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The Bibster and the Slickster

Netanyahu and Clinton: Brothers Under the Skin

by ANDREW LEVINE

When it comes to saying one thing, doing the opposite, fooling nobody, and getting away with it anyway, no one – no American politician, that is — does it better than Benjamin Netanyahu.  Bill Clinton is a distant runner-up.

Technically, of course, Netanyahu is not an American politician at all.  But he sounds like one; and, as they say, if it quacks like a duck…

With his American accent and familiarity with American ways, he could pass.  This is how the media portray him – more as a governor of our fifty-first state than as a leader of a foreign nation.  By their lights, he is one of “us.”

And, indeed, were he a state governor, he would fit right in with the Republican horde.  He is certainly retrograde enough, and he meets their standard for stupidity.

Netanyahu was the first to discover that Obama could be defied with impunity.  This discovery paved the way for the bona fide Republican dullards who followed.

Republicans therefore love him and Democrats say they do too, even if they don’t.  In short, the political class lets him get away with murder – figuratively and literally.

Even so, it is astonishing how he got away with approving 14,000 new settler homes, and demolishing some 500 Palestinian structures during the nine months that the Obama-Kerry peace talks, doomed from Day One, muddled along.

All the while, he never stopped proclaiming his support for a “two state solution.”  Obviously, the Bibster is no slouch.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that there are plutocrats out there throwing money around in his behalf, or that the Israel lobby, though widely despised, is still able to get Congress to do its bidding.  Its grip over major media and leading think tanks is also secure.

However, the Separation Wall that keeps truth out is cracking.

As of now, this is most evident on college and university campuses.  Universities were never quite as terrorized as other institutions that shape public opinion – not thanks to donors or legislators, but because free speech protections still count for something in academic precincts.  Now dissent is on the rise, and the phenomenon is making all but the most liberal Zionists hysterical.

Before long the spirit of dissent – and of justice – is bound to spill over into the media and the think tanks.  With the rise of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement, this is already happening.

The political class will be the last to know.  In a real democracy, it would matter if they realized how their constituents feel; in the United States, not so much.

It may therefore be a while still before Netanyahu becomes unable to spout off in the ways he does.

No wonder poor Bill Clinton can’t compete.  But he has a lot going for him too.

He has no AIPAC in his corner, but he does have a coterie of “liberal” donors and leftover Hillary supporters from 2008 who are eager for him to take his turn doing whatever First Husbands do.  They will stand by their man whatever he says — no matter how preposterous it may be.

Like Netanyahu, Clinton has enough sense to realize that the pendulum is no longer swinging his way.  And, like Netanyahu again, he is determined not to fold.

Netanyahu won’t fold because his coalition partners won’t let him and because God is on his side – or is it the other way round?

Clinton won’t fold because his wife won’t let him, and maybe also because he thinks it wise, at this point, to do some spin doctoring for himself.  Ex-presidents worry about their legacies.  Rarely has any of them had more cause for concern.

And so it was that at Georgetown University last week, the forty-second President of the United States delivered a speech defending, of all things, his record on inequality.

That man didn’t earn the name “Slick Willy” for nothing.

The president who is most associated with the neoliberal turn – and therefore with rising inequality — is, of course, Ronald Reagan.  But, for the most part, Reagan only set the agenda; he never got far implementing it.

His Democratic successors were more effective Reaganites than he.

Before he too started mouthing off about inequality, Barack Obama was on course to become the greatest Reaganite president of all.   He may still succeed if he gets the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement he wants.

But, so far, for advancing reckless deregulation, lowering taxes on the rich, and implementing ruinous “free trade” policies, there is no contest; Bill Clinton is the Numero Uno Reaganite president, hands down.

This is why his efforts to tap into the post-Occupy Zeitgeist evince a level of hypocrisy monumental enough to give even Netanyahu pause.

He can’t do otherwise, though; if he wants his wife to become the forty-fifth president, he cannot evade the issue of inequality.  Even a tactful silence would only call attention to all that he did for the one percent.  That would be a lot of baggage for the former First Lady to carry.

This would be the case even if there were discernible differences between Hillary’s views and Bill’s.   Guilt by association works that way.

But there are no differences.   On matters of economic policy, the wife is every bit as culpable as the husband; she might even be more gung ho.

Hence Clinton’s bloviating.  Along with Netanyahu’s, it captures the spirit of the age.

* * *

But times are changing.  The hypocrisy the two of them evince, though risible and more than a little nauseating, is a propitious sign.

The fact that, these days, an Israeli prime minister has to insist that he favors a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and that a Democrat with electoral ambitions for his wife has to babble on about how much he hates inequality betokens changing times.

Netanyahu and Clinton are rascals and hypocrites, and warriors for injustice.  But that is not the only respect in which the two of them are alike.

They are also both templates through which the poverty of our political culture comes into view.

Inasmuch as they both want to remain in the good graces of American public opinion, their hypocrisies are necessitated by increasing public awareness — of the injustice of the Palestinians’ situation and of the evils of inequality, respectively.

And their maneuvers are made possible by the seeming unfeasibility of policies that could, in principle, ameliorate those situations.

In both cases, the policies they claim to endorse were once almost mainstream.  Nowadays, they seem almost utopian.

In both cases too these remedies are only palliatives; they do nothing to alter the underlying causes of the situations they would ameliorate.

They should not be despised on that account, however; especially at a time when solutions that do address root causes have become so marginalized that poseurs like Netanyahu and Clinton feel no need even to acknowledge their pertinence.

 * * *

The root cause of the problem Netanyahu’s chicaneries address is not just that proponents of two competing nationalisms are vying for the same land, but also, more importantly, that one of the sides, Netanyahu’s, holds all the cards militarily.  As long as the United States and the EU remain on board, Israel has by far the strongest hand diplomatically as well.

For Palestinians, therefore, the root problem is Israel itself or rather the kind of Israel that Zionists (left, right and center) assume  – a Jewish state, as distinct from a state of its citizens.

For Israel, the problem is Palestinians.  Settler states in the Americas and in Australasia could count on diseases brought from Europe to deplete the indigenous populations of the territories they coveted.

Since germs were usually not enough, they availed themselves of superior military technologies too.  And, for the coup de grace, they practiced cultural genocide.

The situations Europeans encountered on the African continent and in India were less propitious.  We know how that worked out.

It took several decades for the reality to register fully, but the situation Zionist colonizers confronted was not much better.  It didn’t help either that the colonial era was beginning to come undone, just as their colonial project got underway.

Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the Second World War and in the shadow of the Nazi Judeocide, circumstances permitted the establishment of a Herrenvolk democracy in more than three-quarters of Mandate Palestine.

Thereafter, for nearly two decades, the idea took hold throughout the West that Israel was a model state, and that its existence was a requirement of justice.  These understandings were far from baseless.  And since, at the time, the Palestinian view barely registered, they were widely endorsed.

However Israel’s victory in the 1967 War set in motion a process that has led to the establishment of an Apartheid-like regime in the Occupied Territories and a vast open-air prison in Gaza.

It is therefore not surprising that the democratic character of the Israeli state is itself becoming undone.  Unless the situation changes radically, it is only a matter of time before Israel’s Occupation regime takes over Israel itself.

The problem would go away if Israel would shed its ethnocratic character.  This is hardly a radical or far-fetched notion.  The idea that states belong to their citizens, regardless of group identifications, has been the norm in enlightened political theory and practice at least since the French and American Revolutions.

But that solution is incompatible with the goal of a Jewish state – or worse, a state of all the world’s Jews – in all of Mandate Palestine, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

This is why the so-called “two state solution” would not address the basic problem Palestinians face.

But inasmuch as Israel is not about to change its stripes, this may be the most that Palestinians can hope for.  It would go a long way towards ameliorating their situation.

Accordingly, a Palestinian state existing alongside Israel has been their objective – at first, only implicitly — at least since the 1970s.

This “solution” has always enjoyed the backing of a broad international consensus –though, of course, the United States and countries that slavishly follow its lead have done their utmost to keep it from happening.  Tel Aviv sustains the status quo through Washington’s good offices.

Nevertheless, the two state solution has had broad support within Israel itself  – in part for demographic reasons, and in part because many Israelis are moved to want to lessen the injustice Palestinians endure.

Zionism is a nationalistic ideology, but it once provided ample space for adherents of universalistic ethical principles.  Notwithstanding the rise of the Israeli Right, that impulse is still not extinguished.

Before the establishment of the state of Israel, more radical solutions also had adherents on what would become the Israeli side.  There were Zionists who advocated a Jewish cultural revival but not a Jewish state.  There were others who sought to establish a “bi-national” state in Palestine.

However, the idea that Israel need not be, and should not remain, a sectarian or ethnocratic state is, by now, a non-starter.  Hardly any Israelis could be persuaded to go along.

The two-state solution is fast becoming nearly as impracticable.

By establishing so many “facts on the ground” (settlements in the Occupied Territories), the situation has become so fixed that even a bold and far-seeing leader with sufficient standing — an Israeli de Klerk – would find it all but impossible politically to agree that the Green Line that marked Israel’s territorial limits before 1967 should become its official and final border.

It is not a matter of making adjustments here and there.  Israel now has it all, and too many Israelis want to keep it that way.

In South Africa, de Klerk had the support of the country’s economic elites; they grudgingly concluded that they would be better off without Apartheid.

Whites were a minority in South Africa; they could hardly have maintained dominance without imposing an Apartheid regime.  In contrast, the proportion of Jews to Arabs in Israel’s pre-1967 borders is by now very favorable for maintaining Jewish dominance, even allowing for low Jewish and high Palestinian birthrates.

Within the Green Line, immigration and ethnic cleansing have worked wonders.

This is one reason why an Israeli de Klerk, if one should somehow emerge, would have a more difficult task than the one F.W. de Klerk himself had to face.  But demography is only part of the problem.

Of greater importance is the fact that, in Israel today, support for the regime’s ethnocratic character has little to do with the self-interest of economic elites, and a great deal more to do with religious and nationalist commitments.  These are more difficult obstacles to overcome.

This is why nowadays even the palliatives that were once widely endorsed in Israeli politics seem almost utopian.  A two-state solution was eminently feasible in the not too distant past.  Whether it is feasible now is far from clear.

What is clear is that the prospect has no chance at all unless it is imposed from outside.  This means that the United States would have to make Netanyahu or whoever succeeds him an offer he cannot refuse.

There is no sign that anything like that is in the offing.  But, at last, there are now hints that even the Obama administration has had enough.

Will they then stick up for their side?   If Robert Frost was right, that is one thing liberals won’t do.

Obama et. al. are liberals — if the term means left of center on the prevailing political spectrum.  But they are not much like the liberals Frost knew.  Liberals in his day were less pallid and more principled.  But some things haven’t changed; liberals’ character flaws remain.

Netanyahu figured that out a long time ago.

This is why he believed that he could get away with scuttling the Obama-Kerry negotiations.

All he would have to do is help his patrons save face by saying  enough to keep them from bolting.  He was only blowing air, and everybody – except perhaps John Kerry — knew it.  But he got away with it – again.

However, strategies that have long worked like a charm can’t be counted on to work forever.  Times change.

Indeed, over these past nine months, Netanyahu came perilously close to over-playing his hand.  Even the Obama Administration is blaming Israel, not the Palestinians, for the failure of the recent talks.  This is unprecedented, and it is a hopeful sign.

* * *

When Bill Clinton and like-minded Democrats rail against inequality, their hypocrisy is nearly as monumental.   They didn’t invent neoliberalism, and they may even feel ambivalent about it.   But they are able to get Democratic constituencies to go along with it better than Republicans can.  For implementing policies that exacerbate inequality, they are therefore more effective than Republicans can possibly be.

It is a wonder, then, that the one per-centers haven’t ditched the GOP altogether.  Some of them have, of course.  As for the others, the vast majority — perhaps they think it more advantageous to keep their useful idiots on board, or perhaps they just don’t have enough smarts.

In any case, bad bipartisan politics is not the whole story; and neither would a better politics, more along the lines of the bipartisan consensus decades ago, be sufficient for alleviating the core problems that sparked the Occupy movements and that are now entering into general awareness.

In this sense, Netanyahu’s bluster intervenes into a different sort of situation than the one Clinton is facing.

Had Israel not sabotaged the prospects for a settlement of the kind that many Israelis and Palestinians hoped would emerge from the Oslo accords, Palestinians might have gained some semblance of justice.

But, for that, the United States and other Western powers would have had to make it clear to the Israelis that their obstructionism – and their settlements — had to cease.

This would have required political will only; there are no structural obstacles standing in the way.  The political situation in Israel now is much worse than it was two and a half decades ago, and so even bolder leadership on America’s part is necessary.  This is unlikely to be forthcoming, but the possibility remains.

On the other hand, it is far from clear how well the old palliatives that were the stock-in-trade of European social democracy and New Deal-Great Society liberalism can work in today’s world.

This is because the fundamental problem that has brought inequality back into the public eye is capitalism itself.  Capitalism now, and for the foreseeable future, is not, and cannot be, equality-friendly.

Contrary to what used to be widely assumed, its basic problems have not been overcome. They cannot be.  For that, capitalism itself must be overcome.

Marx understood this; and so did his followers.  However Marxism fell into disrepute – thanks mainly to the trajectories of political movements that identified with his ideas.   At the same time, social democratic and liberal palliatives, introduced to tame capitalism and give it a more human face, actually seemed to be working.

Nevertheless, Marx’s insights, though pushed into the margins of our political and intellectual culture, remain eminently defensible; they can therefore be revived and put to use again.

Even academic economists are coming around to this view or to some reasonable facsimile of it.  The attention they now are paying to Thomas Piketty’s account of the logic of capitalist development – an account that retrieves aspects of Marx’s thought, and that improves upon some of them — is, at once, a symptom and a cause of this largely unexpected but potentially important development.

Piketty explains why the old palliatives worked as well as they did, when they did.  He also explains why the conditions under which social democracy flourished are unlikely to resume.

The changes in world conditions that made Clinton’s policies – and Reaganite politics generally – possible, were also contributory factors in their own right; they facilitated and encouraged the neoliberal turn.

Clinton and the others therefore had more than a little to do with the fact that the condition of most people, the ninety-nine percent, has stagnated or actually declined, while the rich, especially the super-rich, have become obscenely richer.

The situation is so egregious that even its perpetrators – even Clinton himself – cannot help but take notice.

But it is not worth hearing him out.  If we have learned anything in the Age of Obama, it is that, with Democrats, we have to watch what they do, not what they say; and that we must never take their electoral posturing to heart.

When it suits their purpose, they will say that the progressive achievements of the past century are now more necessary than ever; how could they not – this is obvious.

They will gesture support for the old palliatives as well.   This plainly suits Bill Clinton’s purpose now because it suits his wife’s.

But the fact remains:  Democrats, Clinton Democrats especially, serve their paymasters, the richest of the rich, just as Republicans do.  It isn’t even clear which one is the lesser evil.

The Clintonites may seem less noxious, and they can be counted on to make better lower-level appointments.   But they are also more effective at doing the one percent’s bidding.  In the final analysis, it cancels out.

Would a restored Clinton presidency, with the former First Lady at the helm, continue to implement neoliberal nostrums on regulation, taxation, and trade?  There is no reason to think otherwise.

But because it is expedient, count on the Clintons to say otherwise.  Reflect, however, on what they have done — and, above all, should it come to that, watch what they do.

* * *

Even if it all it did was revive some semblance of the old palliatives, a political strategy that categorically rejects Reaganism could have beneficial consequences.

So could increasing awareness of the dangers inherent in Netanyahu-style obstructionism.

Timeworn palliative measures are not to be despised — not when the situations they address are so dire and when more radical solutions, rationally compelling as they may be, are off the agenda for the foreseeable future.

But to get back on course, there are obstacles to overcome.

One of them is Benjamin Netanyahu, another is Bill Clinton – not because they are world historical figures, far from it, but because they are both still players in an increasingly unseemly game.

The harm they would do just by continuing or, in Clinton’s case, encouraging the policies they have long championed would be bad enough.  But, in both cases, the status quo is approaching a tipping point.  This magnifies the harm by orders of magnitude.

Unless a two-state solution is imposed in short order in Israel-Palestine, Israel will, of necessity, become a full-fledged Apartheid state, with dire consequences for both its Jewish and Arab populations.  It will be a long time before anything good will come from that.

And in the United States, with the 2016 presidential election so far shaping up to be a contest between Hillary Clinton and – believe it or not! – Jeb Bush, the dark future Occupy Wall Street set out to combat may be upon us sooner than we think.

How can this be happening?

How can those brothers under the skin, Netanyahu and Clinton, go on as they do, declaring themselves in favor of what they have done all in their power to oppose, fooling only the terminally foolish — while people who plainly see right through them only shrug and acquiesce?

The time is long past due to rise up in outrage instead.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).