If the polls predicting a Republican victory in this Tuesday’s United States midterm elections are accurate, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will return a familiar situation. When he was first elected prime minister in 1996 Netanyahu also faced a Democratic president who had treated him unfairly and a Republican controlled congress.
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Based on his previous experience he should resist the temptation of confiding exclusively in a Republican congressional majority and use the opening created by a Republican victory to bolster bipartisan support for Israel.
When Netanyahu opposed Shimon Peres in the 1996 Knesset election he not only had Peres to contend with but also Bill Clinton. Clinton did his best to salvage Peres and the legacy of the Oslo Accords that he considered one of his administration’s major foreign policy achievements. As the result of the Hamas bombing campaign Peres’ support was hemorrhaging, so Clinton dutifully cobbled up an anti-terror summit at Sharm el-Sheikh to staunch the bleeding and show that Peres’ new Middle East was credible despite appearances to the contrary. After Netanyahu took the lead in the voting, a despondent Clinton sat with a pocket calculator to see if the soldiers’ vote could somehow change the outcome in Peres’ favor.
This was unfair interference, so the newly elected Netanyahu exacted payback and in his address to Congress appeared to cozy up to the Republican agenda. For example, he told Congress that no word for privatization existed in Hebrew but by the end of his term such a word would exist. When Clinton won reelection in 1996 after he and the Republican congress had engaged in a standoff, the positions were again reversed and Clinton did his utmost to ensure Netanyahu’s 1999 defeat to Ehud Barak.
Netanyahu will not be responsible for a Republican midterm success, although mindful of John Kerry’s creativity in blaming Israel for the growth of ISIS, another of Team Obama’s luminaries could even outdo Kerry by blaming the Democrats’ defeat on Netanyahu. On the other hand, one cannot expect him to mourn such a result. After being shabbily treated by Obama (a job occasionally delegated to underlings like Jen Psaki and Josh Earnest or the anonymous “chickenshit character assassin), Netanyahu would be less than human if he did not experience some satisfaction.
The quasi-religious adulation for Obama also stimulated the growth of organizations like J Street – either as a spontaneous attempt to alloy Obama worship to Israel-related activism or as a manipulative attempt to cut AIPAC down to size while the White House created daylight between the U.S. and Israel.
From J Street (which prior to the White House disavowal incredibly hailed the chickenshit slur as an act of friendship) it was merely a short hop to Open Hillel and Jewish Voices for Peace – the latter a throwback to the notorious Yevsektsia of Soviet times. As the Obama tide recedes these organizations will find themselves on the rocky shoals where they belong. This too is a cause for satisfaction.
This satisfaction, however, should be restrained and never veer into overt partisanship. It should not extend, for example, to taking sides in an American issue such as the correct balance between private enterprise and government intervention in the economy or health care. Even if one agrees with Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson that the “family deficit” weakens America, this too is a debate that Israel should stay out of.
While Israel should be grateful for the massive support that it enjoys among Republican voters and elected leaders, it cannot afford to make Israel a partisan issue. There is no permanent majority party and American support for Israel should not be captive to the electoral cycle. One hopeful outcome of a Republican victory is that it can compel both parties to take a step back from polarization to bipartisanship.
The Republican Party, mindful of the lessons of 2010 and 2012, was careful to nominate candidates who could appeal to both new and broader constituencies. A Republican victory can similarly force the Democrats to abandon the illusion that they enjoy a permanent and unassailable majority and pull them back to the center. This would not only be good for Israel but would strengthen the U.S. as well.
If the Democratic Party senses that it needs a policy correction this will undoubtedly help Hillary Clinton, who is already strongly positioned to capture the party’s 2016 nomination. She will benefit from the same calculus that secured her husband’s nomination in 1992 as the candidate of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
Given the bad blood between Bill Clinton and Netanyahu, a Clinton restoration will not necessarily improve relations with the White House (although George W. Bush proved much friendlier than his father to Israel), but the leftward lurch of the Democratic Party promoted by Obama and his supporters will have been arrested, and that is good for the Jews. A Clinton is preferable to an Obama just as a Tony Blair or Gordon Brown is preferable to David Miliband and an Isaac Herzog is preferable to Zahava Gal-On.