Like many of you, I watched the Prime Minister of Israel publicly lecture the President of the United States on Jewish history with a mixture of shock, amusement and bewilderment. (From the expression on the President's face, I would assume he was mostly feeling annoyance.)
It wasn't the content of Netanyahu's lecture that I found so shocking -- Jews, over a few thousand years, have earned a great deal of our paranoia -- but that he chose to hector the American president, an American president who, the day before, gave Netanyahu two enormous gifts -- a denunciation of the radical Islamist terror group Hamas, and a promise to fight unilateral Palestinian efforts to seek United Nations recognition as an independent state -- in public, in the White House, in a tone that suggested he thought he was speaking to an ignoramus. Politico's Mike Allen, who writes Washington's most influential tip sheet, framed the Bibi lecture this way: "Netanyahu scolds Obama in Oval," and he goes on to quote NBC's Andrea Mitchell telling David Gregory, "I was told that even some Israeli officials, David, were uncomfortable with what they acknowledged was a lecturing tone by the prime minister. But he felt very strongly he had to say this to the world, (in) President Obama's face."
There are a number of problems, tactical and strategic, with Netanyahu's pedantic behavior:
1) President Obama actually does understand Jewish history: he understands it well enough to know that the permanent occupation of the West Bank would be an historical anomaly;
2) Even if Obama didn't understand Jewish history, it is still off-putting for many Americans to watch their president being lectured by a foreign leader in his own house;
3) The Prime Minister doesn't seem to understand what President Obama is trying to tell him: That Israel cannot maintain the occupation of the West Bank without becoming a pariah state (previous LIkud-bred prime ministers, namely Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, both understood this);
4) The Prime Minister desperately needs President Obama to defend Israel in the United Nations, and even more crucially, to confront Iran's nuclear program, which poses an existential threat to the Jewish state; angering him constantly doesn't seem to be an effective way to marshal the President's support;
5) Based on the mail I've been receiving, and conversations I've been having with Jewish leaders of various ideological persuasions, there is a great worry that Netanyahu, through his behavior even more than his policies, is alienating other of Israel's friends, needlessly.
Now on this last point, we're about to see, at the AIPAC convention, and in Congress, Netanyahu receive standing ovations for what is perceived to be his fortitude. Don't let these standing ovations confuse you. AIPAC, at this point, represents the outlook of a minority of Jewish Americans -- and certainly a minority of younger Jewish Americans. As for Congress, he'll be met with rousing applause by the Republicans (who are hoping to split off Jewish voters, and more to the point, Jewish donors, from the President), and by most Jewish Democrats (Jews make up 13 percent of the House Democratic caucus, and 12 percent of the Senate is Jewish), but I wouldn't be surprised if there was a slightly more tepid reaction to Netanyahu among many Democrats. Make no mistake: Support for Israel (and for the Netanyahu government in particular) is slowly waning among Democrats.
For decades, Israel has been a bipartisan cause on Capitol Hill. It will remain so for a while, but Netanyahu is, through his pedantic and pinched behavior, helping to weaken Israel's standing among Democrats. Why is this so important? Because Israel has no friends left in the world except for the United States (and in fairer weather, Canada, Australia and Germany). As it moves toward a confrontation with Iran, it needs wall-to-wall support in America. You would think that Netanyahu, who is sincere in his oft-stated belief that Iran poses quite possibly the greatest danger Israel has ever faced, would be working harder than he is to ensure Democratic, and presidential, support, for this cause.
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