Never Trust Netanyahu

The Israeli prime minister’s last-minute political ploys prove that he’s an opportunist of the worst kind. And the U.S. has to stop enabling his bad behavior.


In recent weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown once again that he will do pretty much anything it takes to stay in power. If that means weakening Israel’s relationship with the United States, its most important ally, he will do that. If it means sinking to the level of crude, Jim Crow-like race-baiting, he will go there. If it means telling a huge whopper of a lie that anyone with a reasonable level of intelligence can see through, he will tell that lie. The key to understanding Netanyahu’s personality is to take it as self-evident that he cares about only two things: staying in power and maintaining Israeli control over the Golan and the occupied Palestinian territories.

March 17’s electoral victory for Netanyahu shocked both Israeli liberals and foreign observers. The received wisdom throughout the campaign was that ordinary people were more concerned with pocketbook issues than security and that Bibi’s controversial March 3 address to the U.S. Congress had not only failed to garner him a bump in the polls, but had actually elicited a backlash for his having damaged relations with the United States. It seemed that Netanyahu’s practiced “shtick,” as one colleague called it, wasn’t working anymore. According to the final poll taken before election day, Netanyahu’s Likud party stood to win 20 seats, while its main rival, the Zionist Union, was holding steady at 24. Perhaps Netanyahu had been in power so long that he no longer understood his voters?

It turned out, of course, that Bibi understood them far better than anyone. During the days immediately before the election, he basically went to the mattresses with the most vulgar, racist crude populism imaginable. He appealed to voters’ fears and to their need to belong to a tribe — the tribe of Likud supporters, who are as unquestioningly loyal to their party as an Englishman is to his soccer team.

In a video interview with NRG, the Israeli digital news site owned by American casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, Netanyahu explicitly said that he would never allow the establishment of a Palestinian state on his watch. On his very active Facebook page and via Twitter, SMS messages, and robot voice mails, he exhorted Israelis to vote for him because he was all that stood between them and a left-wing government that would divide Jerusalem and withdraw to the 1967 boundaries, leaving the West Bank open for the Islamic State to establish an outpost overlooking Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Airport.

Most notoriously, on election day itself he recorded a 30-second video for Facebook that shows him standing in front of a map of the Middle East as he says urgently, as though calling up the army reserves for a national security emergency, “The government of the right is in danger. Arabs are coming out in droves to the polling stations. Leftist NGOs are busing them in.” He even used the term “Tzav 8,” which refers to an emergency army call-up notice.

As one prominent Israeli journalist, Hanoch Daum, noted in a widely shared Facebook status, if one were to subtract the ultra-Orthodox voters and the votes of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, one in three Israelis voted for Likud. And the majority of the Knesset seats went to parties that were in the right-wing, nationalist camp.

The rest of the world was shocked, but the fact is that Israel has become a right-wing society where nakedly racist language is common. “Arab taste” is a well-known term for vulgar, ostentatious style, for example. Right-wing legislators have in recent years physically assaulted Arab Knesset members while they were giving speeches. There are many examples that would shock Western liberals but are shrugged off in Israel. Members of the Knesset have given speeches in which they referred to migrants from Sudan as “a cancer in our body.”

Similarly, the international media has worked itself into quite a tizzy over Netanyahu’s repudiation of the establishment of a Palestinian state. But last July, when he said in a speech that he would never allow a Palestinian state without an Israeli military presence on its territory — which is just another name for military occupation — that speech went almost unremarked upon in the international media and was barely mentioned by Israeli media. It seems that the blunt phrasing Netanyahu used in the NRG interview, coming on top of his having blithely insulted U.S. President Barack Obama with his March 3 speech to Congress, proved to be a sort of tipping point.

The White House indicated that Israel would face consequences in the diplomatic arena for having repudiated the two-state solution. A few months ago, Haaretz reported on a leaked European Union document that specified sanctions to be imposed on Israel in the event it officially rejected negotiating a withdrawal from the West Bank and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Suddenly it seemed that Netanyahu might have gone just a bit too far.

But then, another volte-face: On Thursday, March 19, just two days after the election, Netanyahu calmly told a reporter for MSNBC that he had not, in fact, repudiated the idea of two states. Rather, he said, the reality had changed. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refused to acknowledge Israel as the Jewish state, and furthermore he had made a pact with Hamas to destroy Israel.

Both statements are, in effect, lies. It was Netanyahu who changed the situation in 2009 by imposing upon Abbas the condition of acknowledging Israel as a Jewish state. This was an entirely new condition that had never been part of previous negotiations with the Palestinians. As for the alleged Hamas-PLO pact, there is no such thing. Netanyahu simply made it up. But his delivery is very convincing, and he is poised beyond measure when he speaks to the American media and answers their softball questions. No wonder he has all but boycotted the Israeli media for years, while giving regular interviews to American networks.

The question now is whether the United States will continue to be Netanyahu’s enabler. Two days after he said in Hebrew, very clearly and without any equivocation, that he would never allow a Palestinian state to be established on his watch, he calmly told an American journalist in English, which he speaks fluently and without a foreign accent, that he had not meant what he said.

Israel has occupied the West Bank for nearly 50 years now. It has maintained its military closure on Gaza for nearly a decade, with no indication that it is even considering a change in policy. This is not a sustainable situation. Almost 13 million people are living on territory controlled by Israel, but only 8 million have the right to vote. At some point, Americans who talk about shared values are going to have to ask whether Jim Crow is one of those values. Given the emotional outpouring to the speech Obama gave on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, on the 50th anniversary of the Selma freedom march, I would say probably not. The Obama administration should stop pretending it doesn’t quite see that Netanyahu is lying to it and that it doesn’t know he can’t be trusted. The best thing this administration could do would be to declare that the prime minister is persona non grata.

Photo credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Lisa Goldman is a policy analyst at the New America Foundation and a contributing editor for +972 magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @lisang.