There is no world leader more hated by bien-pensant liberals in America and Europe than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Whereas once the bile was directed at former U.S. president George W. Bush—for invading Iraq and Afghanistan, for identifying radical Islam in both its Shi’a and Sunni variations as an existential threat, and for backing Israel—it’s now largely focused on Netanyahu, an alleged “racist” and “war criminal” who just happens to have won a resounding vote of confidence from the Israeli electorate on March 17.
Two New York Times editorials speak to my point rather elegantly. The first, published on March 13, asked whether Turkey could still be considered a reliable North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally—concluding, based on the Ankara government’s stance towards international crises from the Islamic State insurgency to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that it can’t. But while the substance of the editorial was basically correct, notable was the lack of any ad hominem attack on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Increasingly authoritarian” was the best the New York Times could manage when it came to describing this boorish thug, who rejoices in conspiracy theories, baits his country’s declining Jewish population even as he assures them that they are safe, and imprisons journalists with the devil-may-care attitude only a dictator can enjoy.
Contrast that with the morning-after New York Times editorial on an Israeli election that saw Netanyahu defy polling predictions by winning a clear mandate to govern. (Netanyahu’s Likud party garnered 30 Knesset seats to the Zionist Union’s 24 seats.) “Racist,” “desperate,” “craven,” and “aggressive” are just a selection of the adjectives used to describe Israel’s prime minister. We are told that Netanyahu “expected to win an easy victory and then ended up fighting for his political life,” when the exact reverse was true. The paper then bemoaned Netanyahu’s “demagogy,” claiming that he “further incites the rage that has torn his country apart.” To slam an Israeli leader for incitement when so many of Israel’s neighbors turn to the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” anti-Semitic fabrication when they want insights into Israeli behavior is laughable, frankly.
Why does Netanyahu attract so much loathing when some of the world’s worst tyrants and murderers live within an hour’s flying time from Tel Aviv? The generous answer is that Netanyahu is “one of us” who has gone woefully astray—a leader who uses democracy in order to undermine it. After all, the Syrian and Iranian regimes never claimed that they shared American values, whereas we are assured all the time that Israel does. Yet, in the post-Bush era, Netanyahu has bucked the isolationist trend that has washed through America and Europe by talking about “existential threats,” building in eastern Jerusalem, and bombing Gaza. The critics say that Israel’s allies should keep their troops and resources out of the Middle East, lamenting that Netanyahu wants to drag them into the mud even further.
As I said, that’s the generous answer, and it’s not necessarily the most convincing one. Liberals in America and around the world may think that the Middle East’s problems with Israel all come down to Netanyahu, but that’s not how it’s seen in the region itself.
“For us there is no difference between the Zionist regime’s political parties. They are all aggressors in nature,” said a representative of Iran’s foreign ministry when asked for a reaction to an election in a country that the Islamist regime wants to see wiped off the map. Hamas, Iran’s Palestinian ally, faithfully echoed that line, insisting that all of Israel’s political parties are united in their desire to deny the Palestinians their rights.
So, too, did the Palestinian Authority (PA)—the same PA that would be, according to the Obama administration and the Europeans, a genuine partner for peace if only Netanyahu could get over his “stubbornness.” For the PA, it is all Israelis who are to blame, because they elected a leader who campaigned on the basis of “racism, settlements, and apartheid,” asserted chief PA negotiator Saeb Erakat. The same point was made by senior Palestine Liberation Organization official Yasser Abed Rabbo, who told the AFP news agency that Israel “chose the path of racism, occupation and settlement building, and did not choose the path of negotiations and partnership between us.”
Whatever else they may be, these are honest words—far more honest than the claim of Israel’s left-wing daily newspapers, Haaretz, that Israelis “went to bed hoping for change, and woke up with King Bibi again,” as if the voters had nothing to do with Netanyahu’s triumph!
Had Zionist Union succeeded in forming a center-left government in Israel, I am certain that what I call the “Venezuela effect” would have come into play pretty quickly. This is a reference to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who persists in calling the U.S. an imperialist aggressor despite President Barack Obama’s climb-downs on such pressing matters—you and I might call them “existential threats”—as Syria, Iran, and Russia. Had Isaac Herzog become prime minister, he would have soon found himself being talked about in similar terms, even if he had been willing to be more flexible than Netanyahu on the issue of a Palestinian state. This is because the Palestinian negotiating strategy has always been to make demands it already knows Israel won’t grant, in order to then demonize Israel as a rogue state that was never committed to peace in the first place. Bush or Obama, Netanyahu or Herzog—there will always be those who say that these ostensible rivals are much more similar than we appreciate.
While this strategy has signally failed to pay any tangible dividends for the Palestinians themselves, it has won Palestinian leaders the lion’s share of international sympathy. Their goal now is to try to weaken Israel’s leaders, most of all Netanyahu, with a unilateralist campaign that is grounded on the imperative of putting Israel on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.
If we get to that point—and it’s a big if—we’ll be told by the New York Times that it’s Netanyahu in the dock. Wrong. It is the State of Israel that will be on trial. And that is just a taste of what lies are in store for the coming months.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of The Tower, writes a weekly column for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).