Benjamin Netanyahu is so eager to see Mitt Romney elected president that he’s making a fool of himself.
For the last couple of weeks, the Israeli prime minister has been the featured player in a Republican-sponsored TV ad playing in Florida. It shows excerpts from Netanyahu’s United Nations speech last month in which he tacitly attacks President Obama for his failure to set a clear red line for Iran’s nuclear program.
“The world tells Israel: ‘Wait, there’s still time,’” he says. “And I say, wait for what? Wait until when?”
No, Netanyahu didn’t plan or buy the campaign ad. Secure America Now, a group run by longtime Republican strategists, put it up. But Florida is filled with Israeli emigres and American Jews. There’s no question that Netanyahu knows all about the ad and has made no effort to criticize or blunt it. An anonymous Israeli official did tell the news media that the prime minister’s office had nothing to do with the ad and did not approve of it. That’s all.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu called for early elections to take place early next year. How would he like it if an opponent began airing TV ads that showed Obama openly criticizing him? And then, when asked about it, an anonymous White House aide managed to say something banal, like: “Oh, we didn’t authorize that.”
If Netanyahu has no interest in taking sides in the American presidential election, then he should issue a strong statement or hold a press conference to declare that he does not support the use of his U.N. remarks in a partisan campaign ad.
But he didn’t say a word. Not one. And the reason is clear: He does not like Obama, and Obama doesn’t like him. Remember the Group of 20 summit in France late last year, when Obama was overheard chatting with Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president? Neither knew the mike was open.
“Netanyahu, I can’t stand him,” Sarkozy leaned over and told Obama. “He’s a liar.”
Obama responded, “You are sick of him, but I have to work with him every day.”
But Israeli leaders seldom if ever benefit politically by picking a fight with America, the state’s only true ally and benefactor. Already, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a former Labor Party prime minister, is turning away from Netanyahu after years of near-slavish loyalty ― all because of his rift with Washington, Barak says.
The Israeli news media quoted Netanyahu asserting that Barak is deliberately trying to exacerbate tensions with Washington for his own benefit. In response, Barak’s office argued that he’s only working “to strengthen relations with the United States and at their heart, the security relationship.”
Before the Israeli Knesset last month, Shaul Mofaz, leader of the centrist Kadima party loudly complained: “Israeli meddling in internal U.S. affairs and turning the U.S. administration from an ally to an enemy has caused us severe damage.”
The way most Israeli politicians see it, however, they’re almost always better off with a Republican in the White House. That seems especially true for Netanyahu, who was Mitt Romney’s friend and colleague decades ago. Romney has said that if elected, he will turn to Netanyahu for Middle East advice ― a dangerous move, in my view.
Israeli politicians generally see Republican presidents as more friendly and loyal. The exception was George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker. They got into a heated argument with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir about West Bank settlements ― the very issue that first began to sour Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu in 2009.
But since the Bush-Baker days in the early 1990s, evangelical Christians, millions of them, have become a powerful force in American politics. They are unwavering supporters of Israel, no matter what. Talk to them, as I have, and they sound as right wing as Israeli settlers.
President George W. Bush certainly had them in mind when he carried himself as Israel’s best friend during his eight years in office. And Netanyahu is certainly aware of them now. Thousands of evangelicals demonstrated in Jerusalem last week.
But other Israelis worry. Bradley Burston, a columnist for Haaretz, a liberal Israeli paper, published a column last month with the headline: “Netanyahu must set red lines on his malice for Obama. And soon.”
Netanyahu’s antagonistic remarks, he added, “play directly into the hands of Iran.” And in fact, a few days later, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad criticized Netanyahu, not surprisingly, and quipped: “The U.S. elections are a domestic issue. We will not meddle in that at all.”
By Joel Brinkley
Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times. ― Ed.
(Tribune Media Services)