Earlier this month, DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz found herself in hot water after she seemingly fabricated a statement she attributed to Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, essentially accusing Republicans of playing politics on Israel. Now Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer has taken it a step further, echoing a sentiment that has been floating around the American media for a while. Boxer wrote an open letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accusing him of “inject[ing] politics” into the effort to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Of course, we should always be wary of someone accusing a country’s most senior political figure of playing politics, as if presidents and prime ministers are somehow non-political actors. Boxer writes that she is “stunned” that Netanyahu would ever doubt President Obama’s commitment to Israel, and then played a bit of politics herself, instructing Netanyahu to publicly recant his comments and replace them with statements that might better help the president’s image on this issue:
I urge you to step back and clarify your remarks so that the world sees that there is no daylight between the United States and Israel. As you personally stated during an appearance with President Obama in March, “We are you, and you are us. We’re together. So if there’s one thing that stands out clearly in the Middle East today, it’s that Israel and America stand together.”
Thank you for that statement. I am hoping to hear that statement again.
At the heart of this controversy is the ignorant assumption, produced by a suspicious liberal establishment that seems willing to believe just about anything about Netanyahu, that the prime minister’s statements and actions are designed not to protect his own people from nuclear annihilation but from a desire to meddle in the American election. They worry he’s trying to influence the election and may be contemplating going to war with Iran to achieve that end.
But the truth is, as usual, much more mundane. Netanyahu simply understands the value of having a credible threat of force to back up sanctions and diplomacy. Rather than encourage military conflict, Netanyahu has been working to convince the West to enact tough sanctions for the last decade and a half, in order to prevent the necessity of war.
This is in keeping with Netanyahu’s general demeanor. The caricature of him in the American press as a right-wing ideologue could not be farther from the truth. In Israel, he is perceived as just the opposite—a cautious pragmatist who prioritizes stability over everything else. This is not always meant as a compliment in Israel; indeed, many Israelis wish they could say Bibi was “on their side.”
In Israel achieving a stable Knesset coalition is difficult–and maintaining one even more so—but is also beneficial to a populace that at times tires of the permanent campaigning that takes place when coalitions crumble every two years. Neither the settlers nor the left may see Netanyahu as an ideological ally, but they appreciate, at least, his even-tempered disposition that usually keeps the country out of trouble–and war.
And on that last point, it’s instructive to look back at Netanyahu’s two premierships. He has been as reluctant to use the military as any modern Israeli prime minister, and perhaps even more reluctant than most. Some of this is surely circumstantial—he wasn’t in office during the Palestinian intifadas, for example. But he has always been the opposite of a warmonger.
This lends him some credibility at home, then, when the issue of Iran’s nuclear program arises. As the New York Times discovered, “Israelis were generally sympathetic to Mr. Netanyahu even as they mulled the possible damage to ties with the White House.” Netanyahu’s rift with President Obama, they understand, stems in large part from his desire to keep Israel out of war.
Additionally, the idea that any Israeli leader would be more inclined to strike during an American presidential election does not pass the laugh test. Israeli history leads to the opposite conclusion—just look at how the Israelis wrapped up their Gaza counteroffensive in January 2009 in time for Obama’s swearing-in ceremony, declaring a unilateral ceasefire and beginning their withdrawal two days before the event. Israelis may not prioritize the opinion of the “international community” over their own self-defense, but they certainly take American opinion into consideration. Boxer’s letter to Netanyahu is predicated on an alternate reality that exists only in the minds of liberals, and deserves to be discarded rather than indulged.