Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress provoked a storm of controversy that has only increased since his victory in the Israeli elections. It was a blatant attempt to split the US polity and claim the Republican-controlled Congress as what Patrick J. Buchanan once described as "Israeli-occupied territory." Yet that long occupation may be ending sooner rather than later as the tectonic plates of America’s political landscape – and the globe – shake and shift.
The reasons for this seismic movement are rooted in objective factors that none of the actors in this drama can control, and these are underscored in the radical change, both in content and tone, of Netanyahu’s rhetoric compared to his 2011 peroration before Congress.
Back then, you’ll recall, when the Israeli Prime Minister appeared on Capitol Hill and spoke before our cheering solons, he spoke these words:
"Two years ago, I publicly committed to a solution of two states for two peoples – a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state."
"I’m willing to make painful compromises to achieve this historic peace. As the leader of Israel, it’s my responsibility to lead my people to peace."
"Now, this is not easy for me. It’s not easy, because I recognize that in a genuine peace, we’ll be required to give up parts of the ancestral Jewish homeland."
This is the face of Bibi the Benevolent, stern but basically a friend of America and an advocate of Western values. But there is another face, which he waited a few years before unveiling, and it isn’t pretty. Speaking in Israel during the recent election campaign, he declared:
"I think that anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory gives territory away to radical Islamist attacks against Israel. The left has buried its head in the sand time and after time and ignores this, but we are realistic and understand.”
If Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog are elected, he told a group of "settlers," "Hamastan B will be established here." Pledging to continue building "settlements" with money dispensed by gullible Uncle Sam, he hurled his defiance at the Americans, who he claimed were trying – along with the Europeans – to unseat him. The contempt for the West and its values that his words conveyed was underscored by his appeal to right-wing nationalist voters to turn out and vote Likud in order to deflect the efforts of Israeli Palestinians who, he said, were intent on turning out "in droves" on election day in order to defeat him.
Every American President since Jimmy Carter has put the two-state solution at the top of their Middle East agenda, and the hope embodied in the peace process has anchored our "special relationship" with the Jewish state in the rough seas that beset the region. As long as the Israelis remained committed to this principle, they could get away with pretending to be "the only democracy" in their neighborhood, and not the ruthless occupiers of a conquered people. And the Americans went along with this delusion – or, rather, self-delusion – at the behest of the powerful pro-Israel lobby, which was, after all, filled with liberals as well as pro-Likud conservatives, who regularly voted Democratic and played an important role in getting the civil rights movement in this country off the ground.
That is all changed, now, especially with Bibi’s panicked remarks about "droves" of Arabs – Israeli citizens – being "bused in" to vote. Instead of the Churchillian figure adored by the neoconservative right, the Israeli Prime Minister looks more like George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door. An alliance that was supposedly built on mutually shared "values" is falling apart at the seams.
The growing discord between Washington and Tel Aviv isn’t about the personal antipathy between Bibi and Obama. It’s about the antipathy between the American values of liberal democracy and equality before the law and the religious obscurantism and ruthless militarism of the new Israel – a nation that stands revealed as a modern Sparta, not the Athens we all thought it to be.
In his 2011 address to Congress, Netanyahu averred "We’re not the British in India, we’re not the Belgians in the Congo," and went on to tout the historic "bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land." "But there is another truth," he continued:
"The Palestinians share this small land with us. We seek a peace in which they’ll be neither Israel’s subjects nor its citizens. They should enjoy a national life of dignity as a free, viable and independent people living in their own state."
Now that this goal has been repudiated, what Netanyahu can no longer evade is the fact that he and his countrymen are the British in India, and the Belgians in the Congo. And as the great Israeli classical liberal Yeshayahu Leibowitz argued, this has been true since the end of the Six Day War, when the Israelis refused to give up the conquered territories and instead occupied them, setting up a giant prison in which the Palestinians were forced to live – and which also imprisoned the occupiers inside an ideological penitentiary from which, at this point, there is no escape.
The walls surrounding that prison have grown higher – and, indeed, have materialized in the physical world in the form of the Wall that separates Israel proper from the land of its Palestinian helots. This same malevolence has taken human form in the rise of Israeli politicians like Avigdor Lieberman, whose far-right party advocates a Greater Israel encompassing not only "Judea" and "Samaria" but also a large chunk of Jordan. The same spirit animates Naftali Bennett, the American-born ultra-nationalist whose Jewish Homeland party opposes Palestinian self-determination, supports the "settler" movement, and has successfully competed with Likud for the loyalty of Israeli voters. In order to pull off his electoral coup, Netanyahu had to woo them back with the Wallaceite rhetoric he employed in the final days before the election. Yet both Lieberman and Bennett will no doubt play a major role in the new government – the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.
The Israelis have been moving in this direction for a long time, and, although their very effective propaganda operation in this country has done a good job of prettifying it, the ugly reality has now become so apparent that their political leaders no longer bother concealing it. Indeed, they flaunt their bigotry, their hatred, and the power of their American lobby to give Israel a free hand in spite of President Obama’s growing opposition to their goals.
Yet, like Israel itself, the Israel lobby – and by this I mean the Republican party and its shrinking periphery – has locked itself into an ideological box, with little room to maneuver. Unable to defend the indefensible, they find themselves in the same position as the segregationists who tried in vain to hold back the civil rights revolution in the South – i.e. in full retreat. Yes, George Wallace stood at the head of a political movement that seemed impressive at the time, and ran as a third party presidential candidate, but that movement soon collapsed and did not survive Wallace’s death except in various isolated pockets of extremism. It’s no accident that, today, National Review, whose founder and editor William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote editorials arguing against the right of "Negroes" to vote, is today among Israel’s chief cheerleaders, holding up Netanyahu as the ideal political leader they only wish America had.
The ideological and geopolitical tides of change have finally caught up with Israel, even before the demographic wave of Arab births succeeded in overwhelming it. For the simple fact of the matter is that, barring Mike Huckabee‘s ascension to the White House, whoever occupies the Oval Office come 2017 will have to deal with the objective factors that are dissolving the "special relationship." Israel has chosen to isolate itself from the international community, and unless we want to share that prison cell with Bibi and his successors, the American political class will have to begin distancing itself from a country fast becoming a pariah among nations.
This has already begun to happen, with US officials strongly hinting that Netanyahu’s repudiation of the two-state solution means we’ll have to reconsider our role as Israel’s "shield" in the UN Security Council. And worse – from the Israeli perspective – is soon to come.
The Zionist movement was originally devoted to the principle of "national liberation," and the principle of self-determination for all peoples, but the internal logic of their program eventually undermined this ideological window-dressing. The Labor wing, devoted to an egalitarian vision of socialism and cooperation between Jewish émigrés and indigenous Arabs, had to give way to a more realistic "revisionist" vision of a Greater Israel that would rise at the Arabs’ expense.
Now the masks have been dropped, and Israel’s true face is there for all to see. Some will look upon it and continue to proclaim its great beauty, or will go to great lengths to explain away and even prettify its flaws – but it’s only a matter of time now before the world turns away in disgust.