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Democrat Triumph in Virginia Is Bad Omen for Netanyahu - and the Israeli Left

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on November 7, 2017
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on November 7, 2017Credit: ARIEL SCHALIT/AFP

The election results in Virginia should trouble, if not terrify, Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s possible that between now and next November the world will turn upside down and Donald Trump will become a hero, but if not, the unequivocal Democratic win in this week’s ostensibly-marginal U.S. elections portend future dangers for Netanyahu and Israel.

After marking himself as public enemy number one of many liberals in his 2015 speech in Congress against Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, after turning his back on liberal American Jews when he thought he didn’t need them any more and after embracing the widely-despised Trump as if he was his long-lost brother, the last thing Netanyahu wants or needs is a left-wing intifada, Tea Party style, that could sweep the Democrats to victory in 2018 and to possibly retake the White House in 2020.

In his previous term in office and even more so in his current tenure, Netanyahu has placed all of his chips on the deep, religious and arguably delusional American right. His frequent clashes with Barack Obama, which Netanyahu inflated further to curry favor with both the Israeli and American right, have already crowned him as a virtual persona non-grata in the American left. Netanyahu’s unequivocal embrace of Trump, who liberals associate with incitement, racism and even anti-Semitism, places Netanyahu, in the eyes of the left, as a player, on the sidelines at least, on Trump’s all-star roster. When your ambassador in Washington DC effectively ignores the moderate left while avidly courting the radical right, it’s hard to misread the message.

The most relevant element of the Democratic sweep this week was, for our purposes, outrage, the same kind of fury that propelled the GOP in recent years to victories in Congress and in the 2016 elections. Hillary Clinton’s loss, Donald Trump’s win as well as his tumultuous first ten months in office, coupled with increasingly reactionary positions adopted by Republicans, have made much of America’s blood boil. African-Americans and Hispanics realize Trump won’t look out for their best interests, members of the LGBT community view him as an enemy, women are disgusted by him and his retrograde party and college-educated whites view the Trump Presidency as an assault on decency and common sense. Personal and collective rage sent hordes of Trump-haters to the polls on Tuesday, giving the Democrats a much-needed shot in the arm. The same wrath could eventually target Israel as well, in the not too distant future.

Roger Eatwell, a British expert on fascism and far-right movements, coined the term “cumulative extremism,” which is “the way in which one form of extremism can feed off and magnify other forms of extremism.” The pattern is familiar, in most cases, in politics and governing in general: radical movements spawn similarly extreme organizations on the other side, while an extremist government radicalizes its opposition, and vice versa. Perhaps Israel is an exception, because the government has been drip-dripping its current extremism for many years, on the back of a largely impotent Israeli left, but in the U.S. the move to extremism took place only a year ago, literally overnight, and only now, after the adrenalin shot they received from voters on Tuesday, are Democrats starting to come out from their shock. Republicans claim they felt similar distress nine years ago, when Barack Obama was elected, and felt first relief two years later, when the Tea Party retook Congress.

Trump’s extremism, in unrestrained statements and populist domestic policies, fuels radicalization in the Democratic Party. A shared anger unites moderates and radicals, paving the way for increasing influence by the latter on the former. Support for Bernie Sanders style social democracy is growing, especially among young Americans; a recent Harvard University poll found that 52% if Americans aged 18-29 do not support capitalism. Election results in Virginia, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Florida and all across the U.S. point to the enthusiasm of grass roots activists, volunteers and voters in securing the Democratic victories. If this leads to the formation of a popular movement on the American left with the stamina and perseverance of the Tea Party, it would be similarly vulnerable to adopting radical and populist positions including, even if it won’t be at the top of their list, reservations about Israel that will range from harsh criticism to open hostility.

As if objective factors over which they have no control weren’t enough, however, Netanyahu and his coalition have been working overtime to widen their rift with American liberals, Jews and non-Jews alike. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely had the audacity to whine about the regrettable cancellation of her speech at Princeton University this week, but she represents a government that is viewed by many U.S. liberals as right-wing and extremist, one that has been waging an increasingly aggressive campaign against groups and individuals that advocate boycott, not only of Israel but of Jewish settlements in the territories as well, and sometimes not even that. Add to that Netanyahu’s scandalous decision to renege on the Western Wall agreement hammered out with Reform and Conservative Jews, which has alienated many otherwise staunch liberal Jewish defenders of Israel, as well as the far-too amorous embrace of Evangelicals, which many Jews view as fundamentalist and dangerous, and you get a recipe for a deepening gulf between Israeli and American liberals. And this before we even mention settlements, occupation, lack of peace or the anti-democratic and pro-theocratic moves taken by the current government, some of which seem to align perfectly with Trump’s favorite brands of populist, nativist incitement.

Even though Trump’s current tour of the Far East has kindled faint hopes that he has learned to control himself on foreign policy at least, the left’s resentment and animosity as well as the center’s growing sense of disappointment may have passed the point of no return. Even though he seemed to be navigating as best he could between South and North Korea while flirting publicly with the President of China, American media paid little attention this week, contrary to Trump’s previous journeys abroad, an attitude that will most likely earn them a presidential reprimand similar to the ones issued by Netanyahu when the media fails to get excited over his prime ministerial tours, from Kazakhstan or Be'er Sheva. The fight against Trump is being waged in domestic trenches, on health insurance, gun control, women’s and minority rights and, most of all, in response to Trump’s brutal and often vulgar behavior. Even though no one on the left has thought of depicting Trump as the anti-Christ, as the right did to Obama - perhaps on the left the appropriate term is anti-Marx - he has become a symbol of everything that is corrupt, ugly and reprehensible in American politics. Such hostility is bound to trickle down deep, turning into a torrent that could drown Israel as well, because of Netanyahu’s decision to identify with Trump more than any other world leader no less than because of Israel’s 50-year occupation of the Palestinians.

Netanyahu, of course, isn’t the first Israeli leader to prefer Republicans. In fact, with few exceptions, this has been the case for Israeli prime ministers since the days of Richard Nixon. The late Yitzhak Rabin got into hot water as ambassador to the U.S. when he seemingly endorsed Nixon against George McGovern, didn’t hide his concerns about Jimmy Carter in 1976 and was absolutely rooting for the pragmatic George Bush elder to triumph over the untried and untested Bill Clinton in 1992. Shimon Peres was probably the exception to the rule when he preferred Clinton over Bob Dole in 1996 and most of the pro-Israeli community felt safer with Al Gore than the younger George Bush in 2000, but the 9/11 terrorist attacks created an anti-Islamic axis between Israeli and American right wingers that still holds strong today. Netanyahu would have undoubtedly embraced any GOP candidate that might have been elected in 2016, and Trump was certainly not his first choice. But Trump is also the most highly toxic U.S. president of modern times, a president that most of the world as well as his own citizens fear or dislike or both. In a world with no free lunches, unabashed identification and support for such a divisive figure is bound to exact a hefty price.

This is no consolation, however, for Netanyahu’s opponents in Israel.  Some of the damage he has caused in recent years to the foundations of U.S.-Israeli ties is irreparable and may come back to haunt even moderate Israeli governments, if they ever gain office again. Secondly, the main factors that enabled the Democratic triumph highlight the stark differences between the left in both countries and why Israel’s may be unable to retake office any time in the foreseeable future.

Even though it is under constant threat of an ISIS terror attack, Americans don’t live in a perceived state of siege, as most Israelis do. They are more focused on the economy, social welfare and culture wars. In recent months, constitutional separation of powers has proven itself resilient enough to resist Trump’s authoritarian impulses. The press is still free and unfettered enough to tear down his facades. The American left fights for separation of religion and state, an untenable position for most Jewish parties in Israel, in which the leader of the Labor Party can state that all Jews must believe in God and emerge unscathed. The American left does not shy away from human rights as well as championing equality and civil rights for women, immigrants, both legal and illegal, and minorities, which are part and parcel of its coalition. Under different circumstances, members of the Israeli Arab minority, many of whom prefer to be called Palestinian-Israelis, would have formed a natural alliance with the Israeli left but the two are separated by the abyss of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the de-facto taboo on mixing Zionists with non-Zionists, at least those who aren’t Jewish.

Unlike Israel, America is truly a popular democracy. American voters choose over half a million elected officials on the federal, state, county, city and neighborhood levels, from sheriffs, prosecutors and judges to undertakers, refuse-disposers and one dogcatcher in Vermont. Add to this statewide prepositions that serve as popular referendums on significant issues from the death penalty to the legalization of marijuana. American politics boast an excitement and commotion, from the grass roots to the highest echelons, even in normal times, never mind when a highly controversial figure such as Trump and his radical policy changes are in play. It is then that U.S. politics can elevate emotions to fever pitch, producing the kind of genuine fury that was in play on Tuesday. It provides Democrats with valid grounds for dreaming about a popular uprising that will take over Congress in 2018 and the White House two years later - something that can’t be said of the grumpy but docile Israeli left. Not surprisingly, it seems Netanyahu has much more to fear from the newly emboldened American left than he does from the blue-and-white version he handles so deftly at home.

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