The Senator From Caesarea

The lack of restraint with which Mitt Romney's visit to Jerusalem has been handled is scandalous, perhaps unprecedented.

For many years now, in Israel and around the world, they've been trying to crack the enigma that is Benjamin Netanyahu. But deciphering the genome of Israel's prime minister requires the investigator to meet certain prerequisites. Only someone who has lived in the United States, attended meetings with Netanyahu and spoken with him personally can fully understand who he's dealing with.

Netanyahu is a perfect reproduction of a U.S. congressman - some representative from Nebraska or senator from Nevada, from the Republican Party of course. That's where his roots are; that's the landscape of his homeland and the source of his inspiration.

The matter comes across clearly in his language. Netanyahu doesn't speak English or even American; he speaks fluent Republicanese. The same goes for his mannerisms and even his choice of clothes - a dark suit for official business hours, a polo shirt and moccasins for allegedly informal meetings and "vacations" (photographed of course ). Like his favorite saying in American politics, if it quacks like a duck, walks like a duck and looks like a duck, it must be a duck.

Netanyahu is the senator from Caesarea. Not for nothing is his personal residence there of all places. There are many other upscale suburbs in the polarized State of Israel, but there is nothing like Caesarea to simulate the longed-for American sanctuary, that gated and exclusive compound favored by wealthy Florida retirees. (These are the people who in their blindness 12 years ago gave the presidency to the stammering Republican crown prince, George W. Bush, ending the nightmare of the Clintonian hegemony. )

Netanyahu doesn't run Israel like a far-flung American province; he simply treats it like an exotic branch of the Republican Party. His office is teeming with Republican Jews; donors and congressmen from the party are always welcome there. Over the years Israelis have grown accustomed to a bizarre reality in which their prime minister gives interviews only to the foreign press, mainly American of Republican orientation. (He branded The New York Times last year one of "Israel's enemies." )

Even the documentary about Yoni Netanyahu that aired here recently was largely set in America. The Israeli interviewees all spoke English, and a sizable chunk of the action took place at MIT, where Bibi received the terrible news of his brother's death and had to tell his parents.

The political tragedy that dogs Netanyahu is that both his terms as prime minister have coincided with those of democratic presidents in the White House. But for the past year he has been unable to contain his frustration and has been coarsely meddling in the election campaign overseas. And that's something that could become a national tragedy.

The lack of restraint with which Mitt Romney's visit to Jerusalem has been handled is scandalous, perhaps unprecedented - an Israeli prime minister who on the eve of U.S. elections embellishes a Republican candidate and with him explicitly criticizes the Democratic president. The prime minister organizes a fund-raising breakfast for Jewish Republican millionaires and prevents the candidate from meeting with a local opposition leader, even for appearance's sake. Such a prime minister is an irresponsible one who has finally lost his strategic wits.

When this is how things look, the damage to Israel and its image in Washington grows to unfathomable proportions. In an expose by National Public Radio this month on Sheldon Adelson's business affairs on the gambling island of Macao, one claim was that Romney and Netanyahu's benefactor had asked "the Israeli military" to arrange a rapprochement meeting with a senior Chinese official.

Spokesmen for the Defense Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces looked into the astonishing allegation, at my request, and came back with a categorical denial. We're all better off taking their word for it, but with the growing damage that the Netanyahu-Adelson alliance is wreaking on Israel's relations with the United States, it's very tough to argue.