Netanyahu Gives Obama His Comeuppance

Pity the reporters and editors of the “quality press” and their NPR counterparts who must struggle to reinforce one of conventional wisdom’s more preposterous tenets: that Israel has to massacre Gazans every now and then to protect its citizens from “terrorist” rocket attacks.  Pity them all the more if they actually believe what they write and say.

Honest observers know better: stop the provocations and the rockets will stop, except perhaps for the occasional homemade missile.  The only way to stop that would be to end the desperation that the siege and blockade of Gaza — the functional equivalent of Israel’s (only slightly less malign) occupation of the West Bank — makes rampant.

Hamas alone cannot end that desperation and Israel will not end it as long as its leaders are satisfied with the status quo.  For the time being, they are very satisfied.  Why wouldn’t they be?  They have imperial protection and, at the same time, carte blanche to do as they please.

Because American material and diplomatic support is what makes Israel’s on-going colonization of Gaza and the West Bank possible, the United States could end Gaza’s desperation, and the inevitable resistance that follows from it, overnight.

Were President Obama to withdraw or credibly threaten to withdraw just a fraction of the support the United States provides – were he even to demand that the Israeli government lessen the severity of its grip on the people of Gaza — Israel would have no choice but to comply.

But, of course, he will not.   From the White House on down, the American political class enables Israel’s depredations.  It is an in-grained habit.

This is why our politicians habitually deny common sense, endorsing Israel’s self-defense justification.  And it is why media flacks toil to bring public opinion along.

It is noteworthy, though, that, this time around, there were a few mainstream voices that conceded, implicitly, that there was no plausible self-defense justification for Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s assault on Gaza four years ago.

While those massacres were underway, that assessment, though obvious to all but the willfully blind, was unutterable.   Now it can be said, but only in the course of endorsing the same timeworn self-defense mythology Israel’s apologists are again promoting to justify this latest round of wanton destruction.

In that context, it is acceptable now to acknowledge that the missiles Gazans had four years ago posed no threat to Israeli population centers and very little threat to civilians living nearby.  They were a major inconvenience, but not much more.

Now, the story goes, there really is a threat: thanks to improvements in Hamas’s military capabilities, Iranian machinations, Egyptian complicity, and changes in the political culture of the region brought on by the Arab Spring.

Even so, in view of the pitifully meager military resources available to Gazans and the massive juggernaut Israel wields, the argument is implausible on its face.

Therefore a few defenders of this latest aggression have added a wrinkle: that at least part of the reason for the assault was to prepare for an attack on Iran – by removing potential distractions, like missiles raining down on Israeli cities, while Israel rains down far more lethal missiles on Iran.

To be sure, this explanation coheres poorly with the picture of Israel as a benign, peace-loving democracy.  But it hardly matters.  Our media have been so successful in demonizing Iran and in representing its nuclear program as an “existential threat” to one and all – even to Americans living far beyond the reach of Iranian missiles — that starting a war with those crazed holocaust deniers seems like only the decent thing to do.

I think there is some merit to this account of Israeli strategy, and especially to the version of it Ethan Bronner advanced in The New York Times on November 16.   Bronner’s analysis plainly came from IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) sources, but it is plausible nevertheless.

Israeli governments have been warmongering against Iran since the first Bush’s 1991 Gulf War changed the balance of forces in the region, turning Iran from a friend to a foe; and even if it was mostly smoke, calculated to shift attention away from the never-ending occupation of Palestine, there surely is some substance behind Israel’s threats.

Moreover, doing the unconscionable now, the better to do something even more unconscionable – and dangerous — later, is just the sort of thing one would expect from a government so bellicose that, from its purview, war is not just an extension of diplomacy but an almost normal and unexceptionable aspect of political life.

This is why I think Bronner may have gotten at least part of Netanyahu’s motivation right; and why I suspect that the IDF deemed it useful, in this instance, to reveal its thinking truthfully.  From Israel’s point of view, raising the specter of war with Iran can’t hurt: if nothing else, it enhances the pressure on the United States and other Western countries for ever more punitive sanctions against Israel’s “existential threat” du jour.

But Bronner’s story is plainly not the whole truth because Israel is plainly not about to attack Iran any time soon; not with saner voices in the IDF and the Israeli intelligence establishment urging caution, and not while the “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran” mentality of Washington’s more robustly neoconservative days is in retreat.

At most, the idea might be to practice for some future time when conditions are more favorable.   The unholy trio comprised of Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Avigdor Lieberman — Israel’s Prime Minister, Defense Minister and Foreign Minister, respectively – is surely debased enough to “sacrifice” scores, perhaps even hundreds, of lives in deadly “war games,” especially if the vast majority of them are Palestinian.

But it was not exactly rational calculators, acting strategically, that set the latest aggression in motion; it was ethnocrats implementing a colonial project that has only one fundamental goal – to make life in all of Mandate Palestine so unbearable for Palestinians that they will give up and “self-deport” – as Netanyahu’s fellow vulture capitalist in-training at Boston Consulting back in the seventies famously proposed “illegals” from Mexico and Central America be encouraged to do.

Confining an occupied population to an open-air prison, and then diminishing its quality of life egregiously, sometimes just isn’t enough.  Sometimes overt violence is called for too.


This may explain why? The deeper mystery is why now?  This puzzles even Israel’s apologists.

With the mainstream media in tow, they can fool a lot of the people all of the time; they can even get the President of the United States and his Secretary of State to trumpet their line about Israel’s right to defend itself – ignoring the fact that it is defending itself against a people it subjugates, and that its defense is obscenely disproportionate.

They can do that, but they cannot explain the timing.  It is the same with explanations like Bronner’s that invoke strategic considerations or with explanations that emphasize the exigencies of ethnic cleansing.

To be sure, if it is to happen at all, it must happen at one time or another.  But we ought to be able to do better than that.  We ought to be able to get a purchase not just on why? but also on why now?

There is little doubt that Netanyahu wanted a war at precisely the time he got one, not just at some point or another.  Otherwise, he would not have had Hamas’s military leader, Ahmad Al-Jabari, killed.  This was plainly a provocation.

Not surprisingly, apologists for Israel try to claim that Hamas was the instigator.  But evidence to the contrary is so overwhelming that they cannot even convince themselves.

The why now? question is so perplexing, even for promoters of the party line, that, in addressing it, all the usual constraints are effectively relaxed.  Even the cordon sanitaire protecting Israeli governments from any and all criticism has been breached.

Thus the idea that, with elections looming, Netanyahu needed a quick and dirty war to rally the nation behind his candidacy, a commonplace view in Israel and on the left throughout the world, has made its way into the American media’s mainstream.  Not long ago, this would have been unthinkable.

That the guardians of conventional wisdom would tolerate a view that hardly redounds to Netanyahu’s credit is remarkable.  It shows that even in the media it is not always possible to deny the obvious, or at least to make the denial stick.

Israel’s impending elections doubtless explain a good deal.  For having intervened so conspicuously in the Obama-Romney contest, Netanyahu was in deep trouble after Romney lost.  He had to do something therefore, even if only to draw attention away from his failed maneuvering.

Realizing the extent of Israel’s dependence on the United States and the importance of a good relationship with the American president – and recognizing that the Israel lobby can no longer be counted on to keep the tail wagging the dog – many Israelis wanted Netanyahu out.  His opponents smelled blood.

A quick and dirty war would indeed go a long way towards getting Netanyahu back in his compatriots’ good graces – provided, of course, that he and his handlers could spin the outcome to his advantage.

As it happened, they could not.  Although the Israelis killed a lot of Gazans, smashed what little there is of Gaza’s infrastructure, and temporarily diminished Hamas’s military capability, Hamas was the ultimate winner.

All they had to do to win was to hold their own; and that they did undeniably.  Hamas is now stronger than it was before Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense, and not all the spin meisters in Jerusalem or at AIPAC headquarters in Washington DC can spin that in a way that makes Netanyahu look good.

Even so, he may still come out on top in the impending elections because the opposition to him, like the opposition to Obama, is too pitiful to seize the advantages handed to it.

And, in any case, the fact that things turned out badly for Netanyahu doesn’t speak to what his intentions were.  Whether, in the end, Pillar of Defense helps his electoral prospects or not, his reason for launching it now, rather than at some other time, may indeed have been to obtain an electoral advantage.

It was similar four years ago with the even more brutal, and disproportionate, Operation Cast Lead.

I would hazard, though, that the timing of both this latest atrocity and the one that followed the 2008 election that put Obama in office suggests that the decisive factor, now and then, has more to do with American than Israeli politics; that the elections that matter most for understanding why Israel assaults Gaza when it does are not Israeli but American.

We may never know at exactly what point Republicans decided – wrongly, it turns out — that dumb obstinacy on their part could do Obama’s presidency in.  What is clear is that Netanyahu came to a similar conclusion; that he figured out early on that Obama had feet of clay.  His example may even have helped show the Republican leadership the way.

Operation Cast Lead began just weeks after the 2008 election and continued until just before Inauguration Day.  It was a major problem for the United States, and for a President-elect who had announced that he wanted to set things right between America and the Muslim world.  Nevertheless, Obama uttered nary a critical word – not then and not since.

Netanyahu may not be the brightest bulb on the tree, but he was quick to figure out what Obama was this portended.

He understood that Obama could go to Cairo and utter conciliatory words, but that it wouldn’t matter in the least – not just because islamophobia was becoming a political force on the American scene, but because Obama was too nice, too intent on upsetting no one – too conciliatory and too respectful of the powers that be — to govern boldly or to break new ground.

Netanyahu figured out that Israel could do what it wants when it wants, and that Obama would do nothing to stop it, even though he knew that he should, and even with the storehouse of political capital he had at the time.

It is the same now.  In the 2012 elections, the Republicans got shellacked, just like the Democrats did in 2010; all that Republican Jewish Coalition money that Sheldon Adelson and Netanyahu’s other buddies poured into Republican coffers was spent in vain.

But Netanyahu determined that Romney’s loss need not be his. And so he set out to demonstrate — again — how unimpressed he is by Barack Obama, and how little the election results affect him.

Pillar of Defense was a message to the Commander-in-Chief – just in case, during his second term, he should entertain thoughts about forcing Israel to make peace.

What was an unspeakable tragedy for the people of Gaza, and a crime before the world, was a warning to the United States: continue on as before or just watch what destruction we will unleash.

Were Obama more of a statesman, Netanyahu’s machinations would be futile.  The United States holds all the cards, now more than ever.  But Netanyahu is playing as if Israel holds a straight flush.  And with Obama playing for the American side, his bluff just might prevail.

A strategist’s first task is to take the measure of his opponent.

Netanyahu is no Clausewitz.  He is barely even a pre-comatose Ariel Sharon.   As a strategist, he stumbles from blunder to blunder.  But, in his dealings with Barack Obama, he, along with the entire Republican Party and their “centrist” and Blue Dog colleagues in the party of the lesser evil, has step one down pat.

The people of Gaza are paying the price now, just as they did four years ago and, with less intensity, in the years in between.  Unless we fight back as they did, we will again be paying too – not as devastatingly of course, since Grand Bargains are no match for aircraft and drones, but no less surely.

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).

ANDREW LEVINE is 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).