There is a lot of soul-seeking about how we should portray the latest crisis between Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza. Does the west’s outsized interest in what happens between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean reflect ancestral anti-Semitism? Is the media too obsessed by a relatively small territory (comprising 14m people including the occupied territories and Gaza)? How many air strikes would it take for us to care half as much about what is happening in Ethiopia, say, or the Democratic Republic of Congo — countries with far higher populations and death tolls? Such questions are highly relevant yet destined never to be settled, I fear. (For more on this read a smart take by Eric Levitz in the New York Magazine.)
As a non-Jewish, non-Arab journalist who has never been based in the Middle East, there is no reason for me to take a view, except in so far as Middle Eastern events have a bearing on Joe Biden’s presidency. Unfortunately they do. Biden is arguably at the wrong end of a generational divide in a Democratic party that no longer offers automatic fealty to Israel. Terms such as “apartheid” and “double standards” have entered liberal discourse. Biden cannot afford to turn a blind eye to what is happening in Gaza. As Leon Trotsky might have told him: “You might no longer be interested in the Middle East, but the Middle East is interested in you.” The Council on Foreign Relations’ Martin Indyk has a very thoughtful piece here about how the Middle East could affect Biden’s larger China-centric foreign policy.
My focus is on the politics. Israel, under Benjamin Netanyahu, has been arguably the most important Petri dish of modern electoral populism. To be sure, Silvio Berlusconi’s political ascent in Italy had already been completed before Netanyahu became Israel’s prime minister. But Berlusconi was a one-man Italian comic opera. Netanyahu is the real deal.
Long before Donald Trump ran for the US presidency, Netanyahu was perfecting the art of converting social resentments into political power. This is no place to rehearse the history of the modern Likud party, but it is worth mentioning that far-right parties across the west have sat at Netanyahu’s feet and learned. That is one reason why once anti-Semitic parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement party (previously the Front National) in France and Austria’s Freedom party are now ardently pro-Israel. Another is a common xenophobia towards Muslims within their midst. Hungary’s Viktor Orban is also an ardent Likudnik — the more Israeli settlements in the West Bank the better. Orban and Netanyahu also share a hatred of George Soros. Netanyahu has even borrowed anti-Semitic tropes from his Hungarian counterpart. Who could have imagined 20 years ago that the leader of the Jewish state would use such tactics against a New York financier to boost his vote back home?
The abiding trait of populist leaders is to do whatever it takes to hold on to power, regardless of the consequences to everyone else. Trump really tried. But Netanyahu — Israel’s longest-serving leader — is hard to beat. Israel’s latest exchange of missiles with Hamas in Gaza is just the most recent example. The Gaza crisis precipitated the collapse of talks to form a new Israeli coalition that would have excluded Netanyahu — and drastically increased his chances of going to jail on several corruption charges. Now he will live to fight another day, and possibly another election.
That same nihilistic urge has also done enormous damage to support for Israel among Jewish Americans, particularly younger ones. To prolong his power in Israel, Netanyahu effectively joined the Republican party when he spoke to a joint session of Congress against the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by Barack Obama, the then US president — a red line no foreign leader should cross. Netanyahu then threw in his lot in with Trump.
Most American Jews are Democrats. To them Israel is now treated as Republican — or worse, Trumpian Republican. It is hard to dispute that verdict. So who are Netanyahu’s friends in the US? Leaving aside the legendary American Israel Public Affairs Committee, that distinction belongs to the Christian evangelical community. As I have written before, with friends like the Southern Baptist Convention, Israel doesn’t need enemies. America’s biblical fundamentalists are politically philo-Semitic, and theologically anti-Semitic. They support Israel for all the wrong reasons (something to do with the end of days and the second coming of Christ — but really, life’s too short). The same, of course, applies to Le Pen et al in Europe.
I don’t know Israel nearly well enough to prescribe a solution to the deep-seated Palestinian-Israeli crisis. But I know enough about populists to say that they are in it for themselves at the ultimate expense of everyone else. Netanyahu’s mantra is Israeli security, just as Trump’s was making America great again. Both of them specialise in bait and switch. Netanyahu is just smarter at it.
Rana, do you think Biden can hold the traditional Democratic line about there being no daylight between Israel and the US? Or do you think something fundamental has changed? I imagine that you, like me, have quite a few conflicted Jewish friends. Almost none are in any doubt about Netanyahu, who is reviled. But many American Jews have understandable reservations about why so much of the west cares so much about the fate of Palestinians, as opposed, say, to Myanmar’s Rohingya.
Ed, I do think something fundamental has changed, two things in fact. First is the changing profile of American Jews themselves. As a recent Pew study found, Jews in the US are notably less religious than Christians and Americans overall. And while 82 per cent of American Jews say caring about Israel is either “essential” or “important” to their Jewish identity, more than half also view Netanyahu negatively.
Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, is that America’s fundamental energy interest in the Middle East is changing. The shale revolution (short term) and the Green New Deal and Biden’s climate initiatives (longer term) would make the US less dependent on the Middle East and north Africa region for energy. In turn, it has less of an urgent need for an ally in the region on this specific matter. Dan Yergin has a fascinating chapter on what energy shifts will mean for geopolitics in his book The New Map (chapter 8) which is worth a close read.
And now a word from our Swampians . . .
In response to: ‘Not all industrial policy is created equal’:“This passage of yours seemed notable: ‘I’d love to see some really competent ex-military leader in such a role — someone who isn’t captured by the private sector or bogged down by the challenges of being a career politician.’ This is an exceptionally common sentiment in the United States — it’s why Russel Honoré was appointed to oversee the January 6 inquiry, and why Gustave Perna was handed Operation Warp Speed. Enthusiasm for handing our most critical societal challenges to flag officers sees bipartisan enthusiasm. It is also, I would suggest, something of a civic danger. It mischaracterises our flag officers, who quite often are ‘captured by the private sector’ — especially as they eye lucrative post-retirement employment — and are just as often ‘bogged down by the challenges of being a career politician’, as any reasonable person might be if one’s next promotion depended on the affirmation of the United States Senate. It also raises questions with fairly serious implications for our democracy . . . What happens to a republic that must turn to its soldiery over and over again for the execution of its politics?” — Joshua Treviño, Austin, Texas