Israel's Frenemies

House Speaker John Boehner with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters-Landov

“Dear God,” some thoroughly secular Israelis are saying these days, “save me from my friends; I can deal with my enemies myself.”

As the Palestinian-statehood bid approaches at the U.N., Israel is gripped by a sense of numb insularity. The Netanyahu-Liberman government is wading into the crisis with no creative alternative and zero prospects for solving either the old feud with the Palestinians or the recent ones with Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan. Reeling from a heady summer filled with peaceful protests for socioeconomic justice (all of which boosted civic optimism), Israelis are facing a gloomy autumn of diplomatic crisis, isolation, and conflict.

Yet this insularity comes with a strange self-assurance that many right-wing Israelis flaunt and many center-to-left Israelis loathe. And Benjamin Netanyahu gives quintessential voice to that attitude: America loves us; and soon, for they believe Obama is on his way out, it will love us even more.

A bear hug from the hawkish side of Washington is nothing new to right-wing Israeli governments. Many believe that George W. Bush helped stall Israeli-Palestinian peace talks by injecting nationalist hubris into the veins of Sharon, Olmert, and Netanyahu. A sense of entitlement surrounds Likud and right-of-Likud politicians as they hammer on with their settlement-expansion and “no partner” mantra, in the face of the Arabs, the peace-brokering international Quartet, and the global community. Obama—at first feared by the Israeli right—is increasingly seen as a mere blip on the radar, promptly counterbalanced by Congress, in the trail of Washington’s unerring support for an uncompromising Israel.

Indeed, the new generation of pro-Israeli Republican hopefuls is dwarfing its predecessors with a pungent mix of messianic Christianity and a misplaced love of Zion. It feels like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are competing to win the prize for more-Israeli-than-thou.

During a visit to Israel in August 2009, Perry told The Jerusalem Post he was “a big believer that this country was given to the people of Israel a long time ago, by God, and that’s ordained.” And as one comment on the Israeli newspaper Haaretz website declared, “A Republican Christian is better than the Moslem currently inhabiting the White House.” Increasingly isolated in the Middle East, Israelis of the epic-heroic cast of mind cling to the rock offered by their evangelical-Christian friends.

But for many in the Israeli community, American Republican backing comes at a price they are unwilling to pay. Even extreme-right commentators, mostly Jewish Orthodox, are beginning to wonder whether one should embrace Christian love, dovetailing so well with West Bank settlement lore, from a politician like Perry—who doesn’t seem able to tell his Gideon from his Armageddon.

Nor are many starry-eyed about Bachmann; when she says that our two countries “share the same exceptional mission, to be a light to the nations,” secular liberal Israelis cringe. Their way of being a light unto the nations is through high-tech innovation and this summer’s peaceful, sophisticated social-reform movement. When offered Bachmann’s “city on the hill,” a majority of Israelis still prefer their earthly Tel Aviv on its coastal plateau. In fact, Israelis can tell their American peers one or two things about Bible-fed political jargon. God’s finger has all too often been summoned into our politics. And when Bachmann compares the U.S. debt situation to the Holocaust, Israelis can only nod wisely: been there, done that, heard our politicians heighten hysteria with hyperbole.

The deep question is really this: why do these “friends of Israel” understand what’s good for Israel in a way so sharply divergent from the hopes of at least half the Israelis? How come this “love of Israel” is so clearly on the side of eternal occupation and rampant nationalism? Why is mainstream Israel, high-tech Israel, socially aware Israel, humanist-Zionist Israel, everything that Tel Aviv stands for, so far removed from the evangelical Republican core?

Join the Discussion