The Nuclear Deal: Bibi and the Consequences

Real friends of Israel should not provide him cover. They should insist instead that Israel (and Jews) and Bibi are not one and the same. For years Bibi's backers in the U.S. have sought to undermine American Jewish support for the Democrats, hoping for a right-wing realignment of American, American Jewish, and Israeli politics. This ambition needs to be frustrated.
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The Iran Accord is arguably the most significant strategic setback to Israeli diplomacy since the founding of the Jewish State.

Friends of Israel, especially dovish ones on the left like me, need to bracket, at least for a moment, the debate over the deal's pros and cons and raise some disquieting questions.

But first, an admission: I think the accord bodes great ill for the Middle East (not just Israel) and has profoundly unsettling implications for advocates of nuclear non-proliferation.

Scorn for "Bibi" Netanyahu, I fear, clouds perceptions of big stakes. Until Israel's friends admit that the scorn is (mostly) earned, they will be unable to help extricate Israel from its diplomatic straits.

Bibi has owned Israeli foreign policy since he became prime minister on 2009. The record: repeated failures, increasing isolation. He has now mishandled Iran, estranging many supporters of Israel with reckless attempts to mortgage Israel's future to the Republican right, and dividing American Jews. He is the Great Squanderer of friendships, blaming anti-Semitism for all his blunders and making it harder to address real anti-Semitism.

The problem goes beyond him. His ruling right-wing Likud party has a long history of miscalculation combined with ideologically blinkered, blustery rhetoric. Religious-nationalist zealots, partners in and backers of his government, share these traits.

The pattern goes back to the Zionist right-wing's founder, Vladimir Jabotinsky. In the 1920s and 1930s he made imperious demands for a Jewish state "on both sides of the Jordan river" when the Jewish community in Palestine was small, weak and in need of friends in a dangerous world. He scorned the Zionist left for its reasonable, balanced priorities.

A prerequisite for Israel's creation in 1948 was the defeat of Jabotinskyism in Zionist politics in the 1930s by the more level-headed Labor movement led by David Ben-Gurion.

In the interim, in early 1944, Menachem Begin, Jabotinsky's successor and head of a right-wing underground, proclaimed a "revolt" against the British in Palestine - just as the Allies prepared to attack Occupied Europe. This demonstrated a singular lack of strategic sense -- unless you don't think defeating the Nazis was the top priority.

Four decades later Begin, prime minister after electoral upheaval in 1977, led Israel into an ill-conceived war in Lebanon.

Bibi first became prime minister in 1996, after playing his part in scandalous rabble-rousing against premier Yitzhak Rabin just before the latter's assassination. In office Bibi sought to undermine the Oslo Accords (many Palestinians did too). For years he insisted that Iran's pursuit of nuclear weaponry promised grave menace. He was right, if unoriginal. Rabin warned likewise but understood that a worried, small country needs to bolster alliances, not alienate friends -- with settlements, for example.

Bibi and his allies made Palestinian settlements in occupied territories more of a priority than security. They deployed resentment-filled hyperbole to put-off critics; they and backers like the rightwing Zionist Organization of America imagined they could maneuver without consequence in U.S. politics on behalf of their rigid world-view. Bibi's irresponsible trip to Congress last winter was just one example. It delighted truculent Republicans who oppose President Barack Obama no matter the issue -- regardless if it is serious or trivial, whether or not the White House is right.

Isaac Herzog, leader of Israel's opposition Labor party, was on target when he declared in July that Bibi's government created "an incomprehensible rift with our biggest ally in the world - the United States...."

The blistering offensive by Bibi and his allies against the Iran deal in Congress, where the chance for meaningful success was nil, covered up Bibi's failures. Even had Bibi and his backers won, Israel would have lost. In fact, it has.

It is not just foreign policy. As Herzog also pointed out, the Jewish state suffers from outrageously high costs of living and housing. Bibi, formerly a finance minister, has long embraced right-wing American economic ideas. The gap between rich and poor is now dramatic -- in what was once among the most egalitarian societies in the world.

Herzog also pointed out that Bib's current government has sought to undermine the media and the legal system to its own ends: it threatens "the very fabric of democracy. This government needs to be replaced..."

Just how many Israel-friendly Democrats and American Jews does Bibi want to alienate? Recalibration is needed.

Real friends of Israel should not provide him cover. They should insist instead that Israel (and Jews) and Bibi are not one and the same. For years Bibi's backers in the U.S. have sought to undermine American Jewish support for the Democrats, hoping for a right-wing realignment of American, American Jewish, and Israeli politics. This ambition needs to be frustrated.

How? By reinforcing vigorously American Jewish support for Democrats. By buttressing American support for progressive forces in Israel. By rejecting both the exploitation of Israel by Republicans, in their efforts to steer the U.S. in the wrong direction. By rebuffing Israeli rightists, secular and religious, who have jointly pushed the Jewish state down a woeful course.

Did Israel need an ex-Republican hack, Ron Dermer, as Ambassador to Washington? Why? To encourage bipartisan support or to bind American Jews to the Republicans? Why is Danny Danon Israel's new UN Ambassador? This Likud extremist tried to interfere in the last presidential elections on behalf of Mitt Romney. Early this past summer Michael Oren, an American-born right-winger and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., chastised the Obama administration and "the left" in a series of articles and a book. But he doesn't own up to the disastrous situation created by the government he served.

And then there is BDS. Worried about its boycott campaign against Israel? Why not place Bibi's billionaire buddy, Sheldon Adelson, on the front line fighting it? After all, he and his friends in the GOP's far right-wing are anathema to anyone you'd need to convince that BDS is wrong and McCarthyist. (BDS is both: "Raise your left hand. Are you now or have you ever been an eater of Sabra Humus?").

President Obama and Secretary John Kerry may merit some smart, forceful criticisms when it comes to their Middle East policies. But in the form of arguments, not posturing; and without obscuring the hefty contribution of Bibi and his allies to the present reality.

Some folks of the far left, illiterate in Middle Eastern history but expert at confusing anti-Western Islamist extremism with legitimate anti-imperialism, get goose-bumps when Hamas or Hizbollah shouts"Resistance!" Once they thought Ayatollah Khomeini embodied "liberation."
Now they celebrate Israel's setback on Iran, not recognizing that it also makes a Palestinian state as practicable trusting the Ayatollahs running Iran.

Look at the mess surrounding Israel. Think of Washington's role in it's creation, from Iraq (Bush went in badly, Obama went out badly) and Syria to Libya. Then imagine a dovish Israeli - someone opposed to Bibi but concerned sensibly about Israeli security - trying to convince fellow citizens to accept Western guarantees in return for strategic concessions in this current constellation. (One conclusion: doves need new, inventive strategies)

Back in 2006 (after Israel withdrew from Gaza), George W. Bush pressed for Palestinian elections when circumstances were obviously unpropitious. Hamas, an obstacle to peace, won. "Democracy is democracy," a friend said to me.

But democracy also means you get what comes with those you elect. Israelis are rightly proud to live in a democracy (it exists only within the 1967 borders). Bibi and his comrades were elected. Sadly, Israelis too will face consequences.

Israel's friends, Jewish and non-Jewish, need to shout loudly and clearly to Israel's citizenry on this New Year: Your leaders are shaping treacherous landscapes.

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