Israeli left-wingers have never gotten used to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While they would have detested any Likud Party leader, Netanyahu’s combination of intellectual heft and glib political hucksterism has always driven his opponents crazy. At one and the same time, they view him as both a fraud and something of a political genius. Most of all, they bitterly resent his skill in maneuvering among both American Jews and Washington politicos.
Though he’s been a major figure in the Israel-Diaspora relations for decades—dating back to his service as a diplomat in Washington and then the United Nations in the 1980s—many Israelis still can’t figure out why a man who often treats American Jews with such disrespect and has so little interest in them as a community still seems to command the respect of Americans. Though many Americans oppose Netanyahu, the fact that he is not widely reviled in the United States is a source of constant frustration to his domestic critics.
Haaretz writer Anshel Pfeffer’s new biography, Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu, is the latest entry in the list of left-wing attempts to unravel the mystery of Netanyahu’s success and his hold on the affections of so many American Jews. The book has its share of interesting gossip about the prime minister and his family, and Pfeffer’s attempt to get inside Netanyahu’s head to figure out his complicated relationship with America provides some points of interest even for those who have more sympathy for the prime minister than the author.
Due to the fact that he spent much of his childhood in the United States, no previous Israeli premier has ever had such an intimate knowledge of both America and American Jews. His fluent, American-accented English is an asset that none of his predecessors possessed—not even Golda Meir, who spent much of her early life here, too, but came across to some extent as still a child of the Eastern European shtetl where she was born.
But, as Pfeffer is not the first to note, Netanyahu was never really at home here. Though he’s the most Americanized of Israeli politicians, he always felt out of place growing up in suburban Philadelphia—where his father, a college professor, taught—or attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a young man. His sensibilities are that of a secular sabra, not an American Jew. While he knows how to give speeches here that Jews will cheer, he has never had much sympathy for American Jewish culture. At heart, he remains a product of a deeply Zionist household that always saw Israel as the only valid expression of modern Jewish life.
Nor is his nationalist outlook in sync with the liberalism of most American Jews. That’s why the Israeli left has spent the last 10 years scratching their heads trying to figure out how it is that someone whose views are so antithetical to that of the American Jewish community hasn’t been thoroughly rejected here. Instead, they have looked on in amazement as Netanyahu continues to get a hero’s welcome every time he shows up on these shores. That was true even when his purpose was to oppose the policies of President Barack Obama, who received the votes of the overwhelming majority of American Jews—mostly comprised of ideological liberals and partisan Democrats. Their consternation has only grown since the election of President Donald Trump, whom Netanyahu has befriended, in spite of the fact that he is widely despised by most Jews.
As Pfeffer makes clear in an excerpt of the book published in The Forward, the fact that Netanyahu has been able to fight Obama and embrace Trump without paying too high a price remains maddening to Israeli left-wingers. What comes through in his writing about the prime minister is not merely opposition to his policies, but also the long-simmering frustration of the left with the refusal of most American Jews to rebuff Netanyahu.
Pfeffer is right that many American Jews disagree with Netanyahu’s policies. But the notion that they are, as he writes, Netanyahu’s “enablers” and bear the responsibility for his flouting of progressive sensibilities is not so much wrongheaded as it is pathetic commentary on the bankruptcy of the Israeli left.
Throughout the last decade, the prime minister’s domestic opposition has more or less waved the white flag on efforts to defeat him at home. As has been apparent since the Second Intifada blew up the last Labor government and discredited the Oslo peace process it had championed, the Israeli left’s only way to thwart Netanyahu and the center-right governments he has led has been in Washington, rather than Jerusalem. They have counted on American governments, such as that of Obama, to create checks on Netanyahu’s power that they couldn’t put into effect on their own—or to somehow oust him from office. They’ve also stood by and waited impatiently for liberal Jews to rise up and repudiate the Israeli government.
While they’re right about most American Jews not being comfortable with Netanyahu’s ideology, the idea that it is their responsibility to win political battles for the Israeli left, which they can’t seem to win on their own, is one that has garnered little support outside of the rabidly pro-Obama J Street, or the openly anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic Jewish Voice for Peace.
Most U.S. Jews, including many liberals who have little sympathy for Netanyahu, think the verdict of Israeli democracy merits their respect and deference, even if they might disagree with his policies. Should the Israeli left ever win another election, Jewish right-wingers will make trouble, but even centrist mainstream groups like AIPAC would loyally back whoever it was that the Israeli people chose.
The answer to those like Pfeffer, who demand that Americans repudiate Netanyahu, is simple. If you’re sick of seeing Netanyahu play the hero to American Jews, go out and beat him at the next election. If you can’t, stop whining about it. American Jews may not love Bibi, but they shouldn’t be expected to win fights the Israeli left can’t win on their own.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.