Saturday, November 28, 2020

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Donald Trump at Ben Gurion international airport in Tel Aviv, in May 2017. Photograph: GPO/Getty Images

Like abortion and taxes, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel is one more flashpoint in America under Donald Trump. As millennials, minorities, women and liberals don’t readily cotton to the 45th president, their support for the Jewish state cannot be assumed. In the words of a recent Economist/YouGov poll: “When it comes to Israel, American views are partisan.”

At the 1988 Democratic convention, delegates rejected a call for a Palestinian state but not before Chuck Schumer, then a congressman from Brooklyn, found himself subject to the ire of Jesse Jackson’s supporters. Back then, Israel was led by a coalition government that ranged from right to center-left, including Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

But when it comes to US politics under Trump, Netanyahu is no mere bystander. Two recent and exhaustively researched biographies, Ben Caspit’s The Netanyahu Years and Anshel Pfeffer’s Bibi, shine serious light on how Israel’s standing within the US has shifted, with their subject playing no small role. Besting Barack Obama, as Netanyahu did, solidified his status with conservatives in both countries – but at a lingering cost in the US.

According to Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster and former instructor of Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s one-time hand-picked ambassador to Washington, “Israel has won the hearts and minds of Republicans in America, while at the same time it is losing the Democrats.”

A recent resolution passed by the House reaffirmed US support for Israel and a two-state solution. Republicans and progressive Democrats were displeased, albeit for different reasons.

Suffice to say, Netanyahu is not a perfect fit with the minority and youth-driven, upstairs-downstairs coalition that occupies an ever larger space within the Democratic party, or with the predominantly although not exclusively liberal US Jewish community. In Israel, Trump’s popularity hovers near 70%. Among US Jews the figure is the polar opposite.

Both Caspit and Pfeffer speak with authority. Caspit is a reporter for Israel’s Maariv daily. Pfeffer, English by birth and an occasional contributor to the Guardian, writes for Haaretz, the liberal broadsheet which, with the New York Times, Netanyahu considers an enemy of the state, a reminder that Trump-style authoritarianism-lite knows no borders.

Benzion’s son drank at the same well as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the late senator Jesse Helms. Both Caspit and Pfeffer recount how, in 1996, Netanyahu turned to Arthur Finkelstein, a conservative political guru, to defeat Peres in his maiden political contest. The late Finkelstein was legendary in Republican and conservative circles.

With Roger Stone (now convicted) and others, Finkelstein was a founder of the National Conservative Political Action Committee. Finkelstein, Stone and Paul Manafort (now imprisoned) purportedly worked together more than a decade ago – in Ukraine.

On election day 2015, he was busy warning Jewish voters that Israel’s Arabs, who are Israeli citizens, were voting “in droves”. To many, including Obama, that 11th-hour campaign pitch sounded like a blast from America’s past.

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Obama zeroed in, saying: “Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly.” Netanyahu attempted to walk it back but the White House wasn’t buying.

As the Israeli prime minister has privately acknowledged, he does not speak “Democratic”. Those around Netanyahu also concede that he either cannot or will not internalize America’s changing demographics.

Now under indictment, Netanyahu faces prosecution and is looking to invoke parliamentary immunity. According to recent reports, he is taking his cues from Breitbart’s Israel operations and seeking to bolster his campaign with assistance from Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, two Trump stalwarts. Support for Israel and the heart of the Republican party have both shifted right.

Like Trump, who clings to America’s white evangelicals for dear life, Netanyahu has wedded himself to Israel’s religiously observant populations. Here, the parallels are particularly strong. Neither Trump nor Netanyahu is devout and each is on his third wife.

Trump married Marla Maples while she was pregnant with Tiffany. Netanyahu married Sara under similar circumstances, although Netanyahu required some persuasion before he again tied the knot. Where Trump has Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal to haunt him, Netanyahu was reported to have a sex tape hanging over head, which featured a married woman. Under religious law, that is a capital offense.

No harm no foul. As Israel’s religious communities weren’t turned off by Netanyahu’s hijinks, so have America’s white evangelicals shown the capacity to forgive and forget Trump’s trespasses. It as if Netanyahu served as a template. Transactional politics is universal and piety a guarantee of little, perhaps except as one more flavor of conformity.

Most damning is Pfeffer’s take on Netanyahu’s relations with leaders of authoritarian regimes. Netanyahu, he writes, feels “more at ease with leaders” like Trump, Putin, Egypt’s Sisi and India’s Modi, “‘strongmen’ with a disregard for liberal democracy who saw in Netanyahu a kindred spirit”.

Pedestrians walk next to a Likud party election campaign banner in Bnei Brak, Israel in September.
 Pedestrians walk next to a Likud party election campaign banner in Bnei Brak, Israel, in September. Photograph: Ammar Awad/Reuters

On that score, enter Daniel Gordis’s wistful and elegiac We Stand Divided, which focuses on the “rift between American Jews and Israel” but is also an implicit lament that American Jews have morphed into an iteration of modern-day Quakers, educated and mercantile but not hyper-ethnocentric.

Unlike Caspit and Pfeffer, Gordis makes no mention of Trump or Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire benefactor of the US president and Netanyahu who subsidizes a pro-Netanyahu Israeli daily and is a potential witness in the Israeli government’s criminal case against Netanyahu. Adelson also funded the Shalem Institute, which launched Gordis’s Jerusalem-based Shalem College.

The American-born Gordis is comfortable with ethnicity and religion playing greater roles in Israel’s public square, and yearns for a rapprochement between American Jews and Israel that may not come.

The fact is, Jews have carved a niche in America’s mainstream just as other hyphenated Americans did before them. The Puritans ultimately succumbed to the temptations of the figurative forest; Gordis offers no answer as to why Jews would be different. Jewish immigration to America was simply about escaping the old world, as opposed to founding a City on a Hill, a reality Gordis acknowledges.

These competing sentiments continue to play out in Israel’s fractious and freewheeling political system. In less than a year, Israel’s voters have gone to the polls twice but have been unable to elect a government. A third election is set for early March. Here and there, democracy and the rule of law are being tested by two leaders for whom “l’état, c’est moi” is a rule to live by.

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