When a prime minister plays kingmaker

Published on Haaretz

By trying to interfere in the U.S. presidential elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has broken faith with American Jewry.

On no previous trip to New York can I recall so many American Jewish friends asking me to explain what Israel’s premier is up to. These loyal Israel supporters are equally rattled by the idea that Israel seems as if it is about to launch a war against Iran, by Netanyahu’s attempts to dictate terms that could limit the United States’ freedom to act, and by an Israeli prime minister so baldly meddling in the race for the American presidency.

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Just two weeks ago, Americans were dismayed by the murder of an American ambassador and members of his staff in Libya, and then watched Islamic hatred explode across the globe. Islamic government leaders called upon the U.S. to arrest the maker of an allegedly blasphemous film for insulting their faith, showing their poor understanding of freedom of speech but their fine grasp of police-state tactics.

By chance, author Salman Rushdie recently resurfaced with a book about his years in hiding, reminding the English-speaking world of Iran’s leading role in promoting a violent and intolerant form of Islam. According to the author, Ayatollah Khomeini ordered Rushdie’s murder in 1989 without having read “The Satanic Verses,” based on his son’s comment that the book was blasphemous – not that better research could have justified the subsequent fatwa, the riots or the attacks on translators and bookstores that left dozens dead over the last 23 years.

Americans believe blasphemy is a private affair and reject political cultures that promote mob violence to support absolutist religious dogmas. With these latest events, the ball was teed up perfectly for Netanyahu to convince America that the United States must keep Iran free of nuclear weapons.

Last week, Netanyahu’s misguided attempts to unseat the U.S. president and his toxic dependency on Sheldon Adelson prevented him from getting his message across. On NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press,” Netanyahu argued that it is in Americans’ interests for their government to articulate “red lines” beyond which it would not allow Iran’s nuclear program to proceed without risking direct American military intervention. But Netanyahu had to bend himself into a pretzel to avoid answering questions from the show’s host, David Gregory, about whether he supported his “old friend” Mitt Romney’s charge that President Obama had “thrown allies like Israel under the bus.”

Indeed, how could Netanyahu deny that he has been trying to get Romney elected after so publicly courting Republicans, dressing down President Obama on international television, and endlessly undermining his administration? It is not by chance that the same Sheldon Adelson who bankrolls a free Israeli newspaper – a daily paean to Netanyahu and mouthpiece for the Likud – has, by his own admission this week, already spent $70 million to defeat Obama.

Netanyahu and his sugar daddy may have been able to buy Republican support for their pet positions: that Iran must be attacked and settlements allowed to flourish. They forgot to consider the possibility that Obama might be reelected. At this moment, it seems Netanyahu may have bet on the wrong horse, but why was the leader of the Jewish state betting on horses at all?

Netanyahu headed to the United Nations this week, to debate Iran’s nuclear program, having antagonized the American president – whom Israel needs more than anyone on the planet to stop Iran. If the future of the Jewish people is once again at risk, why has our leader gambled with the goodwill of the United States? Are settlements worth it? Is Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition worth it? Is Netanyahu worth it?

Iranian leader Ahmadinejad, in his UN speech, claimed Iran was the nation under threat, from “uncivilized Zionists,” but initial media coverage noted how tame this lame duck president’s talk was compared to past provocations. While the U.S. delegation walked out on the Iranian leader, the stage was hardly set for a doomsday message from Netanyahu (who was scheduled to address the body after these lines were written).

And Netanyahu is so deep inside his right-wing bubble he can’t see how many American Jews he is alienating. U.S. Jews, like other Americans, and like Israelis, don’t like foreign leaders meddling in their internal politics. The non-Orthodox liberal majority of American Jewry is appalled by Netanyahu’s Republican allies, and knows their antipathy toward liberal values could undermine the bedrock of American Jewish prosperity. While it may be a sign of how secure American Jews feel that there’s little discussion among them of the danger posed by an outrageously wealthy Jewish gambling mogul trying to buy the White House for his candidate – no student of anti-Semitism can believe this is good for the Jews.

The Iranian threat should never have become a partisan issue in U.S. election politics. If only our prime minister could have looked after Israel’s interest with dispassionate concern instead of trying to play kingmaker. Due to the damage he has done to Israel’s relationship with the U.S. administration and the personal animus he has demonstrated toward one of the most supportive American presidents Israel has ever known, Netanyahu’s legacy may prove more apocalyptic than messianic. His failure could be epic and historic.

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