How Netanyahu Is Like Obama

Politicians do not always act in admirable ways.


So on the basis of two election-related maneuvers by Benjamin Netanyahu—a pre-election interview, since walked back, casting doubt on prospects for a Palestinian state, and an Election Day post on Facebook urging supporters to go vote because Arab turnout was high—President Obama has let it be known that the U.S.-Israel relationship is up for reevaluation.

Let's stipulate that neither the statehood statement nor the Facebook post was Prime Minister Netanyahu's finest hour or Israel's. But neither was Netanyahu the first politician to use, in the heat of a campaign, methods that in retrospect seem short of wholly admirable.

The editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick, is perceptive enough to see that Netanyahu was behaving like an American politician. Remnick, in a piece with the Web headline "Netanyahu plays the race card," uses the example of Richard Nixon courting white Southern voters opposed to racial integration.

But there are more recent examples at hand. Some even involve Democratic politicians. Obama's political consultant David Axelrod, for example, says that Obama privately acknowledged in 2008 that political reasons dictated switching his position to opposing gay marriage. After getting elected, Obama eventually changed back to supporting gay marriage.

Back in the 1996 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton went so far as to air a radio ad targeting Southern religious conservative voters and touting his own signing into law of the Defense of Marriage Act, a law prohibiting federal recognition of gay marriages.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, had flown home from New Hampshire to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a black man so mentally disabled that, as the Economist put it, "he said he would save the pecan pie from his last meal 'for later.'"

In the 2000 New Hampshire Presidential primary, Al Gore's motorcade intentionally created a traffic jam to prevent Bill Bradley's voters from getting to the polls. That story was told in the memoir of Bob Shrum, a Democratic political consultant.

In the 2012 campaign, Vice President Biden told a largely black audience that, if elected, Mitt Romney and a Republican administration are "going to put you all back in chains." 

As for saying one thing to get elected and another after the election, gay marriage isn't the only issue where Obama has flip-flopped. There are at least a half-dozen others, from Sudan and Darfur to the individual mandate for health insurance to the tax on high-premium policies, where Obama said one thing during the campaign and has since done another. George H.W. Bush broke a "read my lips" campaign promise and raised taxes; Obama praises that as statesmanlike. For Netanyahu, such praise is absent.

Obama can try to explain somehow that what he or Clinton or Biden or Gore or Bush 41 did isn't as bad as what Netanyahu did, or that it's somehow different. But any such differentiation would be based on some awfully fine distinctions.

One of the great goals of Zionism, the movement that led to the founding of Israel, was the idea of "normalization," the idea that if Jews had a land of their own they'd be more like all the other nations. In that narrow sense, at least, Netanyahu's election maneuvers can be seen as a success. Israeli politics are now just as dirty and hard-fought as those of any other country, including the world model of a democratic republic, America. For a people that for many years of exile were in important ways bereft of politics, this is progress.

But normalization has its limits, too.

Netanyahu's tactics show that Israel may have achieved some semblance of normalcy in its internal politics. But the reaction to the electoral tactics of Netanyahu by President Obama and by his allies in the press, and even by the American Jewish community, shows that externally, Israel's treatment is far from normal. Like it or not, that's the reality that Israel's next prime minister will face. Dealing with it will require an effort just as relentless as the one that won the election.