Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent record of standing up for Jewish communities in the Diaspora that are facing anti-Semitism has hardly been a stellar one. Over the last two years he has failed American Jews by remaining silent as Donald Trump endorsed and legitimized white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
Despite the express wishes of the Hungarian Jewish community, he has embraced Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has launched an anti-Semitic-style campaign against Jewish financier George Soros and tried to expunge the pro-Nazi record of Hungary’s wartime regime.
And only two months ago, Netanyahu received a rare rebuke from Yad Vashem’s historians for signing a joint statement with Poland’s government clearing the Polish people of their well-documented abandonment of Polish Jews during the Holocaust. Also, he rushed to congratulate Austria’s new chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, when the center-right leader formed a government with the former neo-Nazi members of the Freedom Party.
On the basis of this record, it would take a particularly inept politician to lose the moral high ground against Netanyahu in a public spat about anti-Semitism. Arise Jeremy Corbyn, the man who constantly claims to have been a campaigner against racism all his life and to have not one anti-Semitic bone in his body. But he seems to have the incredible misfortune of being unable to keep himself from joining platforms with and endorsing blood libelers, Holocaust deniers and convicted terror bombers.
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Corbyn has been Labour Party leader for nearly three years now, but doesn’t seem to have appeared on Netanyahu’s radar before this week. Actually, Corbyn and politicians of his mold who can’t help themselves from insulting local Jewish communities with their open associations with anti-Semites are a godsend to Netanyahu. In his dysfunctional relationship with the Diaspora, a “progressive” leader who makes Jews feel unwanted in their own country bolsters Netanyahu’s siege-mentality brand of Zionism.
The euroskeptic Corbyn, who is defying the majority within Labour who want to resist Brexit, is useful to Netanyahu in this as well. Corbyn is doing nothing to prevent the United Kingdom from crashing out of the European Union without an orderly deal, weakening both Britain and the EU in the process. This is furthering Netanyahu’s goal of seeing the EU that has criticized his policies and upheld the Iran deal become a diminished voice on the global scene. It’s also strengthening the voices of his allies, the populist right-wing governments, within the EU.
A gift from Tunis
In recent weeks, some of Netanyahu’s media proxies have taken to talking up Corbyn and his anti-Semitic scandals, partly to deflect some of the criticism of their leader for his ties with right-wing populists like Orbán and the farce of the joint statement with the hard-right Polish government. But Netanyahu himself remained silent, anxious, as one aide said, “not to descend to Corbyn’s level. He’s just a party leader, not a prime minister.”
Still, the increasing interest in Corbyn in the Israeli media was galvanized this week by the reports that in 2014 he had lain a wreath at the Tunis graves of planners of the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Netanyahu couldn’t remain silent. His advisers noted that Corbyn was by now featuring in the line-up of the evening news shows and that the only prominent Israeli politician responding to Corbyn was Israel’s Labor leader, Avi Gabbay, who four months ago announced that after decades of warm ties between the sister parties he was suspending all relations with Corbyn’s office.
As for Corbyn’s wreath laying in Tunis, his office initially denied that it ever happened, but then Corbyn himself owned up to having been there, his version of events evolving from eye-rolling and exasperated interviews to insisting that he had been paying his respects to “all victims.” This gave Netanyahu his opening. It wasn’t another round in the interminable flurry of insults to British Jews, but a direct insult to Israelis who still feel the trauma of the Munich massacre 46 years later. And who better than Netanyahu, the man whose entire career has been based on his fabled expertise in fighting terror, to deliver the rebuke?
Netanyahu is no Trump, tweeting in his pajamas from his bedroom. He doesn’t even own a smartphone. Instead he has a team planning and crafting tweets and Facebook posts, sometimes days and weeks in advance. And the tweet saying that the “laying of a wreath by Jeremy Corbyn on the graves of the terrorist who perpetrated the Munich massacre and his comparison of Israel to the Nazis deserves unequivocal condemnation from everyone – left, right and everything in between” was no exception.
Frustrated Labour MPs
No sooner had the flunky in the Prime Minister’s Office pressed “send” Monday evening, releasing Netanyahu’s first-ever acknowledgment of Corbyn’s existence, than political commentators in London were predicting that it was a mistake that would let Corbyn deflect attention from his troubles and pivot to attacking Netanyahu. And of course, he did so.
Corbyn’s Twitter feed has to be one of the slowest to the draw of any major Western politician. This time, with unusual alacrity, within less than two hours, Corbyn was hitting back at Netanyahu, lambasting him for the deaths of 160 Palestinians at the Gaza border in recent months and Israel’s passage of the nation-state law. But the swift deflection quickly backfired.
The followers of Corbyn’s cult leapt to his defense on Twitter. But they’re his die-hard supporters anyway. It may have been expected that given the choice between Corbyn and Netanyahu, Labour’s mainstream parliamentarians would stand up for their leader. But the MPs, tired and frustrated by the way Corbyn has run roughshod over their concerns with his repeated insults of British Jews, remained silent.
Much worse for Corbyn, if he had any hope that the furor over every new revelation about his checkered past would finally begin to die down, after dragging on for weeks, he walked into Netanyahu’s trap. Now the media was bound to continue harrying him about wreathgate for at least another 24 hours. And now it wasn’t just an internal British affair but a high-profile international feud.
It’s not that Netanyahu is a popular politician in Britain. Far from it. But Corbyn, despite his lifelong passion for foreign policy issues, failed to grasp that ultimately Netanyahu isn’t going to be on the ballot in Britain. By taking on Netanyahu in a Twitter spat, he didn’t gain any media sympathy beyond his hardcore base. But British papers don’t need Corbyn to remind them of Gaza; they’ve covered it extensively. A local political scandal in which a party leader visibly squirms as he tries to account for his actions is always a better story.
The Labour Party had a golden opportunity this summer to overtake the Conservative government in the polls. The Tories are an embarrassing shambles, with Prime Minister Theresa May under fire from the insurgent former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, increasingly incapable of controlling her wayward ministers and steering a clear course toward Brexit.
Corbyn’s predecessors as opposition leader enjoyed double-digit leads in the polls. But instead of making ground and presenting his own policies, Corbyn is digging an ever-deepening hole into his anti-Semitic morass. With one tweet, Netanyahu helped him dig a bit more, prolonging the Labour leader’s summer of misery.