's missing in America,” Margalit says, reverting to unabashed campaign mode, “is an alternative voice of a central Israeli leadership that doesn't take things to the right-wing extreme. We can’t be perceived as being manipulative. What our dialogue with the U.S. needs is a shot of modesty; we should be talking to the U.S. like a senior partner, not like one you’re trying to attack. We have to rebuild the goodwill that we lost, not only with America but with European countries as well. And we need to talk to the entire Jewish community, not just to one part of it. It’s critical to the Jewish people, and it’s critical for Israeli security.”

But to do all that, of course, they first have to win the elections on March 17.

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