Last night opponents of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pulled out all the stops in an effort to show that the Likud Party leader is out of touch and on his way to defeat in the March 17 election. But despite massive funding from foreign backers and an all-out effort by the coalition of left-wing parties and promotion by a sympathetic media, the effort seems to have flopped. Only an estimated 35-40,000 people turned out in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, a venue where the left has, in the past, produced mobs of hundreds of thousands to demonstrate their clout. Despite the vitriol poured out upon the prime minister, he appears to be holding his own in the polls with his party and those more likely to join a coalition led by him still holding a large advantage over his chief rivals. That reality runs counter to most of what we are hearing and seeing in the U.S. media about Netanyahu, who, despite the cheers he got for his address to Congress last week, has been smeared as a warmonger or worse by his critics. But at this point, it’s worth the effort to unpack some of the charges being made against him both by those who have succumbed to Netanyahu derangement syndrome and those affecting a more nuanced view of him.
The Tel Aviv rally seemed to reflect the worst excesses of Israeli politics, which can sometimes make even the bitterest U.S. battles seem like bean ball in comparison. The loudest voice being heard against Netanyahu these days is not so much the man who wishes to replace him as prime minister, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, as it is former Mossad chief Meir Dagan. Dagan has spent the past few years denouncing Netanyahu from every possible platform, calling him a danger to Israel for not making peace with the Palestinians and for taking too strong a stand against the Iranian nuclear threat.
Dagan’s security credentials give him the standing to speak in a way that either Israeli or American pundits don’t possess. But the over-the-top nature of his attacks—the Times of Israel noted that he was so overcome by his passion against his former boss that he was close to tears when speaking last night—makes it hard to take him too seriously. It’s not a secret that while there are real differences between the two men, his animus stems in part from the decision by Netanyahu and former defense minister Ehud Barak not to extend Dagan’s term in office. Moreover, the notion that it is somehow Netanyahu’s fault that the Palestinians have continued to refuse to make peace or that they engage in terrorist attacks on Israel makes his arguments seem less worthy of being taken too seriously. The same applies to his efforts to put the onus on Netanyahu for America’s decision to appease Iran rather than continue its isolation.
The same factor undermines the arguments of a more measured voice. Writing in Politico today is author and journalist Ari Shavit, a favorite of the American media after the publication of his misleading book My Promised Land that has been effectively debunked by Martin Kramer.
Unlike Dagan who speaks of Netanyahu as if he were the spawn of the devil, Shavit declares the prime minister to be “a serious statesman, with an extraordinary comprehension and uncanny foresight.” He even thinks he’s right about the danger from Iran and gives him credit for forcing the U.S. and its allies for undertaking the task of trying to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Without him, the sanctions and the negotiations might never have happened.
But Shavit faults Netanyahu for having a “Churchill complex.” That’s not because he’s wrong, as Dagan seems to imply at times, about Iran being an existential threat to Israel, but because he failed to do what Churchill accomplished: rally the U.S. to join a coalition to avert the danger. Instead of being the successful Churchill of the 1940s, Shavit says, he is merely the Churchill of the 1930s, the man in the wilderness playing the prophet of doom who will be vindicated by later events.
There is some truth to this. Netanyahu’s strong arguments and even more brilliant rhetoric have not been enough to rally the U.S. government to his side. Instead of joining the fight against Iran, President Obama seeks détente with the Islamist regime and appears willing to acquiesce not only to it becoming a threshold nuclear power but one that will be capable of building a weapon once the “sunset” clauses in the deal the Americans have offered kicks in. This is very bad news indeed and, according to Shavit, it is Netanyahu’s fault. If he’s right, then Netanyahu bears a heavy responsibility for what will follow.
But, like much of what Shavit has written about the Palestinians where he likewise acknowledges their unwillingness to make peace but still blames it all on Netanyahu, this analysis is out of focus.
While Netanyahu may be held partly responsible for his bad relationship with President Obama (as in all breakups, it takes two to tango), if Israel is isolated on Iran it is not due to the prime minister’s prickly personality or his supposed hard line on the Palestinians, as Shavit argues. As we now know, Netanyahu was as willing to make compromises to achieve peace as were his predecessors Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, who were turned down flat by the Palestinians three times. They gave a fourth no to Netanyahu during the talks sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry.
But nothing Netanyahu did or didn’t do influenced President Obama’s zeal for a deal with Iran. U.S. policy toward Iran during the past six years has been entirely the brainchild of the president, who is obsessed with the notion of engagement and his delusions about Iran “getting right with the world” rather than its pursuit of its nuclear dreams and regional hegemony. To deny Obama credit for this betrayal of his campaign promises and the security of American allies is to inflate Netanyahu’s importance in a way reminiscent of anti-Israel conspiracy theorists.
Shavit believes Netanyahu is right about Iran but wrong because he couldn’t persuade a president that never had any interest in anything but appeasement of the Islamist regime. That sort of analysis is rooted in a form of the same Netanyahu derangement syndrome that sends Dagan and other Israeli critics of the current government over the chasm into pointless invective.
Netanyahu has made his share of blunders and is no more infallible than his role model Churchill was. He may not be another Churchill despite the desire of both his fans and his foes to judge him solely by the standards set by that truly great man. Yet his problem here is not an inability to work Churchill’s magic but, as the great Ruth Wisse pointed out in the Weekly Standard, the fact that his U.S. partner was no Franklin Roosevelt. It is that factor that has created the current situation where Netanyahu’s warnings are more a matter of setting the record straight for history rather than an effective way to influence his American ally. That’s why history will be kinder to Netanyahu than his contemporary critics and very harsh indeed to the man who couldn’t play FDR to the Israeli’s Churchill.