I'm directing this note against my Internet friends and many others who think that Benyamin Netanyahu is an extremist, against Barack Obama who has told a number of people that Netanyahu is a pest, and against analysts who assert that Israel is a marginal issue in the American election.
I concede that there is some truth in all of this, but it is also clear to me that Netanyahu has served Israel well by succeeding in putting Iran's nuclear program high on the international agenda. Pest he may be, but pest he should be, given all that Iran's leadership has said about Israel, and the ample evidence that it has spent years wasting the time of international worthies who would negotiate and move only slowly and gradually to serious sanctions.
Obama's complaints about Netanyahu--explicitly to Nicolas Sarkozy and by allusions to the public--rank as one of the President's least praiseworthy activities along with his insistence that Israel stop construction for Jews in neighborhoods of Jerusalem. He may have thought that such action would bring the Palestinian leadership to negotiations, and the onset of a breakthrough that others had sought for 40 or 60 years. However, those aspirations, as well as his public annoyance with Netanyahu, have marked him as equivalent to Mark Twain's "innocent abroad." If he is the best the United States could produce in their concern for world leadership, then Americans ought to work harder at their politics.
The latest from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that the United States must look past the violence and extremism that has erupted after the "Arab Spring" revolutions and boost support for the region's young democracies to forge long-term security, suggests the need for more copies in Washington of Mark Twain's classic. Clinton's claim to have found "those who are working every day to strengthen democratic institutions, defend universal rights, and drive inclusive economic growth" suggests that she is watching a different set of news clips from Libya, Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Bahrain than the rest of us.
For what it's worth, a recent poll finds Jewish Israelis turning further against Obama, and seeing him moreo pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel.
Netanyahu's repeated complaints about Iran and his prodding of other national leaders have been nothing if not moderate. Against Iran's assertions that Israel should be destroyed, Netanyahu has made no threat about destroying Iran. And insofar as we can make some assumptions about present national capacities, it is Israel who can send Iran back into the Dark Ages. Iran, for its part, appears to be still some time away from being able to penetrate Israel's defenses with any serious destruction.
The latest news from two nations' politics is that Bibi remains on top of Israel's polls, while Obama is in trouble. The American election is on November 6th. Israel's election--recently announced-- will occur on January 22nd. A "theoretical cluster" of centrist and left of center parties might overcome Netanyahu, but there are personal egos and organizational rivalries in the way of that theoretical grouping. Those supporting the theoretical cluster will also have to cope with the recent conviction on a charge of corruption of the man mentioned as its theoretical leader, Ehud Olmert. Olmert told the court that he had no political aspirations, which was important in the court's decision not to add a component of "shame" to its guilty verdict, that would have kept him from running in near-term elections. Still pending is a decision of the prosecutors whether to appeal Olmert's not guilty verdict on another charge of corruption, and his ongoing trial for other varieties of corruption.
News from Iran is of sanctions that are hurting, and from Washington that additional tightening is coming. One can see Bibi's postering as prominent among the elements that has led Western govenments to impose sanctions, against their reluctance to give up the economic benefits from buying energy from Iran and selling it goods and services. It has not been hard to see implied threats in Bibi's statements, but nothing as explicit or as apocalyptic as coming from Iran.
Iran may be far from the principal issue in the American election, and far even from an issue likely to determine the votes of anything more than a small minority of American Jews. Yet it is visible enough, and arguably has been a factor in leading the President to announce a hardening of sanctions in response to the challenges of the Republican nominees, and well as the continuing pestiness of Israel's Prime Minister.
None of this makes Israel a "great power." Nevertheless, its history of its people, along with the resources of the IDF, and the crudeness of its adversary, have made it a factor of considerable weight.
Some of those who accuse Netanyahu of extremism focus on his actions with respect to settlements and the ultra-Orthodox. On both matters, he has done things that bother numerous Israelis and produce a quest for a more appealing party. That aspiration may prove elusive. Moreover, Netanyahu is not over the line that distinguishes conventional politics from extremism. He has maintained a coalition longer than any prime minister since the 1980s, or since the Palestinians began their restiveness and violence of Intifadas #1 and #2. He has given in to the settlers and the Haredim, sometimes in ways that seem close to personal support.. Insofar as the Israeli public has continued to record positive sentiments toward him and his Likud party at the polls and in surveys of public opinion, he hardly qualifies as an extremist.
Whether we like it or not, the settlers have gained considerable support, at least of the passive variety. Israelis give them what they want, perhaps due to frustration with Palestinians' inability to accept Israel and bargain an end to further settlement in a reasonable way. The Haredim, like the settlers, provoke oppositon within Israel, but they vote in something approaching unison, according to their rabbis' instructions. Along with the settlers, they represent a substantial slice of Jewish reality. And Israel qualifies--with or without international applause--as a Jewish democracy.
In the nature of Israel's parliamentary democracy, it will be some days, or more likely weeks, until we know who will be Netanyahu's competitors, and what will be the line-up of individual candidates on the lists of Likud and the other parties.
As has occurred in numerous previous elections, aspiring politicians are seeking to position themselves as ideal centrists. Newe parties claiming to be centrist have come and gone, with Kadima now on the verge of disappearing. All have suffered from a lack of ideological cement. Their avowed way of being pragmatic has worked for the conditions of an election or two, but no longer. They typically have formed around a personality with a modicum of prominence, but have suffered from hangers on who proved embarrassing. Currently on deck is the new and pretty face of Yair Lapid, who--according to speculation--may be risking his future by lining up with colleagues who may be seen as political has beens, (Tzipi Livni), or has beens with a police record (i.e., Haim Ramon and Ehud Olmert).
Both the American and Israeli national elections have the capacity to provoke deep thoughts about what they mean. Enough Americans to make a difference seem to be pondering the charm of having elected the first African-American president, along with his failure to produce anything close to the Change that he promised. Israelis seem untroubled by close neighbors who have been deep in their own problems for the past year and one-half. The "peace process" still touted by the White House is in deep coma. Iran raises the prospect of yet another Holocaust, but that issue may be too big for simple translation into a vote for or against one party or another.
From Freiburg im Breisgau, a lovely little city with lots of Stolpersteine.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem