'Perfidious America': Behind Netanyahu's Hostility to Kerry

Behind the hyperbole and fury of Israel's right, including its prime minister, against the U.S. secretary of state, lies a basic belief in the serial treachery of superpowers towards Zionism.

Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, July 23, 2014.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, July 23, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Gershom Gorenberg
Gershom Gorenberg

In the last years of the British Mandate, Amos Oz's father wrote English-language leaflets for the rightist Irgun underground denouncing "Perfidious Albion" - that is, back-stabbing Britain. So the novelist recalls in his memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness. Oz's father hadn't invented the epithet; he was using the standard melodramatic term of the Irgun and of the right-wing Revisionist Zionist movement.

In our day, Perfidious America has replaced Albion in the imagination of the Israeli right. In the latest example, "very senior officials", quoted here in Haaretz, described Secretary of State John Kerry's ceasefire proposal last week not merely as a mistake, or as a sign of disagreement between Washington and Jerusalem, but as a "strategic terrorist attack" against Israel. Terror is what your enemies do. In that comment, and in the mood it reflects, the United States has become an enemy.

To make sense of the hyperbole and fury, it's essential to remember how basic Perfidious Albion is to the right's historical narrative. And there's a living link between the accusations of pre-state days and those of today: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Like Oz, Netanyahu grew up in a Revisionist family. Oz rebelled. Netanyahu became the bearer of the tradition, as set down in his 1993 book, A Place Among the Nations. The book presents a deeply flawed picture of Zionism's history, but has retained its value as an excellent portrait of Netanyahu's thinking, even now, after he has spent so many years in power.

From the book's introduction onward, Netanyahu described Israel as the product of two grand historical forces: "Zionism's spectacular rise, assisted by the foremost powers of the world, and its equally spectacular betrayal by those same powers." This is history as tragic myth: Great Power support and their perfidy came into the world as siblings, with little difference in age. The original treachery is that of Britain, starting virtually from the first day of the Mandate, with Britain's decision not to include the East Bank of the Jordan in the area designated for a "national home" for the Jews.

Netanyahu described British colonial officials as practically inventing anti-Zionism and passing the doctrine both to leaders of newly independent Arab states and to other Western officials, particularly in the U.S. State Department. So American backing and treachery were born together. "The betrayal of Zionism by the West," he wrote, wasn't expressed by governments calling for the end of Israel, but more subtly in their demanding that it take unreasonable risks.

Let's rephrase this: If you've been brought up to believe that every relationship will lead to betrayal, you will discover signs of treachery in every relationship.

This attitude that Netanyahu articulated so clearly has its roots in a deep contradiction. More than almost any Zionist political camp, Revisionists fantasized about the power that the Jews would proudly possess as a nation on the international stage. Yet they also knew that as a small nation, Jews needed Great Power backing. The solution was to gain the support of at least one world power, based on Zionism's moral claim - and to imagine that the support would be total, so that the Jewish state would retain complete freedom of action. In the real world, though, alliances are based at least partly on interests. They come with restrictions, compromises and disagreements.

Netanyahu was right that when seeking the support of democracies, you need to convince the public in those countries that you have a moral claim. But he never seems to understand that it's not enough for your cause to be just if the actions you take in the name of that cause are unjust. Faced with public criticism, he offers spin as the solution. Faced with policy disagreements with Washington, he and those around him respond by accusing the administration of treachery.

Last September, when Washington opted for an agreement on dismantling Syrian chemical weapons, Netanyahu's response suggested that America had abandoned Israel. His public reaction to the interim agreement with Iran in November was greater fury. Those conveniently nameless "very senior" sources blasting the ceasefire proposal are following suit.

So if not treachery, was the proposal a mistake? That's a separate discussion. I'll note, though, that in the last year commentators and officials here have accused Kerry of cluelessness for treating the Israeli-Palestinian status quo as unsustainable and insisting on negotiations instead, and for willingness to work with the Palestinian unity government after negotiations broke down. In hindsight, he appears less naïve than his critics.

In the ceasefire proposal, it seems his main errors were overestimating Netanyahu's desire to stop the fighting and underestimating the government's willingness to turn a disagreement into public accusations. Given past experience, this may be unforgiveable naiveté. But it's not a strategic terror attack by Perfidious America.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Unmaking of Israel and The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. Follow him on Twitter @GershomG

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