I''m directing this note against my Internet friends and many others who think that Benyamin Netanyahu is an extremist, against Barack Obama who has told a number of people that Netanyahu is a pest, and against analysts who assert that Israel is a marginal issue in the American election.
I concede that there is some truth in all of this, but it is also clear to me that Netanyahu has served Israel well by succeeding in putting Iran''s nuclear program high on the international agenda. Pest he may be, but pest he should be, given all that Iran''s leadership has said about Israel, and the ample evidence that it has spent years wasting the time of international worthies who would negotiate and move only slowly and gradually to serious sanctions.
The latest news from two nations’ politics is that Bibi remains on top of Israel''s polls, while Obama is in trouble. The American election is on November 6th. Israel''s election—recently announced-- will occur on January 22nd. A "theoretical cluster" of centrist and left of center parties might overcome Netanyahu, but there are personal egos and organizational rivalries in the way of that theoretical grouping. Those supporting the theoretical cluster will also have to cope with the recent conviction on a charge of corruption of the man mentioned as its theoretical leader, Ehud Olmert. Olmert told the court that he had no political aspirations, which was important in the court’s decision not to add a component of “shame” to its guilty verdict, that would have kept him from running in near-term elections. Still pending is a decision of the prosecutors whether to appeal Olmert’s not guilty verdict on another charge of corruption, and his ongoing trial for other varieties of corruption.
News from Iran is of sanctions that are hurting, and from Washington that additional tightening is coming. One can see Bibi''s postering as prominent among the elements that has led Western govenments to impose sanctions, against their reluctance to give up the economic benefits from buying energy from Iran and selling it goods and services. It has not been hard to see implied threats in Bibi''s statements, but nothing as explicit or as apocalyptic as coming from Iran.
Iran may be far from the principal issue in the American election, and far even from an issue likely to determine the votes of anything more than a small minority of American Jews. Yet it is visible enough, and arguably has been a factor in leading the President to announce a hardening of sanctions in response to the challenges of the Republican nominees, and well as the continuing pestiness of Israel’s Prime Minister.
None of this makes Israel a “great power.” Nevertheless, the history of its people, along with the resources of the IDF, and the crudeness of its adversary, have made it a factor of considerable weight.
Some of those who accuse Netanyahu of extremism focus on his actions with respect to settlements and the ultra-Orthodox. On both matters, he has done things that bother numerous Israelis and produce a quest for a more appealing party. That aspiration may prove elusive. Moreover, Netanyahu is not over the line that distinguishes conventional politics from extremism. He has maintained a coalition longer than any prime minister since the 1980s, or since the Palestinians began their restiveness and violence of Intifadas #1 and #2. He has given in to the settlers and the Haredim, in ways that seem close to his genuine personal support. Insofar as the Israeli public has continued to record positive sentiments toward him and his Likud party in surveys of public opinion, he hardly qualifies as an extremist.
Whether we like it or not, the settlers have considerable support, at least of the passive variety. Israelis give them what they want, perhaps due to frustration with Palestinians’ inability to accept Israel and bargain an end to further settlement in a reasonable way. The Haredim, like the settlers, provoke oppositon within Israel, but they vote in something approaching unison, according to their rabbis’ instructions. Along with the settlers, they represent a substantial slice of Jewish reality. And Israel qualifies—with or without international applause—as a Jewish democracy.