By Matthew E. Milliken
March 20, 2015
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, prides himself on taking a hard-nosed approach to security issues. He’s been warning for more than 20 years that Iran was just a few years away from building a functional nuclear bomb. He’s a longtime proponent of building settlements in the West Bank, an initiative that diminishes the possibility of establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside the Jewish nation of Israel — the so-called two-state solution.
But Netanyahu’s Likud Party was struggling in the polls leading up to Tuesday’s elections, in part because many Israelis are focused on economic issues, not national security. So Netanyahu doubled down on his core issues.
As Daniel Estrin of the Associated Press reported from Jerusalem:
[A]mid signs that his six-year reign could be in jeopardy, Netanyahu has veered sharply to the right in the closing days of the campaign. On Tuesday, he reiterated a pledge to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state — backtracking from six years of his own policy and putting him at odds with the United States and other Western allies.
At midday, Netanyahu claimed high Arab voter turnout was putting his right wing Likud Party’s rule “in danger,” according to a posting on his Facebook page. “Arab voters are going to the polls in droves. Left wing organizations are bringing them in buses,” he said.
He also called on supporters to vote for him to “narrow the gap” between Likud and the Zionist Union. “With your help, and with the help of God, we will build a nationalist government that will protect the state of Israel,” he said.
Netanyahu’s comments toward Israeli Arab voters were remarkable because they targeted Israeli citizens, and they quickly attracted accusations of racism. Israel’s Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the population, have long complained of discrimination. A new joint list of Arab parties, unifying four factions, has energized Arab voters and is poised to make big gains in the race.
It’s not yet clear how much Netanyahu’s late-campaign push — which, as Slate’s William Saletan noted, included a TV advertisement showing the prime minister receiving a standing ovation during his supposedly apolitical March 3 address to Congress — affected the final vote. But there’s something very telling about the American reaction to Netanyahu’s re-election.
Jeffrey Goldberg writing Wednesday in The Atlantic, explicitly linked the right-wing Israeli’s campaign tactics to those favored by the U.S. conservatives who so fervently embrace Netanyahu:
It is often said (by me, among others) that Netanyahu would do very well as a Republican candidate for governor or senator in America. In the past, I imagined him fitting in with the fiscally conservative, rhetorically responsible, socially tolerant, foreign-policy hawkish wing of the party. What I didn’t fully understand was just how much of Lee Atwater he had in him. Atwater, you’ll remember, was the South Carolina Republican operative who was one of the prime innovators of racial dog-whistling, an approach used by a good number of Republicans to instill fear in white voters.
Netanyahu, of course, wasn’t dog-whistling here: He didn’t refer, say, to “people in Israel’s north who don’t have Jewish interests at heart,” or some other such variation (Paul Ryan’s “urban” voter formulation from 2012 comes to mind). Instead, he screamed, “The Arabs are coming!”
Netanyahu’s fans seemed to waste no time gloating over the prime minister’s re-election, as the Salon headline over Luke Brinker’s Twitter roundup put it. “BIBI wins! Terrorists and the Obama Administration hardest hit!” tweeted John Hawkins, a columnist for the conservative site Town Hall.
“BREAKING: Bibi has placed a call to Obama to thank him for throwing a hissy fit over his speech to Congress,” tweeted Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, adding: “Probably saved his premiership.” Now, I don’t particularly remember the U.S. president throwing a hissy fit, per se. Still, Kristol’s tweet made me wonder how calmly Kristol would have reacted to, say, the Democratic Senate inviting French President Jacques Chirac to give an address on Capitol Hill opposing President George W. Bush’s belligerent attitude toward Iraq in 2002.
I’m not sure which conservative tweet represents the most telling reaction to Netanyahu’s election victory. One candidate is Ben Shapiro’s tone-deaf message; it said only, “Netanyahu reacts to vote count,” but it was accompanied by this GIF of Robert Duvall as the crazed Col. Kilgore exuberantly yelling, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” in Apocalypse Now. The clip is accompanied by a picture of explosions blooming on a verdant Vietnamese landscape.
Does Shapiro remember anything about how the Vietnam War (or Apocalypse Now) ended? Does he have any compunction about a government commanding young men and women to kill other men and women, not to mention the occasional child and senior citizen? One wonders.
The other tweet that caught my eye (which also was highlighted by Salon) was part of an exchange. On Tuesday, Goldberg tweeted, “[T]his is a measure of Bibi’s commitment to democracy: He just warned his supporters that Arabs are voting in large numbers.”
John Podhoretz, the editor in chief of Commentary, pooh-poohed Goldberg’s concern: “[W]hy don’t you just tweet ‘Bibi stinks’ every 45 seconds? It’s about the same.”
Goldberg deflected this rhetorical query and asked Podhoretz his opinion of Netanyahu’s warning.
The response: “[G]ee, what a shocker he’d try to scare right wingers to the polls. Whoever heard of such a thing. Get me my smelling salts.”
Podhoretz’s blasé attitude toward Netanyahu’s statement clashes with the complaint you hear from American conservatives, who say liberals are wrong to suspect the right of trying to win elections with racist appeals.
That’s the funny thing about how conservatives in the U.S. — a group of which the American-educated and crypto-Republican Netanyahu is certainly a part — think about race. It’s never a real thing … until it is. But even then, even when it’s impossible to deny that someone is using coded language (because the code is about as tough to crack as pig latin), Podhoretz and his ilk then insist that it’s not really an act with any moral dimensions. It’s just politics! Like voters’ preference for taller candidates, or their aversion to politicians who don’t want to kiss their babies but do want to win their vote, campaigning with “the Arabs are coming!” as your unofficial slogan is just the way life is.
There’s a certain irony here in that Podhoretz, in some pieces that I quickly sampled, is occasionally a sensitive, sensible commentator on matters of race. Regarding last year’s “so-far inexplicable” grand jury decision not to indict the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death in Staten Island, N.Y., Podhoretz wrote, “no civilized society can view the tape showing Garner’s desperate pleading and not ask some very difficult questions of itself.”
On the other hand, after George Zimmerman successfully used a self-defense strategy to win acquittal in his 2013 trial for the murder of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, Podhoretz wrote,
The very fact that a black president made the remarks he made about the Trayvon Martin case after having been elected a second time with a combined total of 135 million votes is a far better measure of the United States and its relation to race than anything else that has happened in this country since 2008.
That’s the thinking of an individual who believes that, having (re-)elected a black president, the United States has solved its race problem — marked racial disparities in infant mortality, educational attainment, school-discipline rates, income, home ownership, wealth, arrest rates, conviction rates, incarceration rates and life span notwithstanding.
The bottom line, for many on the right, is that President Barack Hussein Obama is the divider-in-chief, end of story, whilst Benjamin Netanyahu is an inspiration — a real leader and the kind of man many conservatives would prefer to have as U.S. president instead of Obama.
This isn’t quite as crass a way to feel as the impulse that prompted a lot of left-wingers to brand U.S. Sen Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and his colleagues #47Traitors for their recent ill-advised letter to the Iranian government. But it’s still pretty base. Worse yet, it’s the kind of unsophisticated mindset (good and evil! us and them! black and white!) that will lead to more misunderstanding, more conflict, and more pain and suffering.