Two-Faced Bibi

Benjamin Netanyahu only sounds like America’s ally when he is in America. At home, he’s a nationalist, xenophobic strongman.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on March 8, 2015.

Photo by Gali Tibbon/Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has two faces. In the United States, he’s a devoted ally and a champion of tolerance. He respects our president and Israel’s Arab citizens.

But in Israel, Netanyahu tells a different story. He’s running for re-election as a strongman who’s willing to stick it to the United States and protect Israel’s Jews from their Arab countrymen.

To Americans, Netanyahu presents himself as an admiring ally. “I respect President Obama,” the prime minister declared Sunday on Face the Nation. When Netanyahu was asked about his March 3 speech against Obama’s proposed nuclear deal with Iran—a speech that Netanyahu delivered to a joint session of Congress, in response to a Republican invitation and against Obama’s will—he insisted, “I certainly didn’t mean any disrespect to the president.”

But back home, where Netanyahu faces a March 17 election to determine the makeup of Israel’s next government, he’s campaigning on his defiance of Obama. In an interview with Israel HaYom, published on Friday, Netanyahu told Israelis, “A prime minister in Israel must be able to stand up even to our closest ally and tell the truth.” He indicated that his purpose in going to Washington wasn’t just to tell the truth; it was to send a message. Responding to a question about frosty relations with the United States, Netanyahu told the paper: “A prime minister who stands up for himself is often respected for it.” He said that his speech to Congress was “well worth the cost of confrontation” with Obama and that the speech had “raised issues and question that the administration has to address.”

Netanyahu noted that his challenge to Obama wasn’t just rhetorical. It was political. “If the [Iran deal] is brought to Congress for approval,” the prime minister assured Israelis, “I have no doubt that my speech served to shore up support for Israel’s stance.” He may be right. On Monday, 47 Republican senators submitted a letter to Iran, warning its government that any nuclear deal authorized by Obama is flimsy because Congress or the next president could scrap it. Republicans are doing everything possible to strip Obama of his presidential authority to approve such an agreement. In the process, they’re undercutting our government’s credibility in any future negotiation. And Netanyahu is helping them.

At home, Netanyahu isn’t just touting his confrontation with Obama. He’s suggesting that any political rival who fails to stand with him in this confrontation is insufficiently patriotic. “The question you should be asking is not of me but of those Israelis who don’t stand up to this danger and don’t support this stance,” the prime minister told Israel HaYom. Officials in Netanyahu’s party, Likud, are accusing the prime minister’s critics, including the former head of Israel’s intelligence service, of supplying “Iranian propaganda.”

In the United States, Netanyahu says he has challenged Obama only because Iran’s nuclear program threatens Israel’s existence. It’s “a matter of survival,” the prime minister explained Sunday.

But in Israeli politics, Netanyahu’s battle against the Iran deal serves larger purposes. The Iranian threat is his excuse to back away from previous Israeli commitments to pursue a land-for-peace agreement with the Palestinians. Netanyahu says that his rivals will offer the Palestinians “immediate territorial concessions, and a second Hamastan will arise. Then we will have a double Iranian threat: a nuclear threat and the threat of an Iranian proxy right here at the heart of Israel.”

Netanyahu also crows about standing up to Western governments that object to Israeli settlements. “I don’t think there is any government that ever fought harder than me for the settlement enterprise and national interests in the face of the kind of pressure that no previous prime minister has ever faced,” he told Israel Hayom. “I displayed impressive endurance.”

Often, Likud uses “international pressure” as a code for Obama and Western Europe. But everyone knows who the real bogeyman is. On Friday, the Jerusalem Post reported that Likud officials “privately expressed glee” that the White House was talking about renewing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks:

Likud officials told The Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman that the party could exploit the specter of a US-imposed Israeli withdrawal to rally more voters to Netanyahu’s side. They believe that reminding voters about the danger of an Obama administration winding down its term in office will frighten them into casting their ballots for Netanyahu once more.

In the United States, Netanyahu poses as a democrat among dictators, a defender of Israeli Arabs. Last week, in his speech to AIPAC’s annual conference, he called Israel “the forward position of freedom in the Middle East: the only place where minorities enjoy full civil rights, the only place where Arabs enjoy full civil rights.” Meanwhile, he puts an arm around Arab governments, claiming their support for his position against the Iran deal. On Sunday, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Netanyahu protégé Ron Dermer, asserted on CNN’s State of the Union that “Israelis and Arabs are on exactly the same page when it comes to the Iranian issue.”

But in Israel, Netanyahu is using fear of Arabs to scare Jews into voting for Likud. He’s running against not just foreign Arabs, but Israeli Arabs—the non-Jewish citizens whose freedom to vote and live as equals supposedly makes Israel more like the United States than like an Islamist regime. On Saturday, Likud alleged that a nefarious campaign “financed with millions of dollars from outside Israel” was trying to replace Netanyahu with leftists “who will be supported by the Arab party. Millions of dollars are flowing from overseas these days to raise the number of voters in the Arab sector.” And in his interview with Israel HaYom, Netanyahu used the word “Arab” nine times to describe his domestic enemies:

There is a coalition, with overt as well as concealed motives, that seeks to topple the Likud government and replace it with a left-wing leadership. … I am talking about very powerful organizations with foreign funding in the tens of millions of shekels, equipped with strategists and advisers, seeking two main objectives: To increase the voter turnout among the Left and to increase the voter turnout among the Arabs. These are well-funded organizations that can get the Arab list up to 16 seats, thereby determining the result of the elections as a whole. The strategy is clear: Encourage the Left to vote and bring about unprecedented voter turnout among the Arab sector.

Netanyahu said his two principal rivals

are going together into a coalition supported by the Arab voters. That is the big change that is underway. The only way to prevent that is massive voter turnout on the opposite side of the political map—Likud voters and my supporters. That is the only way to prevent their efforts to dilute the Likud vote and deflect the votes toward the ‘social’ parties and the Left with the help of the Arabs.

On Sunday, Netanyahu’s defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, went further:

There is an unprecedented campaign here to encourage left-wing and Arab voters, and English-speakers are the ones doing it. There are non-profit organizations here that are funded by foreign money—European money and other groups that don’t want to see Netanyahu [anymore].

English speakers, foreign money, international pressure, Arab voters. That’s who Netanyahu is running against. That’s what he thinks will save his job, when the chips are down. If you’re an ordinary American, the face he shows to you doesn’t matter. Because in Israel, you’re not a voter. You’re a prop.