There is no question that the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu will form the next Israeli government is a disaster for Israel and the world. Israel is a state that was formed in 1948 by the United Nations in response to worldwide public opinion. It is a state whose legitimacy was questionable from the first because of the failure to found Palestinian state at the same time. While Israel has now had a long history of its own, the truth is that its only friendly neighbors are dictators and that it is increasingly a pariah state. Its racist internal policies as well as the occupation are essentially unique holdovers from an earlier, colonial epoch and will not survive. Given that context one has to ask what were the Israelis thinking when they cast a vote for Netanyahu?
Netanyahu’s last-minute condemnation of a Palestinian state, and his attack on Israeli Arab voting, encourages one answer: the Israelis are racists; they fear and hate Palestinians and voted for a racist demagogue. Undoubtedly there is some truth to this, but probably not that much. There is something more to be said.
Netanyahu won by making this an election not about Palestine but about Obama. He defied Obama by coming to Congress and condemning Obama and the Iran negotiations. His message to the Israeli people was: you cannot trust America because you cannot trust Obama. He is a weak man who will not stand up for principle. A vote for Netanyahu is a vote for Israel standing up for itself. Herzog and the Opposition also made this an election about Obama and the US. Their message was that Netanyahu was hurting Israel by hurting its relation with America and, above all, with the American president. In voting for Netanyahu the Israeli people were making a judgment about Obama’s leadership. They were saying that he was too weak to rely on; that Israel had to rely on itself.
Of course, Netanyahu did not explicitly say that Obama is too weak for Israel to trust him. Rather, he conveyed this message subliminally by enacting it — by coming to Congress and delivering the message he did. In doing that Netanyahu relied on the Republicans who have basically treated Obama as a kind of ineffective child from the beginning of his Presidency. They did that because, like Netanyahu, they are bullies, and they found that they could get away with it. Race played a role but far less of one than is usually claimed. The fact is that race has worked for Obama far more than it has worked against him. The main reason the Republicans and Netanyahu did what they did is they have not had to pay a price for their bullying. Indeed they have largely shaped the agenda of the Obama Presidency, including the limitations of its domestic achievements, and its striking continuities with the Bush foreign policy. So too, Netanyahu will not have to pay a price. Obama will continue America’s disastrous Middle Eastern policies, and even if we do get an Iran treaty it will never be the really drastic shift in US Mideast policy that Obama called for in 2008, when he ran against Clinton — a candidacy that still casts a long shadow over a deeply disappointing Presidency.