As an inveterate Netanyahu-hater, I’ve been mildly gratified by chickens**t-gate. I am far from alone in always having seen Netanyahu as a short-term, un-strategic thinker and a deeply insecure person, someone whose politics are almost exclusively the politics of fear, and who is, himself, consumed by fears of possible negative consequences to himself of any risky decisions – but blithe to the consequences to his country’s political life of any of his self-protective maneuvers. Chickens**t is as good a word for him as any.
But, once upon a time, this was a reason why Netanyahu seemed like an unlikely figure to dominate Israeli politics. Israelis themselves could see how small he was, how inadequately he represented them. They might vote for him if they felt they had to, but they wouldn’t feel good about it – not even right-wing voters who might have voted enthusiastically for Begin or Sharon. Most other Likud politicians held him in poorly-concealed contempt.
That has changed, and I’m not sure Netanyahu’s foreign critics – or even some of his domestic ones – fully appreciate that change. Last week, Daniel Larison weighed in on why the Obama Administration leaked such contemptuous language, and the best he could come up with is spite: the Administration has given up on any progress and is just trying to make Netanyahu’s life difficult as payback for Bibi’s own meddling. But are the leaks having the desired effect? Netanyahu doesn’t seem to think so – he seems to think he gets a political benefit from being attacked by President Obama. And the evidence of recent history backs him up on this. Organs of American Jewish opinion are also starting to wonder whether the Netanyahu government has come unmoored from reality, as have a host of retired officials from Israel’s military and security services. None of this criticism shows any signs of moving the needle of Israeli public opinion in the direction the critics desire.
One may debate to what extent the Netanyahu government is to blame for the state of the Israeli public psyche, and to what extent he merely benefits from accurately reflecting the tenor of the Israeli times. But the fact remains: he does reflect it accurately. The Israeli public is not pushing the government to address its growing international isolation because it has fully internalized the notion that all-but-universal hatred is inevitable. Criticism from American Jews, even from traditionally more center-right quarters, falls on deaf ears because such criticism just proves that American Jews, safely an ocean away from the front lines, don’t understand the risks Israelis face. The circle is closed.
Obviously, not all Israelis feel this way; there’s a spectrum of opinion everywhere. But in my view, Netanyahu is correctly assessing the domestic political environment he faces. He helped create it, after all. This is not 1991, and Netanyahu is not Shamir. And those who think that Israel is pursuing a course with grave long-term risks have a much tougher task than simply leaning on a particularly recalcitrant leader.