Commentary

A Match Made in Tel Aviv

Imagine that after Boris Yeltsin was elected president of a free post-Communist Russia in 1991, the Poles, residents of a former province of the Soviet empire, elected former Communist boss Edward Gierek as their new head of state. Then suppose that, upon entering office, he called on Moscow to forget about rapprochement with the West and prepare for military confrontation.

Improbable as it seems, some version of this scenario is playing out here. After their humiliating defeat in the 2008 presidential and congressional elections, the vanquished neoconservative legions won a major political victory in one of the provinces of the American empire when the parliamentary election in Israel brought to power a veteran neocon activist. He is calling on Washington to forget about changing U.S. policy in the Middle East and prepare for a military confrontation with Iran.

Initially, the neoconservatives envisioned a grander strategy. In November 2008, Americans would elect Norman Podhoretz’s favorite American politician, Rudy Giuliani, as their new president, followed by a vote in Israel in which Norman Podhoretz’s favorite Israeli politician, Benjamin Netanyahu, would be chosen as the Jewish state’s new prime minister.

It would have been like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire teaming in “Flying Down to Tehran” and dancing cheek to cheek in “Neocon Time.” Not unlike FDR and Churchill uniting their nations in the struggle against Fascism during World War II, Rudy and Bibi would bring their countries together to fight Islamofascism. How about a special commemorative issue of Commentary to celebrate the day the two tied the knot at the White House?

Rudy didn’t make it. But a stand-in was ready to play the part of neocon dummy, repeating the lines (“Bomb, bomb Iran”) provided by the usual suspects. They were confident that mating the American Empire with a Greater Israel remained a viable option under President McCain and—God willing!— Prime Minster Netanyahu. But then McCain lost to a man of Muslim ancestry whose middle name was “Hussein.” Worse, as Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg fretted, he didn’t seem to have it in his “kishke” or “gut” when it came to Israel. Obama was willing to withdraw from Iraq, engage Iran, and work hard to achieve an Israel-Palestine peace accord—in short, to challenge the neoconservatives’ first principles.

With Mac not back and Obama in the White House—after winning the majority of American-Jewish votes—it became clear that the American groom would not be showing up for the anticipated wedding. Yet the Bush administration’s last foreign-policy decision—giving Israel a green light to launch a devastating assault on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip—helped ignite ultra-nationalist and anti-Arab sentiments among the majority of Israelis. This produced a mini earthquake in Israeli politics, changing the balance of power in the Israeli Knesset from 70-50 in favor of the center-left bloc to 65-55 for the Right, ultra-Right, and religious Right parties. Although Netanyahu’s nationalist Likud Party took only second place in the election, behind the more centrist Kadima Party led by Tzipi Livni, which finished first by a miniscule margin, he was able to win the backing of all the 65 members of the right-wing bloc, including the ultra Orthodox Shas Party and extreme Yisrael Beitenu Party of Avigdor Lieberman, ensuring that he will become the next Israeli PM.

The political and ideological love affair between Netanyahu and the neocons goes back to the Reagan presidency and the last years of the Cold War, when Bibi was serving first as Israel’s representative to the United Nations and later as his country’s ambassador to Washington. The first generation of neoconservative intellectuals—Richard Perle, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Elliott Abrams, Kenneth Adelman, and Max Kampleman—were occupying top foreign policy positions in the Reagan administration.

To the ruling Likud Party, the policies of the Republican Party seemed to offer Israel time to consolidate its hold on the West Bank and Gaza as it encouraged Washington to view the Arab-Israeli conflict through a Cold War lens and to identify Palestinian nationalism as an extension of Soviet-induced international terrorism. In that context, Washington could view Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands with benign neglect.

I was covering the UN for the Jerusalem Post in the early 1980s and recall how Netanyahu’s speeches echoed the Likud-neocon line of that time: the PLO was a Soviet-controlled terrorist organization, Israel was America’s “strategic asset” in the Middle East, and the American-Israeli alliance was containing the international terrorist threat advanced by Moscow and its Palestinian and other Arab allies. “The two countries are finding themselves increasingly alone in international organizations like the United Nations,” I wrote in one of my reports for the Post. “A visitor from Mars to the UN headquarters in 1985 would have found it difficult to decide, after listening to Ambassadors Jeane Kirkpatrick and Benjamin Netanyahu, which of the two represented the United States and which Israel.”

A reminder: the policies promoted by Likud and its neocon allies in Washington resulted in major costs for both Israel and the United States. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the Iran-Contra affair were among the harmful products, while the first Intifadah highlighted the destructive consequences of placing the Palestinian issue on the back burner.

Netanyahu returned to Israel, just as the Cold War was ending and Reagan was leaving office, to serve first as foreign minister and later as prime minister. He proved masterful in replacing the moribund Soviet threat with a new Middle Eastern bogeyman, persuading many Americans that with the Soviet Union gone, Israel could help protect U.S. interests in the Middle East against Arab nationalists (Saddam Hussein),

Muslim fundamentalists (the mullahs in Iran), and the PLO, which was transformed in the Likud-neocon spin from a radical left-wing to a radical Islamic terrorist group. George H.W. Bush and his realist foreign-policy advisers didn’t buy into this narrative and decided to confront the Likud government over the issue of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. That tough American approach antagonized the neocons while weakening

Likud, which ended up losing the parliamentary election in 1992 to the Labor Party and its leader, Yitzchak Rabin.

Another reminder: Netanyahu, a strident opponent of the successful efforts by the Rabin-led government to reach a peace agreement with the PLO, culminating in the Oslo Process, played a major role in mobilizing Israeli opinion against the peace process. This included incitement against Rabin—who Likud propaganda likened to Hitler—which created the conditions for his assassination by an Israeli-Jewish terrorist and eventually for Netanyahu’s election as PM in 1995. “On July 8, 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s newly elected prime minister and the leader of its right-wing Likud Party, paid a visit to the neoconservative luminary Richard Perle in Washington, D.C.,” journalist Craig Unger wrote in Vanity Fair in March 2007. “The subject of their meeting was a policy paper that Perle and other analysts had written for an Israeli-American think tank, the Institute for Advanced Strategic Political Studies. Titled ‘A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,’ the paper contained the ‘kernel of a breathtakingly radical vision for a new Middle East.’”

By waging wars against Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, the paper proposed, Israel and the U.S. could stabilize the region. But President Bill Clinton didn’t sign on. Instead, he tried to slow down efforts by the Israeli prime minister to kill the peace process, which helped ignite Palestinian rage that led eventually to the second Intifadah. Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, gave a green light to the Israelis to suppress the Intifadah and went to implement the strategy proposed in “A Clean Break.” No need to add a reminder about how that sad chapter ended.

Netanyahu ran this time on a platform of burying the corpse of the peace process and continuing construction of more Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Forget about negotiating a two state solution with the Palestinians. Instead, he has been advancing a plan for an “economic peace” under which Israel, together with the Americans and the Europeans, would create an island of prosperity for the Palestinians, a Middle Eastern Hong Kong. In return, they would be persuaded to give up their aspirations for political freedom. Meanwhile, Netanyahu maintains his commitment to put an end to Iran’s nuclear military program, even if military power—preferably American military power—is required to achieve that “existential goal.”

Had there been no crippling financial crisis and had McCain been elected president, Netanyahu might well have been successful in integrating his Greater Israel project and plans to strike Iran into a new neoconservative strategic plan drawn up by Secretary of State Joe Lieberman and National Security Adviser Robert Kagan. But in the real world of 2009, the man occupying the White House has called for negotiations with Iran and Syria and has reiterated his commitment to revive the peace process, with America serving as honest broker. And our economic problems certainly make it difficult for Washington to join the Israelis in new military adventures in the Middle East.

Some pundits are speculating that Netanyahu will do a “Nixon goes to

China,” recalling that late Israeli prime minister and Likud leader Menachem

Begin signed a peace agreement with Egypt. Netanyahu is going to visit China at some point—but don’t expect him to go through an ideological metamorphosis.

Instead, he will probably activate his old neocon troops, led by Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page and joined by Republicans on Capitol Hill. He will ask them to launch a major offensive against the “appeaser” in the White House, hoping to bring political pressure first on the Democrats on Capitol Hill and then on President Obama to demonstrate that he has it in his “kishke” when it comes to Israel. Obama could surprise him by proving that he does have it in his gut—by saying no to Netanyahu, a move that would be a blessing to both Israel and the UnitedStates.

Leon T. Hadar is a Cato Institute research fellow in foreign-policy studies and author, most recently, of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.