Near the end of his new autobiography, David Axelrod sheds some light on President Obama’s distaste for democracy. “Obama has limited patience or understanding for officeholders whose concerns are more parochial–which would include most of Congress and many world leaders,” Axelrod writes, in noting Obama’s preference for supercilious vanity projects. Yet while Axelrod paints with a broad brush, he gives two examples, and they are telling. He writes: “Whether it’s John Boehner or Bibi Netanyahu, few practiced politicians appreciate being lectured on where their political self-interest lies.” This passage is an important preamble to the current dustup between the two administrations.
One of the regular critiques from the administration and its spokesmen in the media of tomorrow’s speech by Netanyahu is that Bibi just wants to use the speech as a prop in his own reelection campaign. As Axelrod’s book demonstrates, catering to voters and representing their interests in the government is borderline incomprehensible to Obama. His disdain for other world leaders who follow the wishes of their employers–the taxpayers–instead of doing what Obama wants is especially strange, considering its undisguised imperialist overtones.
And Netanyahu, of late, has found himself the world leader who values democratic elections far too much for Obama’s taste. When Netanyahu pressed ahead with giving the speech to a joint session of Congress, the Obama administration said they’d hit back, and suggested one way of doing so would be for them to bash Bibi through the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, as they often do when they want to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Israel. They did so; here is how Goldberg delivers the talking point:
It would be reassuring—sort of—to believe that Benjamin Netanyahu decided to set the U.S.-Israel relationship on fire mainly because he fears that President Obama is selling out Israel. But Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on March 3—a speech arranged without Obama’s knowledge by Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and by Obama’s chief Republican rival, House Speaker John Boehner—is motivated by another powerful fear: the fear of unemployment. The message Bibi is preparing to deliver on Tuesday (a “statesmanlike message,” according to an official close to him) has as its actual target not Congress but, instead, Israeli voters who need reminding, in Netanyahu’s view, that he is the only leader strong enough to face down both the genocidal regime in Tehran and the Israel-loathing regime in Washington.
You can set aside the obviously false characterization of Netanyahu’s culpability. According to Goldberg–and the administration–Netanyahu’s “main” concern is not Israel’s perceived existential threats or a bad Iran deal or President Obama’s repeated insistence on selling out Israel (sometimes during wartime).
Now, obviously Netanyahu cares about reelection. He’s a politician in a democracy, and is acting as one, not as a tyrant or a religious cult figure. His decision to accept the speech without the president’s support was also clearly a mistake. He compounded that mistake by not backing out or rescheduling when he had ample opportunity to do so. And his mistake has already had tangible effects: the speech has almost certainly destroyed the possibility of the very veto-proof sanctions he hoped to inspire, at least for now.
But sufferers of Bibi Derangement Syndrome don’t see “mistakes”; they see arson. They violate the cardinal rule of democratic politics in a free society: Don’t attribute to malice what can be more easily explained by incompetence.
And the Obama-Axelrod-Goldberg line is strange for another reason: the belief that Bibi doesn’t take the long view but instead focuses on near-term electoral fortunes is pretty much the opposite of what the administration’s critique of him had previously been. In May 2011, the consensus was that Netanyahu was practically obsessed with incorporating the grand sweep of history into his dialogue with Obama. “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,” Goldberg wrote in a post titled “Netanyahu Continues to Needlessly Alienate.”
Netanyahu has also come in for criticism for saying “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs… preparing another Holocaust for the Jewish state.” And the press has taken a couple swings at him for referencing Ben-Gurion’s declaration of the establishment of Israel against the wishes of the State Department and other governmental agencies in his speeches, as he did this morning at AIPAC.
Also in his speech this morning, the prime minister returned to the long view of Jewish history:
For 2,000 years, my people, the Jewish people, were stateless, defenseless, voiceless. We were utterly powerless against our enemies who swore to destroy us. We suffered relentless persecution and horrific attacks. We could never speak in our own behalf, and we could not defend ourselves. Well, no more. No more. The days when the Jewish people are passive in the face of threats to annihilate us–those days are over.
It’s no surprise the recitation of history makes Obama uncomfortable. As we’ve seen, the president’s ignorance of history is comprehensive, but he is especially unknowledgeable on Israeli and Jewish history. It doesn’t seem to interest him, and it shows.
So it’s always been a bit rich for the president who thinks history started with his own presidential election to accuse others of not thinking about the big picture. What Obama means by this is actually that these other politicians and world leaders aren’t thinking enough about Obama’s legacy, which he’d like them to prioritize over the needs and wants of their citizens, Israel being no exception.