Netanyahu’s meddling may impact U.S. election, while the U.S. holds little sway over Netanyahu


Whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s American election, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and his policies are the certain winners. Just recall the final TV debate as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney competed to prove who could pander more to the pro-Israel side while treating Palestinians as if they didn’t exist.

There’s one caveat here. If President Obama is re-elected, his team will soon find a way to get even with the Israeli PM for his brazen interference in the election against the President. In Israel itself, as The Globe and Mail reported in October, “Critics say Mr. Netanyahu has effectively become part of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign at Mr. [Sheldon] Adelson’s behest.” Mr. Adelson is the Obama-hating casino mogul who proudly describes his political leanings as being “far to the right. Attila the Hun was too liberal for me.”

Not all Israelis are amused. One former adjective-loving defence minister quoted by The Globe accused Mr. Netanyahu of “trying to intervene in a rude, blunt, unprecedented, wanton and dangerous manner in the U.S. election.”

If you’re ever looking to define “chutzpah”, just say “Bibi”.

Still, Mr. Netanyahu’s audacious gamble that he could help defeat the President may just be proved right. Given the extraordinary tightness of the race, the loss of only a few Jewish votes in the right states could make the difference. In their elections, Bill Clinton (twice), Al Gore and John Kerry all averaged a stunning 79 per cent of that vote. Mr. Obama beat John McCain 78 per cent to 21 per cent. But if Mr. Netanyahu added his voice to the Americans who accuse Mr. Obama of being anti-Israel, some of the President’s support could be whittled away.

At some level, the strategy may have worked. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, for example, found a prominent member of the Jewish establishment in Cleveland who claimed the President’s Jewish support would decline there from 80 per cent to 60 per cent. That’s Cleveland, Ohio, of course, the state that may ultimately decide the election. “Jews just don’t trust Obama on Israel,” this man insists. “The president has no sympathy for Israel. His sympathy is for the Muslim world he knew as a child.”

Since Mr. Obama spent exactly four years of his childhood in Muslim Indonesia, from ages six to 10, two of them at a Catholic school, then returned to the US forever and has repeatedly identified himself as a Christian, there is something distasteful in this last sentence. Still, it’s true that losing a mere handful of Jewish votes in Cleveland could dramatically effect Tuesday’s results.

But there are two problems with this scenario. It makes little political sense and no policy sense.

First, according to the highly regarded Pew Forum on Religion and Public life, 1.7 per cent of the voting population of the US self-identifies as Jewish (protestants are 51.3 per cent, Catholics 23 per cent). But most of them don’t follow their ostensible community leaders. Only 7 per cent of those 1.7 per cent list Israel as their top political concern, a negligible number. So who might be swayed by Bibi Netanyahu’s meddling?

As it happens, most polls still show Mr. Obama with some 70 per cent of the Jewish vote, a thumping majority for sure, but slightly less than 2008. In the end, maybe that’s all Mr. Romney will need.

But there’s an even greater problem with the proposition that the Mr. Obama administration is anti-Israel: It’s a bald-faced lie. It’s true that Mr. Obama refused to become simply an echo of Mr. Netanyahu, as Canada has done. But his support for Israel’s security and the key policies of Mr. Netanyahu’s government are not in doubt. This very much includes Mr. Netanyahu’s fierce determination that there will never be a viable Palestinian state in the Middle East acceptable to Palestinians and that Israelis will never stop illegally settling in the occupied West Bank.

Mr. Cohen, a strong if critical Zionist, points out that Mr. Obama’s American Jewish critics “ignore all the defense and intelligence cooperation that led the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, to say that Mr. Obama had done ‘more than anything that I can remember in the past’ for Israeli security.” Strong, definitive words. But nothing stops the strident anti-Obama propaganda neatly captured in Mr. Romney’s line that the President “threw Israel under a bus”. I’m sure Mr. Obama would like to do that to Mr. Netanyahu. But to Israel, no.

It may well be that Mr. Obama, being sane, would be more reluctant to attack Iran than Romney’s camp patently is. But for those prepared to listen, the evidence to support defence minister Barak’s assessment is abundant. Here’s only one example, as reported recently by The Guardian based on an official US memorandum.

In September, the American government warned its European allies “against supporting a Palestinian bid for enhanced status at the United Nations, saying such a move would be ‘extremely counterproductive’ and threatening ‘significant negative consequences’, including financial sanctions” against the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian statehood, the memo asserted, “can only be achieved via direct negotiations with the Israelis.”

Yet both his fans and foes everywhere, certainly including in Israel itself, know that Mr. Netanyahu will never countenance statehood for a genuinely sovereign Palestine, a state that Palestinians could accept. So the real purpose of the U.S. memo – to keep the Palestinians precisely where Mr. Netanyahu wants them – is perfectly clear.

Whatever happens Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu will have free reign to continue, or even accelerate, his policies. The consequences for the Palestinians and for the rest of the world are incalculable.


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