Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, now a political zombie in his own country, is moving forward with ostentatious determination as commander-in-chief of a dirty war, strongly supported by those American circles with which he has long had solid personal relationships, in the Republican Party and in the Jewish organizations aligned with it.
The recent statements by many leading members of the Grand Old Party have been chilling: paeans to the destruction of Gaza, even calls for the erasure of the Palestinian people. And at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s recent annual conference, the big star was Donald Trump, who was met with cheers when he said that if he had been president, “you wouldn’t have Ukraine, you wouldn’t have Israel being attacked,” pledging, if elected once again, to “defend our friend and ally the State of Israel like nobody has ever defended.”
In the front row, applauding him and complimented by Trump in turn in a sickly-sweet display, was Miriam Adelson, hostess and owner of The Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas (themed after the City of the Doges) where the conference was held. Among the richest people in the world, Sheldon Adelson’s widow, who is herself Israeli, is a mega-donor to the Republican Party and was the same for Trump and Bibi in their election campaigns.
In his conduct of the war, Netanyahu is banking on a political change in the leadership of the U.S., envisioning the return of a Republican to the White House, and he is working as much as he can to make that scenario a reality, also exploiting the growing uncertainties in the Democratic camp about whether Biden should run again. In effect, he is treating Biden like a crippled president. For his part, Biden, as a seasoned politician, tried to stay ahead of the game since the outbreak of the crisis, flying to Israel as if he intended to “manage” Netanyahu and avert the scenario of all-out war. That scenario has materialized, and the Israeli leader is perfectly comfortable with that, gradually forcing his U.S. ally to settle for a fait accompli, even as it appears reluctant to do so.
Netanyahu, born in 1949, is the first Israel-born prime minister of Israel since the establishment of the Jewish state. But he is also the first culturally “all-American” premier. A major part of his biography is intertwined with the United States. Never has an Israeli leader had such a remarkable ability to personally move within American political, cultural and economic circles. His relationship with America began early. After his childhood and early youth spent in Jerusalem, he moved overseas in 1963. His family lived in Pennsylvania, in Cheltenham Township, a suburb of Philadelphia, where Bibi attended the local high school. From his years in Philadelphia, he has kept the city’s distinct accent.
After his military service, he returned to the U.S., to Boston, to study architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He would also study at Harvard. During those years, he changed his name, calling himself Benjiamin Ben Nitai (in reference to Mount Nitai), a decision that would be brought up against him later as a supposed symptom of a lack of attachment and loyalty to Israeli identity. He later claimed in an interview that he did so because his last name was difficult for Americans to pronounce.
In 1976, in Boston, he began working in the private sector, where his path intersected with that of Mitt Romney; a robust friendship and alliance would develop between the two that would last for a long time. Netanyahu returned to Israel, but then went back in the U.S. in 1982, 33 years old and already a prominent political leader, in the role of number two at the Israeli embassy in Washington. Two years later, he moved to New York, where he took over as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations until 1988. Then he returned to Israel and pursued the political career that would take him to the top echelons of power.
He would get there in no small measure thanks to a campaign in pure American style: he won the elections against Shimon Peres in 1996 thanks to the strategy of Arthur Finklestein, a Republican political operative whose “clients” included Ronald Reagan.
It was precisely the fact that he was an “insider” in American politics that made him something of an internal opponent against Obama (and thus also against his VP, Biden). In the 2012 presidential elections, his longstanding friendship with Mitt Romney turned into a blatant political axis aimed at preventing Obama’s reelection. Never before had a foreign head of state, albeit a top ally and friend of the U.S., taken an active part in the U.S. presidential campaign by siding with one of the contenders, a challenger to the incumbent president. It was a similar “script” with Trump: rejected by American Jewish liberals, but Netanyahu’s staunch ally in the plan that would result in the Abraham Accords, including with the Saudis – which is, moreover, one of the causes of the current conflict.
The fundamental “axiom” on which the special relationship between America and Israel historically rested – first and foremost, from the perspective of the U.S. Jewish community – was that support for Israel was a strictly bipartisan issue in American politics, not one belonging to one party, let alone exploited by one party against the other. That had indeed been the case until Bibi appeared on the scene, now the longest-serving Israeli premier, who has succeeded in the feat of reshaping that relationship to suit the interests of conservatives – and now supremacists – in America and Israel.
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