Romney, Netanyahu, and George Washington's Warning

What does it signify, for an American like Mitt Romney, unskilled in international politics and innocent of the complexities of the Middle East, to back the pressure now being exerted by Benjamin Netanyahu against the advice of the American president and against the advice of high-ranking intelligence and military officers in Israel? It means that Romney is not friend of Israel so much as he is a friend of Netanyahu. Or rather, for Romney, as for the billionaires he had in tow on his Israel trip, the personal is political. For them, Netanyahu is Israel.
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Mitt Romney's campaign stop in Jerusalem has been criticized for the grossness of the subservience that the candidate exhibited toward Israel. This reaction was surely factored in by his handlers. Liberals, internationalists, human rights advocates might demur, but Romney's intended audience was none of these people. Nor was it the Arab world, nor was it American voters, with a possible exception for the state of Florida. Romney was aiming to reach two distinct but related target groups: first, a small set of extremely wealthy donors, and second, a group composed of one person, Benjamin Netanyahu. Both have long been potent players in American elections. Both were already helping Romney. It was necessary and useful at this time to cement the alliance in public.

Judged in the light of that purpose, Romney's visit must be counted a success. And it was a success in one other respect. The billionaires and the prime minister wanted Romney to bring the United States closer to supporting a war with Iran. Romney obliged, and we are now closer to war. He recognized, he said, the "right" of Israel to defend itself. Who ever denied that right? He meant: the righteousness of a preventive attack on Iran. This left open the question, Does Iran have the right to defend itself? A question that Americans and Israelis, as effectively propagandized as we have been, can be trusted not even to ask. So Romney's intervention in Jerusalem amounted to approval of war -- and a war before November if Netanyahu happens to find that desirable. As a candidate in an election season, Romney gave the green light to a power whose engagement in war would involve the United States.

Nothing like this has ever happened before in American politics. But then, there has never been anything in history remotely like the present relationship between the United States and Israel. President Obama, who is thought to be lukewarm by Romney's supporters, in March described our alliance with Israel as "sacrosanct." A month earlier, he had assured Israel and its warmest American partisans that his administration was marching in "lockstep" with Israel in our approach to Iran. All this Obama said and did in deference to Benjamin Netanyahu and without regard to American interests. For he had been told by the CIA that Iran is not working at present on a nuclear weapon, and he was warned by the Pentagon that a war with Iran would be a regional disaster for the United States. Even so, he gave Netanyahu in effect a yellow light: proceed with caution. And to sweeten the transaction, he promised to issue no traffic ticket if Israel speeds up. It was the same at this year's AIPAC convention where Obama again assured Netanyahu: "I have Israel's back."

A corny line from the playbook of the younger Bush, suggesting a false analogy between a gunfight and a world war, but Obama at the start of an election year knew very well what the script called for.

It has been said by members of the Israel lobby that Obama's actions speak louder than his words, and that his actions have hurt Israel. Let us recall some of the actions. In response to the onslaught on Gaza in December-January 2008-2009, in which 1,300 Palestinians were killed and 13 Israelis, Obama observed a silence which he has never broken. When, in November 2010, Netanyahu balked at the proposal of a 90-day partial extension of the freeze on West Bank settlement expansion, Obama offered twenty F-35 fighter jets if he would change his mind; Netanyahu refused, and Obama gave him the jets anyway. Only a week ago, the president donated another $70 million, on top of U.S. assistance already given, to build up the Israeli "Iron Dome" defense against rockets. Yet it is felt that Obama's love of Israel has been insufficiently demonstrative. The reason is simple but it is seldom mentioned quite candidly.

Twice, in the last four years, this president lapsed from the post-1992 American protocol toward Israel of undiluted flattery and largesse. In June 2009 he called for a settlement freeze, and in May 2011 he spoke of the 1967 lines as the starting point for the creation of an independent Palestine. Now, the de facto policy of the Netanyahu government is annexation of the West Bank. These diplomatic hints and reminders from the president were therefore as unwelcome as they were unexpected.

As for Iran, Israelis themselves (except Netanyahu and those in his immediate circle) are a good deal more cautious than their American neoconservative supporters. At a public meeting in April, in the Israeli city of Kfar Saba, Yuval Diskin, who in 2011 retired as head of Shin Bet (the Israeli FBI), said that he had "no faith" in Netanyahu's policy or his instincts on Iran. Two days later the former chief of Mossad, Meir Dagan, emphatically concurred and praised Diskin for his honesty.

What does it mean for an American like Romney, unskilled in international politics and innocent of the complexities of the Middle East, to back the pressure now being exerted by Netanyahu against the advice of the American president and against the advice of high-ranking intelligence and military officers in Israel? It means that Romney is not a friend of Israel so much as he is a friend of Netanyahu. Or rather, for Romney, as for the billionaires he had in tow, the personal is political. For them, Netanyahu is Israel. A point to which we shall return.

Joe Biden and Leon Panetta in recent months have taken care to issue statements along the lines of Obama himself, implying American avoidance of any war short of necessity, but adding that Israel is a sovereign nation and America does not pretend to control it. And yet we give Israel fighter jets, Iron Dome technology, and more than three billion dollars a year in foreign aid. If there is ever again an American president capable of deciding to concern himself more with the soundness of policy than with his chances in the next election, that president will have considerable control over Israel. Obama, however, works slowly and he starts worrying about the next election a year ahead. That does not leave much margin for inventive policy or persuasion. On the Middle East, his boldness in theory and timidity in practice seems to have roused the adventurism of Romney's neoconservative advisers. But Obama does occasionally offer convincing signs of not wanting the war with Iran that the Pentagon says would be a disaster. Romney, by contrast, with his quarterback-audible in Jerusalem, signaled that a war would be fine with him.

What are the actual stakes for Israel? Netanyahu has called the possession of a nuclear weapon by Iran an "existential threat," but nobody known for sanity, including his own defense minister Ehud Barak, has agreed with him about this. An existential threat conjures an image of war-loving Iran poised on the brink of exterminating the Jews of Israel. The evidence for that intention is a statement by the anti-Semitic president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who did indeed say that history would wipe the "Zionist entity" off the map. What only readers who follow politics are likely to know is that Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful figure in Iran and that after the next election he may be out of a job. The cost to the mullahs of bombing Israel, with a weapon they are not yet close to possessing, would be massive retaliation by Israel, whose nuclear arsenal is estimated between 200 and 300 weapons. That picture is so improbable that Netanyahu has been forced to adopt a different stratagem.

On the argument that he now presses, even low-enrichment uranium is a danger in the hands of Iran. Obama and the European capitals, in the October 2009 negotiations, had offered Iran an agreement allowing 5% enrichment, and at the time Netanyahu raised no public objection. He now says he will not settle for any enrichment at all by Iran. He is lowering the threshold to justify an attack. And Romney last week in Jerusalem, with the support of his war party advisers, fell into step in with the Netanyahu ultimatum. Nothing less than zero enrichment will satisfy Mitt Romney.

Still, if Iran is not an existential threat, why is the wish to attack Iran so strong in Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition? The reason is fear of Iran as a regional competitor. A powerful hostile nation induces any rival to hesitate before wielding power as often as it would like. An Iran with a serious armed force could not equal Israel, or thoroughly deter Israel, but it would doubtless inhibit Israeli military ventures in the Arab world. And that, for an advocate of Greater Israel, is intolerable. Israeli designs must go forward unhindered. So Netanyahu is asking for American support against Iran for much the same reason that his predecessor Yitzhak Shamir wanted America to go to war with Iraq in 1991. Iraq, like Iran, was pursuing nuclear research but had no nuclear weapon. In 1991, however, Iraq did have a formidable army, and Israel had an interest in seeing that army destroyed. Some side effects of the elimination of Iraq as a military power are now a familiar part of the regional landscape: the air, land, and sea blockade on Gaza, and the Israeli annexation of the West Bank, which proceeds with fresh evictions every day.

Romney was asked by a reporter at the Western Wall if he endorsed the annexation of the West Bank by Israel. The question was put to him three times, and three times Romney ignored it. The channeling to the settlers of West Bank aquifers, the uprooting of Palestinian olive groves, the expulsion of Bedouin shepherds from their grazing lands all are done under the ostensible explanation of military necessity by Israel. Anyone who recalls the Jim Crow society of the American South in the 1950s knows the real purpose of such actions: to assert and make visible by force the superiority of one caste of people over another, and to drive the inferior people from places of value.

At the King David Hotel, Romney addressed campaign donors from America who had traveled thousands of miles to another country to affirm their loyalty. But loyalty to what and whom? Are the United States and Israel the same country? This was one of the weirdest exhibitions of transnational financial muscle in recorded history. It probably has no precedent. Will it have a sequel? Let us try a thought experiment. Imagine the American reaction to an American presidential candidate who calls a meeting of wealthy Italian-Americans in Vatican City in order to declare their unconditional fidelity to the Pope. The United States was once the country of protestant nonconformity. What is happening to us?

The ad-lib comments that Romney spoke on this occasion have received plenty of notice, but they cannot be quoted too often. They display with a fine economy the good-natured insolence of Romney himself alongside the conventional racism of the Republican Party and its roots in Social Darwinism. "As you come here," he said,

and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality.

Such was his revelation for the self-made party donors, as well as the heir and heiress billionaires. But there was more: "As I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things." Among the other things of course was "the hand of providence," the non-denominational shorthand notation for Tetragrammaton or Jesus Yahweh Smith. But the key word here was culture. There is a good culture, we know, of self-respect and commercial success and technology. And that culture looks a lot like Israel. Then there is a culture of poverty and inertia and resentment, and it looks like the West Bank. The occupation has nothing to do with the difference. For the slow-of-wit, Romney clarified his idea by adding that a similar disparity exists between other neighboring countries like Mexico and the United States.

Note that this division between the deserving and less deserving peoples scarcely departs from the old anti-Semitism. It uses the same clichés: the despised people are crafty but sullen, lacking in Western energy, discipline, and refinement. The prejudice has now been turned against another Semitic tribe, the Palestinians. The Jews of Israel, by contrast, are praised for their adaptation to the ways of commerce, and are treated as honorary Christians.

Pass from Romney to his audience. These people, as reported by the New York Times, were high net worth individuals whose total holdings may well have approached half a trillion. We will never know, since they have multiple accounts in the Cayman Islands, where some of them also have alternate private residences. But it is worth following up a few details of the Times story by Jodi Rudoren and Ashley Parker. "Sheldon Adelson...wore a pin that said 'Romney' in Hebrew letters," yet Adleson is troubled, these days, by an investigation of the links between his casino holdings in Las Vegas and Macau.

"Much of Mr. Adelson's casino profits that go to him come from his casino in Macau," John McCain pointed out in a recent interview. "Maybe," McCain speculated, "in a roundabout way, foreign money is coming into an American political campaign." Also not so roundabout. The money coming from the crowd at the King David Hotel evidently came from Americans and was going back into an American campaign. What, then, was the symbolic importance of having it routed through an event in Israel timed to begin at the end of the religious day of mourning Tisha B'Av?

Other members of the Romney-Netanyahu billionaire entourage were touched on briefly in the Times account. Cheryl Halpern, a New Jersey Republican and big party donor, was named by George W. Bush the successor to Kenneth Tomlinson as chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and served in that office during the years 2005-07. She disciplined NPR for political bias and, along with Tomlinson, succeeded in bending the tone and content of NPR toward the platitudes and human interest by which it is mainly known today. John Miller, the chief executive of the National Beef Packing Company, helped Tagg Romney and Spencer Zwick to find the $244 million they needed for the startup of a private equity fund, Solamere Capital, which in its early days shared an address with the Romney campaign headquarters.

Paul Singer, founder of the $20 billion hedge fund Elliott Associates and its affiliate Elliott Management, operates a "vulture fund" that specializes in buying up third-world debt. Elliott trawls for assets that have drastically fallen in value, and then sues countries for full value, with a legal threat if they refuse. It goes after vulnerable nations like Panama, Peru, Argentina, and Congo, offering rigor-mortis prices to the panicked holders of collapsing bonds, before it compels the derelict governments to buy them back at a swollen price or suffer international disgrace and an utter loss of autonomy at the hands of financiers. The ingenuity and detective work that goes into Elliott is perhaps another clue to what Romney means by culture. But where Romney's Bain bought, gutted, repackaged and sold factories and store chains, and held in thrall occasionally the happiness of a town or a pension plan, Elliott transfixes the life holdings of large tracts of the world, including tribes and peoples whose names its officers will not have known how to pronounce until they began to reduce them to finance fodder. Will the vulture funds take out a second mortgage on the Parthenon? "Elliott hasn't [yet] built up a hold-out position in Greek debt, according to an individual close to the firm. Last year it profited instead by trading Greek credit default swaps."

These people, so important because of their money, are united in their belief that Israel stands in grave peril because of the neglect or hostility of Barack Obama. Yet Obama's actions toward Israel -- the gifts of weapons and security systems, the reflex vetoes on U.N. resolutions -- have been dangerous if anything by their one-sided solicitousness on behalf of Israel. Obama has conducted himself toward Israel, in fact, as he has acted toward establishments like the American military and the Wall Street banks and brokerage houses. He mentions his power of refusal chiefly in order to show that, in some technical sense, that power does exist. But his use of the power has been, in all of these contexts, nominal and decorative. Again and again he has said he could bring results and has not brought them: tougher bank regulations, faster withdrawal from Afghanistan, "hands-on" presidential engagement in negotiations to create a Palestinian state and achieve peace with Iran. In all of these settings, Obama's practice has been hands-off, no matter what he may have pledged. Still, it is true that Romney would be a distinct improvement from the point of view of Netanyahu. Rhetorically, as well as in fact, he would be hands-on in Israel's favor at all times.

Because the Tisha B'Av spectacle was so bizarre, almost grotesque, one cannot help asking again: why were those American donors going to Israel to cheer an American candidate in an American election? Is being an American no longer good enough? In a speech in Israel in 2010, Sheldon Adelson regretted that "the uniform that I wore in the military unfortunately was not an Israeli uniform, it was an American uniform." Such an attitude of abasement or self-subordination toward Israel, often accompanied by a peculiar vicarious nostalgia, is not confined to American Jews or billionaires. On arriving in Jerusalem in March 2010, Joe Biden said "It's good to be home." What was he thinking?

As Netanyahu looks at these postures of genuflection, it is no wonder that he feels himself entitled to criticize an American president in front of the American Congress, or to "vet" Republican vice-presidential hopefuls such as Chris Christie and Rob Portman. If Netanyahu is now the most effective bundler in the Republican Party, why should he not have a say in the party's choice of a vice-president?

George Washington thought that being Americans should be enough for us. In his great Farewell Address, he also gave some reasons why attachment to a foreign power, no matter how sentimental the affection, could only impair American liberty and independence and serve to draw the country into unnecessary wars. "Nothing," said Washington,

is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. . . .Hence, frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. . . .The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of nations, has been the victim.

So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation), facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity.

Can there be any doubt what George Washington would have made of the scene of Mitt Romney and his high-rolling backers at the King David Hotel?

Washington summed up his criticism of such attachments in these climactic words of warning:

Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. . . .Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other.

A contrary understanding has become so familiar in our politics that it is hard to recall when anyone last worried about excessive partiality for one nation.

We should expect no compunction, no reservation, no self-consciousness regarding the "passionate attachment" to a "favorite nation" by Romney and his foreign policy team. Part of the reason lies in the composition of the team itself. They are, to a man, alumni of the Cheney circle and the post-2001 Patriot Act security establishment, and close affiliates of the Israel lobby. But another reason for the partiality goes far back in Romney's own life. He has been a friend of Netanyahu since their younger American corporate years together; the two have gone to each other for advice ever since, as Michael Barbaro disclosed in an April 8 story in the New York Times: they consult casually and with implicit trust, in every walk of political practice, from discussing the right strategy against Iran to canvassing the sharpest method for cutting state pensions. They share, said Barbaro (with less irony than he needed), "the same profoundly analytical view of the world."

To readers who know this personal history, it may seem that Romney went to Jerusalem to confirm one detail of Barbaro's story: "Mr. Romney has suggested that he would not make any significant policy decisions about Israel without consulting Mr. Netanyahu -- a level of deference that could raise eyebrows given Mr. Netanyahu's polarizing reputation, even as it appeals to the neoconservatives and evangelical Christians who are fiercely protective of Israel." Romney could not fail to consult his personal friend who happens to lead a foreign power, since he has pledged to do so without exception, in all decisions affecting that power. It is exactly the situation that George Washington described and warned against; but Romney seems unaware of any conflict of duties or even a possible tension. During a December primary debate, Barbaro notes,

Mr. Romney criticized Mr. Gingrich for making a disparaging remark about Palestinians, declaring: "Before I made a statement of that nature, I'd get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say: 'Would it help if I say this? What would you like me to do?'"

"What would you like me to do." Those are the words of our intendant decider, and he means to address them, with an implied vow of fidelity, to the leader of another country. Can we read Washington's words of 1796 addressed "to the people of the United States," and compare Romney's words addressed to his donors in Jerusalem, and not feel a deep disturbance? What would you like me to do?

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