Magazine article The New Yorker

Base Appeals

Magazine article The New Yorker

Base Appeals

Article excerpt


For twenty years, many people in Israel and in the West have expressed the hope that Benjamin Netanyahu would prove to be the Richard Nixon of the State of Israel. Not the paranoid Nixon of the Watergate scandals or the embittered Nixon raving drunkenly at the White House portraits at four in the morning but the Nixon who yearned to enter the pantheon of statesmen, and who defied his Red-baiting past and initiated diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. Wasn't it possible that Netanyahu, whose political biography was steeped in the intransigent nationalism of the Revisionist movement, was just the right politician to make a lasting peace with the Palestinians?

It is amazing to recall how long this fantasy persisted. Even President Obama, whose relationship with Netanyahu is now poisoned by mistrust, once suspended disbelief. "There's the famous example of Richard Nixon going to China," he said, in 2009. "A Democrat couldn't have gone to China. A liberal couldn't have gone to China. But a big anti-Communist like Richard Nixon could open that door. Now, it's conceivable that Prime Minister Netanyahu can play that same role." Netanyahu, as he went on building settlements, deftly kept this illusion alive. In a speech six years ago, at Bar-Ilan University, and in comments as recently as last year, he spoke of his conditional support for "two states for two peoples."

In last week's Israeli elections, Netanyahu did play the role of Nixon--except that he did not go to China. Nor did he go to Ramallah. He went racist. In 1968, Nixon spoke the coded language of states' rights and law-and-order politics in order to heighten the fears of white voters in the South, who felt diminished and disempowered by the civil-rights movement and by the Democrat in the White House, Lyndon B. Johnson. Nixon's swampy maneuvers helped defeat the Democrat Hubert Humphrey and secure the South as an electoral safe haven for more than forty years.

Netanyahu, a student--practically a member--of the G.O.P., is no beginner at this demagogic game. In 1995, as the leader of the opposition, he spoke at rallies where he questioned the Jewishness of Yitzhak Rabin's attempt to make peace with the Palestinians through the Oslo Accords. This bit of code was not lost on the ultra-Orthodox or on the settlers. Netanyahu refused to rein in fanatics among his supporters who carried signs portraying Rabin as a Nazi or wearing, a la Arafat, a kaffiyeh.

Last week, Netanyahu, sensing an electoral threat from a center-left coalition led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, unleashed a campaign finale steeped in nativist fear and hatred of the Other. This time, there was not a trace of subtlety. "Right-wing rule is in danger," he warned his supporters. "Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls." On Israeli TV, he said, "If we don't close the gap in the next few days, Herzog and Livni, supported by Arabs and leftist N.G.O.s, will form the next government." (Twenty per cent of the Israeli citizenry is Arab.) He warned darkly of "left-wing people from outside," including perfidious "Scandinavians," and "tens of millions of dollars" being used to "mobilize the Arab vote." Pro-Likud phone banks reminded voters that Netanyahu's opponents had the support of "Hussein Obama."

The day before the election, Netanyahu made it clear that, after so many years of periodically flashing the Nixon-goes-to-China card to keep the center-left and the meddling "foreigners" at bay, he would play a new hand. "Whoever moves to establish a Palestinian state or intends to withdraw from territory is simply yielding territory for radical Islamic terrorist attacks against Israel," he said in an interview with NRG, a right-leaning Israeli news site. …

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