Biden’s America: A cautionary tale for Israel - opinion

The battle going on in America is not about politics, it’s about culture. And culture carries far more weight than Congress.

President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks at the Major Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III National Guard/Reserve Center in New Castle, Del., Jan. 19, 2021 (photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES)
President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks at the Major Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III National Guard/Reserve Center in New Castle, Del., Jan. 19, 2021
With newly instated US President Joe Biden now firmly ensconced in the White House after a contentious ballot battle, Israel must turn its attention to March 23, the date set for the fourth Knesset election in two years. And though daily polls on how each of the parties is faring may fill airtime and satisfy viewers’ curiosity, they do not constitute the kind of focus that is sorely needed at this juncture.
In light of the extraordinary rise and ultimate hard fall of Donald Trump, a couple of lessons are in order for the Jewish state that was affected so greatly by his single term in office.
Because the coronavirus crisis is the most pressing issue at the moment, there is a natural tendency to blame the head of one’s country both for the morbidity/mortality rates and for the economic disaster wrought by government-imposed lockdowns. This was a key factor in Trump’s defeat.
Prior to the onset of the pandemic, the US economy was booming. Unemployment, including among minorities, was at an all-time low; the stock market reached record heights. Middle-class Americans were beginning to breathe again. Had the virus not struck, Trump still would have been Trump.
He would have enraged his enemies. He would have grated on the nerves of supporters with genteel sensibilities. And he still occasionally would have embarrassed even a few ardent fans.
But the energy that he infused in his base would have grown, as would the love for him that led to his receiving 74 million votes in November. Indeed, had there been no pandemic, it’s likely that Trump would still be in the White House.
It was not his “handling” or “mishandling” of it that made the difference, but rather the inevitable loss of jobs from closures that changed the mood.
That he wanted to open up the economy did not help; it only caused him to be blamed for not caring whether people got sick and died. Never mind that he launched “Operation Warp Speed” for the development of vaccines, the only real solution to the global disaster.
OBSERVING THIS turn of events, Israeli politicians desperate to topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have put COVID-19 at the top of their campaign agendas. Ironically, however, by the time the election rolls around, most, if not all, of the population will have been inoculated, thanks to Netanyahu’s having paid double for the vaccines, on the one hand, and recently signing a data-sharing contract with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, on the other.
Without the extremely successful vaccination drive, Netanyahu’s continued premiership, too, could easily have headed the way of Trump’s – and still might. This is in spite of the fact that the prime minister’s approach to the pandemic was diametrically opposed to that of the now-former US president.
Indeed, while Trump was cavalier about COVID and wanted the American economy back up and running, Netanyahu has been locking down Israeli businesses on and off for the better part of 11 months.
In other words, it’s likely that Netanyahu’s ability, or lack thereof, to garner enough mandates to form a coalition will be coronavirus-related.
As counter as this runs to the wishes of both friend and foe – with the former cheering achievements such as the Abraham Accords, and the latter screaming about the “crime minister’s indictments” – it’s the most plausible scenario. Ultimately, Pfizer and Moderna could determine the outcome of the upcoming election more than rockets from Gaza, uranium enrichment in Iran or machinations from the new administration in Washington.
IN HIS inaugural address on Wednesday, Biden said that his “whole soul is in... bringing America together, uniting our people and uniting our nation... uniting to fight the common foes we face: anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, hopelessness.”
With unity, he said, “we can do great things, important things. We can right wrongs.”
Even if it were possible to leave aside the blind animosity felt and openly expressed over the years by American liberals and progressives toward conservatives in general and Trump supporters in particular, the idea that a wave of politician’s rhetorical magic wand can make ideological divisions disappear is ludicrous. The Democrats know this very well. When they speak of “unity,” they mean “like-mindedness.”
That’s why Biden was able to name the “common foes we face” not as the mullahs in Tehran or their proxies bent on destroying America, but rather as “anger, resentment, hatred, extremism, lawlessness and violence.”
And when he did raise the issue of terrorists, he referred to “domestic” ones and “white supremac[ists]” – not a word about Black Lives Matter and antifa, groups funded to fuel all of the nasty sentiments and behaviors on his list.
So, when he said that “politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path,” he was conveying the message to anyone who refused to take a beating for believing in Trump’s vision for the US. Those who’ve been engaged in a relentless assault on American history and monuments were exempt from his reprimand. They helped usher him into the Oval Office, after all.
What Biden might be missing – as an old-style Democrat who spent 36 years in the Senate and another eight as Barack Obama’s vice president – is that the battle going on in America is not about politics, it’s about culture. And culture carries far more weight than Congress.
His description of the situation as an “uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal” is thus outdated by decades. It’s certainly not an accurate picture of the current societal schism, which cuts a lot deeper than geography or party affiliation.
US Vice President Kamala Harris could probably teach him a thing or two about the true nature of the climatic rift, since she’s both a product and a beneficiary of it. But she might be too busy running the show to keep him up to speed.
She’s got radicals to gratify, for one thing. Oh, and “systemic racism” to eradicate, while touting her gender and skin color as though they were hindrances to her steep climb up Uncle Sam’s ladder.
ISRAELI POLITICIANS are as clueless as Biden when it comes to cultural climate. They, too, drone on about “unifying” the country, and blame Netanyahu for creating “fissures” that must be mended. When that does not work, they simply attack him personally for being a “liar,” a “crook” and an “egomaniac” who would sell the Jewish state down the river to hang on to his seat.
Neither ploy has been successful so far. Though he was not able to forge a government in April or September of 2019 – hence the third round of elections in March 2020 – his Likud Party did gain the most mandates each time.
Eventually, he created a coalition with Benny Gantz, head of the “anybody but Bibi” Blue and White bloc. Since the fall of that “unity” government, Blue and White has disintegrated, and new parties are cropping up all over the place. Yet Likud remains the largest.
Netanyahu is deemed, even by his worst defamers, to be a genius politician, a “magician” who always has a rabbit to pull out of his hat. This is their way of dismissing his leadership, which earned him the distinction of being the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history.
Rarely, if ever, is anything said about his grasp of the significance of culture, however, which is probably due to Israelis’ narrow definition of the word as relating solely to art, literature and music. It does not occur to them that every painting, book and song is born of and reflects the surrounding culture, which in turn influences everything kids learn in their schools and what the public absorbs from its pundits.
Netanyahu understands this as it applies to Israel. He’s also aware of how it shapes America, and attempts to tread wisely in both arenas. He is thus able, for example, to court the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) as political partners, while at the same time championing gay rights.
Being in tune to the climate in the US has served him in similar stead. As a result, his critics at home and abroad accuse him of having placed a “wedge” between Republicans and Democrats, thereby turning Israel into a “partisan” issue in America.
IT’S A ridiculous claim, of course. The American Left turned Israel into a partisan issue, without any help from Netanyahu. Trump, therefore, had no problem highlighting his own bias on that score: that siding with the Jewish state against its enemies is a US interest.
The incoming Biden administration has indicated that this love is no longer unconditional. If the activists of Black Lives Matter and antifa have their way – and say – there will be no affection at all.
Netanyahu knows this full well. And if he manages to finish vaccinating all the voters, he might be given the opportunity to explain why it matters, including to small business owners whose shops he shuttered.