Opinion

The Biggest Loser of the U.S. Midterms? Benjamin Netanyahu

Netanyahu owns the result of going all-in with a racist and corrupt Donald Trump and an extremist GOP, turning support for Israel into a bitter partisan issue. But that Faustian bargain was only worth it as long as Trump and the GOP remained in complete power

Netanyahu and Trump embrace at the beginning of their White House meeting, Feb. 15, 2017.
Evan Vucci/AP

For an American Jew like me, who counts himself among that endangered species known as the liberal Zionist, the political success of Benjamin Netanyahu has always evoked equal measures of disgust and begrudging regard. No matter how much I loath most of his policies, I cannot help but acknowledge his talent at finessing the fragmented landscape of Israel’s parliamentary system, which is an exotic exasperation to anyone habituated to the two-party menu of the United States.

In Tuesday's U.S. midterm elections, however, Netanyahu was shackled to our binary Democrat and Republican politics – an embittered, existential polarization in the Trump era, what the political analyst Steve Schmidt has called "the Cold Civil War." 

And thanks to his full embrace of Donald Trump, with which the majority of the Israeli public has followed suit but the overwhelming majority of U.S. Jews reject, he’s now shackled to Trump’s midterm losses – and potential downfall.

In fact, Trump is merely the odious face of a Netanyahu policy that long predates the current president. Ever since he all but officially endorsed the Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the 2012 election campaign against Barak Obama, it has been plain that Netanyahu was prepared to write off roughly half of America, provided that the GOP could keep capturing that electoral prize.

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American Jews of my ilk – not Orthodox, not Republican, which is to say at least three-quarters of the total – have tended to regard Netanyahu’s blatant tilt away from us as an arithmetic calculation that Israel can snub four or five million liberal and moderate American Jews (whom the prime minister believes in danger of  terminal assimilation anyway) in exchange for tens of millions of right-wing white evangelical Christians. In turn, he has gotten the wish list of an American embassy in Jerusalem, de facto approval of the occupation, and the abrogation of the Iran nuclear agreement.            

The problem with that assessment, aside from the fact it may be totally wrong, is that it distorts the political landscape of America into a competition between a small Jewish population that skews center or left, and the far larger number of white evangelicals with the diehard reactionary beliefs that happen to conveniently include so-called Christian Zionism.

In a Knesset scheme of things, it might make sense to figure out which fringe party you could wangle into your coalition. But in the inevitable us-versus-them configuration of American elections, a voter has to choose between a Democrat and a Republican for each office, even in times far more temperate than these.

Support for Israel in Congress and the White House had been one of the rare bipartisan exceptions until Netanyahu went all-in with an increasingly extremist version of the Republican Party. Now he owns the predictable result, which is that Israel is a partisan issue here and is bound to become ever more of one.

President Donald Trump, on board Air Force One, speaks to the press after watching a live TV broadcast of the Senate confirmation vote of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Oct. 6, 2018
Pablo Martinez Monsivais,AP

As I have noted previously, because of Netanyahu’s strategy, Israel is now tarred with everything about Donald Trump – the racism, misogyny, homophobia, nativism, corruption, and Russian collusion. As long as Trump and his Republican Party remained in complete power, a cynic could say the bargain was worth it.

Then came the midterm elections. They did not result in the "blue wave" of a Democratic restoration that some polls have suggested and people like me had hoped. Thanks to Trump’s genius for demagoguery – specifically portraying a ragtag band of 3,500 Honduran migrants bound by foot for the U.S. border into a putative invasion – he motivated his bigoted base to turn out in droves.

Their groundswell staved off exciting Democratic challengers for the Senate in Texas (Beto O’Rourke) and governor in Florida and Georgia (Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams, respectively). The Trump hardcore also helped to oust incumbent Democrat senators from Republican-leaning states (Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Joe Donnelly in Indiana).

Those losses, though, were only part of the story of the midterms. The Democrats captured at least 26 seats in the House of Representatives, giving them the majority in that chamber. They knocked out Republicans in hidebound conservative sections of Virginia and Oklahoma, as well as moderate suburbs along coasts.

Republicans lost the governor’s race even in reliably red Kansas. Though O’Rourke, Gillum, and Abrams fell short in their own races, they pushed up Democratic turn-out so much that the party captured down-ballot contests for seats in the House and state legislatures.

The shift in power in the House matters most of all. The majority party, now the Democrats, gets the majority of seats and the chairperson’s gavel on every committee. A number of those committees will set about investigating the financial corruption of Trump and his family, as well as the Trump campaign’s collaboration with Russian meddling into the 2016 election.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers his speech as U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman listen, during the opening ceremony of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018.
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

With any luck, Trump will die the political death of a thousand cuts from those investigations and be voted out of office in 2020. Then all we will have to worry about is whether he will actually concede or hole up in the White House and call on the army and a bunch of white-nationalist militias to defend him. I am not kidding.

If Netanyahu and Israel played much of an overt role in the midterm elections, then those debates escaped my notice. Healthcare, immigration, the economy and gun control topped the polls.

Looking ahead, I do expect there to be a lot of convenient catastrophizing from Jerusalem about the election of two Muslim-American Democrats to the House, Rashida Tlaib from Michigan and Ihlan Omar from Minnesota. But the predictable attacks and insinuations against them will be just convenient diversions from the dilemma of Netanyahu’s making.

In tethering Israel to just one political party and one ideology in an America that is profoundly split between two, the prime minister has evidently never allowed for the turn of events indicated by the midterms: the realistic prospect that the political majority will swing back to Democrats and that the evangelical right will be outvoted by a burgeoning movement of multicultural progressives, including the vast majority of American Jews. 

Maybe that moment of transition will come in 2020, or maybe in 2024. But it will come. The split verdict of the midterm elections, while hardly decisive, should at least qualify as a blaring alarm.

It warns about the consequence of making Israel and Zionism nothing but fetish objects for the most radical and repugnant presidency in American history, provided anyone cares to listen.

Samuel G. Freedman is the author of eight books, including Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry. Twitter: @SamuelGFreedman