Middle Israel: The Nixonization of Bibi Netanyahu

Netanyahu is following in Nixon’s footsteps, for better and worse.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a rally. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a rally.
Asked by TV’s David Frost whether he had ordered crimes like breaking into the Democratic Party’s headquarters, the freshly resigned Richard Nixon responded matter-of-factly: “If the president does it – that means it is not illegal.”
Nixon’s felonies and inglorious departure came to mind this week in the wake of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public defiance in the face of piling legal entanglements. Netanyahu’s departure may or may not end up resembling Nixon’s, but the two’s careers indeed are analogous, not only in terms of their political views, but also in terms of the gaps between their achievements and failures.
Netanyahu’s political career has been eulogized before – first, after his electoral trouncing by Ehud Barak in 1999; then in 2001 after his failure to run for the premiership during the suicide bombers’ intifada; and then after his defeat by Ehud Olmert in 2006. All eulogies proved premature.
True, even Netanyahu never arrived in a labyrinth like the one in which he now seems trapped. When smoke comes in his nostrils he thinks of a cigar’s incrimination, when the clinking of glasses comes in one ear he thinks of champagne’s damnation, when the rustle of newspaper pages comes to his other ear he hears a Faustian bargain’s tape. When hearing music he thinks of a state’s witness singing, when fleeing from all this to Caesarea’s tranquility he sees submarines emerge from under water laden with Pandora’s boxes, and when rushing back from the patio to the living room he sees his wife reviewing headlines about an approaching indictment of her own.
Yet despite all this commotion, there isn’t enough reason at this point to assume that 2017 will be for Bibi what 1974 was for Tricky Dick. In the absence of charge sheets, we do not know what evidence police have, and therefore cannot predict what the attorney- general will do.
Moreover, even an indictment will not automatically unseat Netanyahu, since Israeli law distinguishes between an indicted minister, whose resignation does not dismantle the government, and is therefore expected, and an indicted prime minister, whose resignation brings down the government, and is therefore not demanded.
Still, even if he avoids incrimination, Netanyahu is following in Nixon’s footsteps, for better and worse: for better – in his handling of the world; for worse – in his handling of the press.
LIKE NIXON, Netanyahu has established himself as a statesman.
The prime minister’s enemies will deny this analogy, protesting that Netanyahu failed to “go to China,” in the spirit of political scientist Yehezkel Dror’s plea to Netanyahu in Tuesday’s Haaretz “to redeem himself” by proposing a regional peace plan and thus “do a historic deed next to which personal sins will dwarf.”
This attitude not only assumes, in disregard of what we have been through since 2000, that peace is up to Israel to deliver, it also assumes that a felon can legitimately deliver peace, and that peace can morally cleanse felony. Besides being generally preposterous, that is not what the Nixon precedent instructs.
Nixon’s journey to China and his ignition of peace talks with Vietnam happened well before Watergate’s eruption; had he made such moves in the wake of his personal crisis, they would likely have crashed at takeoff.
Moreover, Deng Xiaoping, who shepherded China from fanaticism to pragmatism, was already waiting in the wings in 1972. The Palestinian Deng is not waiting in the wings and may not have even been born yet.
Despite this constraint, Netanyahu’s diplomatic record is Nixonian.
In the Middle East, he has managed to keep Israel above the fray of multiple civil wars, and also distance their ricochets from the Jewish state. At the same time, he preserved and even upgraded relations with a newly intrusive Russia, mended fences with a hostile Turkey, and lowered partitions between Sunni governments and the Jewish state.
Meanwhile, mapping the European Union’s emerging fault lines, Netanyahu cozied up to its post-Communist renegades in a summit with Polish, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak leaders. Similar summits in West and East Africa, coupled with a high-profile visit by the prime minister of India, and intensifying economic ties with China and Japan, all made a mockery of the opposition’s talk of Israel’s “isolation.”
Israel is not isolated. It is courted, engaged, and also celebrated in broad daylight. As a Nixonian statesman, Netanyahu has maneuvered impressively in a complex diplomatic setting and also become the Jewish state’s voice and face, so much so that if this is indeed his career’s twilight, then his successor as foreign minister will likely fail to fill his shoes.
And yet, this delivery on foreign affairs is overshadowed, so much like Nixon’s, by domestic paranoia, conceit and self-defeat.
NIXON’S PARANOIA was encapsulated in his warning to then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Thomas Moorer: “The press is your enemy... they’re trying to stick the knife right in our groin.”
Netanyahu embraced this canard in his nationally televised rant Wednesday in front of a handpicked, jeering crowd, that “the leftist media” is masterminding a coup.
Nixon’s obsession with the media led him to wiretap reporters, threaten Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, seek ways to discredit newscaster Walter Cronkite, and wage a regulatory war on the big TV networks, by charging them with monopolism.
It was all in the spirit of vice president Spiro Agnew’s depiction of the press as a “small and unelected elite” wielding “a concentration of power unknown in history.” This insight is evidently shared by Netanyahu, whose appointment of himself as minister of communication was a political absurdity, apparently driven by a quest to impact the media’s content by shaping its regulatory setting.
That is also why Netanyahu went to the length of having a friend establish a tabloid that would salute him, and that is apparently the context in which Netanyahu interacted with a publisher whose daily attacked him.
The identification of “the media” with “the Left” – as though being a lefty were immoral, illegal or unpatriotic – is also Nixonian, and is part of a longer shadow overcasting Netanyahu’s career.
Considering his intellect, one is at a loss to understand Netanyahu’s revulsion with those parts of Israeli society that are beyond his political pale. Had he been more levelheaded in this regard, Netanyahu would have conceded that his best political moments came when he was not alone with the Right.
As ambassador he represented the internationally respected Shamir-Peres unity governments; his successful reforms as finance minister would never have happened without the enthusiastic backing of Tommy Lapid and his Shinui faction; and Netanyahu’s second and third governments, when he established himself as a world figure, were buttressed by Labor and Yesh Atid, respectively.
The fourth electoral victory sparked hubris and restored the conceit of Netanyahu’s first premiership, when he accused “people on the Left” of “forgetting what it is to be a Jew.”
THE TWIN defacements of “the Left” and “the media” hark back to Nixon’s legacy, but they now are part of a broader attack.
No, Netanyahu’s charge that the press is staging a coup does not match the mass arrests of journalists in Turkey or their assassinations in Russia. It does, however, fit in with Donald Trump’s character assassination of us journalists as some of “the most dishonest beings on earth.”
That is what Trump and Netanyahu think today, and what Nixon thought yesterday, of us struggling journalists and our embattled vocation. We, of course, see things differently. We think we are walking in the footsteps of Moses, Elijah and Jeremiah, who, despite lacking money, troops and servants, spoke truth to power at great personal cost.
It is in the spirit of their legacy that we say today what our predecessors told Nixon in his time, and what Humphrey Bogart, in the 1952 film Deadline – USA, told the mobster who asked “What’s that noise?” as Bogart, in the role of an intimidated newspaper editor, lifted the telephone receiver into the newsroom’s air, which was filled with typewriters’ staccato:
“That’s the press, baby,” he said, “and there’s nothing you can do about it.”