Benjamin Netanyahu’s hot mic Euro-bashing rant in Budapest was politically savvy and diplomatically demented. Like American conservatives, most Israeli voters relish an occasional outburst of outrage toward the continent they love to visit and to hate. On the other hand, to describe one of the West’s foundational success stories, which also happens to be Israel’s largest trading partner, as “crazy,” is, not to put to fine a point on it, crazy.
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Netanyahu’s animosity toward Europe in general and some of its countries in particular is firmly established and multi-layered. In addition to garden variety Israeli and Jewish resentment of European anti-Semitism and criticism of the occupation, Netanyahu imbibed European antipathy from the day he was born. His historian father Benzion Netanyahu portrayed the last 500 years of European-Jewish relations, from the Inquisition onward, as “a history of holocausts,” as the New York Times wrote in his obituary. Netanyahu was molded by the Entebbe Operation, in which his heroic brother was killed, and which featured a French government too weak and appeasing to rescue the Jews who were hijacked on its national carrier. He absorbed it from his right-wing and conservative cohorts in Israel and in the United States, starting with his Reaganite benefactors in Washington and New York in the 1980s through his neo-con admirers in the 1990s and his Freedom Fries fans in the 2003 Gulf War, and culminating with his current GOP groupies in Congress and his alt-right aficionados in Donald Trump’s White House, led by their guru Steve Bannon. Netanyahu was present as godfather and inspiration, let’s not forget, when Andrew Breitbart and Larry Solov decided in 2007 to establish Breitbart News, from which Bannon eventually catapulted to the corridors of power.
Netanyahu shares the American right’s historic disdain for the weak-kneed and lily-livered continent Donald Rumsfeld once described as “Old Europe”: decadent, effete and selling its soul. Often described as more American than Israeli, Netanyahu is and was a champion of the kind of daring and muscular America that Rumsfeld and his ilk dreamed of, though they gave us the Islamic State instead. Barack Obama, in Netanyahu’s eyes, was European in nature if not by complexion. Trump, for all his shortcomings, is a true blue American and there’s nothing Netanyahu would like more than to see him make America great again.
Which is why he told the Eastern European leaders that he met in Budapest how much better things are now that Obama is gone and Trump is running the show. “The U.S. is more engaged in the region and conducting more bombings [in Syria]. It is a positive thing.” Netanyahu said, conveniently ignoring the havoc that Trump has strewn and the damage he’s caused to America’s standing in the world. He ignored his own reservations, which have surfaced recently, about the U.S-Russia cease-fire deal in Syria, Trump’s plans for the “ultimate” Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and, presumably, the inconvenient truth about the degree of Trump’s collaboration with, if not subservience to, Vladimir Putin.
In making the case for the enormity of Europe’s folly, Netanyahu channeled Steve Bannon through and through. He appealed to the nationalistic and xenophobic side of his four Visegrad Group hosts from Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, with which, unfortunately, Israel increasingly identifies despite its almost visible underside of Holocaust revisionism and anti-Semitism. Netanyahu played to his hosts’ ethnocentric nationalism and their fear of a Muslim “mongrelization” of Europe, an attitude that has put them at odds with Brussels. EU officials certainly won’t take kindly to the evidence that Netanyahu is inciting their renegades on Muslim immigration to oppose them on Israeli policies as well.
Netanyahu described Israel as Europe’s last bulwark against another wave of mass migration, of Muslim hordes, presumably, that would flood the continent and drown it. Even if Europe doesn’t realize it, Israel is its forward outpost, Netanyahu said, holding the gates that would stop the barbarians. Two weeks after Trump’s controversial battle cry for the West in Warsaw, Netanyahu made clear that he wrote the book on the subject, literally. His seminal treatise "Terrorism: How the West Can Win," published over thirty years ago, firmly established him as an inspiration for America’s clash-of-civilizations adherents.
But perhaps the most glaring feature of Netanyahu’s comments was his clear, unadulterated and seemingly unhinged hubris. It is reckless of Netanyahu to describe India and China as countries that have no political interests in the Middle East, which means that they don’t give two figs for the Palestinians. But it takes a special mix of arrogance, delusion and ignorance, frankly, to boast that by cutting themselves off from Israeli innovation – which they don’t by the way – Europe is condemning itself to decay and rot. One can only pray that Netanyahu doesn’t believe his own drivel and that he doesn’t even believe that his hosts believe it.
Netanyahu resents Europe because he views it as the last bastion of Palestinian resistance. With the Arab world in tatters and much of it siding with Israel against Iran anyway, with India and China pursuing their self-interests and abandoning their traditional Third World sympathies, and, most of all, with the White House firmly held by Muslim-bashers and Congress controlled by solid majorities of Israel-lovers, Europe is the last remaining pocket. It clings on almost religiously to the 1967 borders, it makes its considerable contributions to Israel’s economy and technological know-how contingent on the nearly defunct differentiation between Israel and the West Bank and it insists on linking its support for Israel with its opposition to its policies. No less importantly, many of its leaders, in the West much more than the East, can’t stand Netanyahu personally, a sentiment in a previous and memorable hot mic incident in which two Europeans – Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy – famously badmouthed Netanyahu as a tedious liar.
Netanyahu’s haughty anti-European tirade, which will certainly go over well with his right-wing base in Israel, is the flip side of his Trump-like whines about the Israeli “fake news” industry which insists on covering the suspected criminal activities of his closest confidantes. Here he is in Budapest, courting world leaders, forging alliances, playing an international game of chess like a true grandmaster, and there they are in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, those nattering nabobs of negativism, as Spiro Agnew called them, focusing on the trivial, questioning his virtue, blinding themselves and Israelis to his absolute magnificence. If it’s true, as Prometheus asserts in Longfellow’s "Masque of Pandora," that “Those whom the Gods would destroy they first make mad,” this is a good a sign as any that the process has begun.