Yesterday, I wrote about how the liberal establishment’s ignorance of Israeli politics and history has severely hampered their ability understand the words and actions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, resulting in some serious and unfounded accusations against him that he’s trying to meddle in the American presidential election. David Frum points readers to a good post by Michael Koplow in which he makes a similar point but adds another element: the American media’s tendency to think everything is about the U.S.
Koplow writes that Netanyahu’s recent spate of comments about the Iranian nuclear program were about Israeli domestic politics, amid concerns that he may not have everyone he needs on board should he feel the window on stopping Iran is closing and the U.S. balks at military action. Koplow notes some of the more sensational outbursts from the media, including David Remnick’s accusation that Netanyahu is attempting to be a one-man super-PAC in Mitt Romney’s corner. This morning, the Associated Press has followed up with another perfect example of this problem. After scanning an interview Netanyahu conducted with the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom, the AP writes:
In an interview published Friday, Netanyahu hinted Israel may have to strike Iran even without U.S. support to prevent Tehran from building a nuclear weapon.
The comments indicate Netanyahu is not backing down from his thinly-veiled criticism of the Obama administration, despite a phone call from the U.S. president this week that was meant to smooth over their differences.
The errors here are all quite obvious. First of all, Netanyahu doesn’t speak to Obama through Israeli newspapers, especially when–as the AP reports in that same sentence–the two talk on the phone. Second, the idea that Israel may have to act on its own, while no one’s ideal conclusion to the Iran crisis, is not criticism of Obama, “veiled” or otherwise. It is simply one of the options on the table, and Netanyahu has to test the waters of public opinion and prepare his country for any eventuality–not to mention the political needle he would have to thread to keep a coalition together and unite, if possible, the political class.
This whole episode is reminiscent of the Obama administration’s frantic and unseemly tantrum over plans to build more homes in a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem, Ramat Shlomo. The announcement in 2010 by the housing ministry concerning Ramat Shlomo coincided with Joe Biden’s visit to Israel. If it was meant to embarrass anyone it was Netanyahu, not Biden or Obama, but in all likelihood it was not aimed at anyone since building there has become commonplace and uncontroversial to residents of Jerusalem–Jewish and Arab alike.
But the Obama administration assumed it was all about them, in part because Obama has such a weak understanding of Israeli politics and culture and has not made an effort to expand his very limited frame of reference on the subject. So Netanyahu, who was probably just as surprised as Biden by the announcement, was yelled at for 45 minutes on the phone by Hillary Clinton, who also seemed not to know what was going on.
The hysteria of the media has been on full display this week, with reporters expressing their outrage that Romney dared criticize Obama on foreign policy. But that tells you that what is actually happening is a sort of inverse of what is being reported. It is not that Netanyahu is trying to intervene in a presidential election, but rather that the American media’s sense of defensiveness about Obama is heightened during the home stretch of the election, causing them not just to attack Obama’s opponents at home but to take their cause global and go looking for enemies abroad as well.