This week, delegates to the annual AIPAC conference will host Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose address to the U.S. Congress will perhaps do more to undermine AIPAC’s operating strategy than any single act by an Israeli leader since AIPAC was established. AIPAC’s main mission, as a video on its conference website makes clear, is to ensure bipartisan support for the State of Israel.
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But Netanyahu is blatantly colluding with the Republican Party to publicly embarrass the Democratic president of the United States, while also snubbing leading senators of the Democratic Party – the political home of 70 percent of Jewish-American voters – and evoking a troubling degree of enmity from the U.S. administration.
Netanyahu is a regular speaker at AIPAC – the pre-eminent gathering of pro-Israel supporters in America – and routinely ignites the crowd. He knows his buzzwords – security, solidarity, the only democracy in the Middle East, terrorist threats, rising anti-Semitism, ISIS, Iran, Iran, Iran; he has the look – dour and determined; and he has the cadences for talking tough – even to our closest and most important ally up the road from this year’s gathering in Washington D.C.
The joke in Israel for years has been that Netanyahu heads to AIPAC or to Congress because no one else will give him a standing ovation. He certainly doesn’t get them in Israel. While delegates are cheering Israel’s prime minister, I hope some will ask themselves whether Netanyahu’s vision of Israel in any way accords with theirs.
Almost four years ago, 450,000 Israelis took to the streets because they could not afford the cost of living in Israel. The 294-page State Comptroller’s report issued last week, which warns that Israel’s middle class is in danger of collapsing, blames the housing crisis squarely on Netanyahu, who spent six years building homes for West Bank settlers, while apartment prices inside Israel rose by a whopping 36 percent. Much of Netanyahu’s Israel is poor. More than 1.6 million citizens live below the poverty line, including 756,000 children, according to the National Insurance Institute. According to UNICEF, Israel ranks fourth in child poverty in the developed world. Still, Netanyahu always finds money for settlements.
The economic inequalities are nothing compared to the ethnic and social divides Netanyahu cultivates. During last summer’s Gaza War, a wave of unprecedented physical and verbal violence was unleashed against Israel’s Arab citizens, which continued through the fall. President Reuven Rivlin spoke out in horror against the "disease" of racism. But our prime minister kept silent.
If Netanyahu was largely passive while Arab citizens were being assaulted, he led the demonization campaign against the 47,000 African refugees and asylum seekers who entered Israel without permits. Despite reducing the number of refugees entering Israel to practically zero, thanks to the Sinai fence, he continues to lock up thousands of these desperate people – who, like our own Jewish ancestors, sought to escape persecution and poverty. Netanyahu’s policies flout Jewish values, and have been overturned multiple times by the High Court as immoral and unjustified. But they play well to his xenophobic base.
Likud-led fear and hatemongering hardly stops with our non-Jewish minorities. Progressives, civil rights activists, leftists, the judiciary and anyone who criticizes the occupation have all been accused of being enemies of the state. So much for Jewish solidarity or democratic discourse.
And oh yes, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories will soon enter its 48th year, and the resolution of our conflict has rarely seemed more remote.
This week’s Netanyahu drumbeat claims that the Iranian threat trumps all traditional diplomatic considerations. But those who, like me, believe that Iran is an existential threat to Israel, and fear that the agreement currently being negotiated will be too forgiving and trusting of Iran need to acknowledge that Netanyahu has blown it.
His anti-Obama tirades, his support for West Bank settlements over all other considerations, his efforts to undermine the Palestinian Authority, his expropriation of 988 acres of Palestinian land at the end of the Gaza War not only wasted the new diplomatic opportunities he promised toward the war’s end, but alienated and antagonized the very European leaders who, along with U.S. President Barack Obama, are the partners necessary to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
AIPAC delegates may tell themselves they are saluting the office of the prime minister and not necessarily paying tribute to the man when they rise to cheer Netanyahu, but the world misreads this as complete Jewish-American endorsement of his positions.
Netanyahu plays the statesman abroad, but back home he is known for his paranoia, his self-aggrandizement, and his lashing out against the courts, the universities and the media. Netanyahu aspires to be Israel’s Churchill, but in nurturing a nation divided against itself he has become our Nixon.
Don Futterman is the program director for Israel of the Moriah Fund, a private American Foundation working to strengthen civil society in Israel. He can be heard weekly on TLV-1’s The Promised Podcast.