An ideological, right-wing leader comes to power. He seems sure to be more disciplined than his predecessor, a centrist politician who sailed from scandal to scandal. Domestically, the electorate is sharply polarized—they’re still sore over terrorist attacks that have killed many of their fellow citizens, but they have strong disagreements about how best to respond. The government, however, has no such hesitation. The cabinet is stacked with veterans of the armed forces and the defense establishment who are sure that a strong show of force will finish off the country’s Muslim tormentors. The world doesn’t see it that way, and despite impressive deployments of troops—and plenty of military victories—the nation becomes more and more diplomatically isolated, tarnishing its reputation as a beacon of freedom.
Sounds awfully like the United States in the mid-2000s. But it is also Israel today. Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies increasingly echo American policies under George W. Bush. He has deployed overwhelming force where nuanced, tactical approaches would have worked better; spurned international opinion; and ignored gathering discontent among voters at home. Staying the course, to use a favorite phrase of Bush’s, could do serious harm to Israel’s reputation abroad and be disastrous for Netanyahu and his Likud Party at home.
Let’s look at the parallels. America’s long slide into the international doghouse began soon after September 11. It wasn’t so much the campaign to unseat the Taliban as the presidential tone that increasingly seemed to hold global Islam accountable for the attacks; the limitless detention of newly designated “enemy combatants”; and a march toward unilateral war with Iraq that seemed inexorable from the moment it entered the national debate. From there, opinion makers around the world seemed pleased to draw Bush as a cartoon—an incurious cowboy whose peculiar blend of greed, narcissism, and Manichaeanism explained warrantless wiretapping or Katrina-related incompetence. In 2007, a Pew poll found widespread disapproval of the U.S. and its foreign policy in 45 countries. The following year, respondents in 19 of 24 countries—several of them key allies—said they lacked confidence in Bush.
Netanyahu seems to be treading a similar path. His predecessor as Likud leader was Ariel Sharon, who initiated Israel’s slide into pariah-hood with his response to (some would argue provocation of) the second intifada in 2000: he reoccupied—often with tanks—some West Bank towns that had previously been left to their own devices. He also made targeted assassination a declaratory state policy. Yet with his road-to-Damascus realization that Israel couldn’t sustain settlements—he withdrew his countrymen from Gaza (and eventually left Likud for a more centrist party)—Sharon rehabilitated his image, becoming an unlikely prophet of peace, rather than a warmonger responsible for thousands of Palestinian civilian casualties.
But Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, proved a bungling prime minster, and after a short interlude Likud is back in control under Netanyahu, who is reading from Sharon’s early playbook. He has not only refused any meaningful compromise on West Bank settlements, but his government answered intense White House pressure with an embarrassing snub to visiting Vice President Joe Biden. At a time when Israel is already under scrutiny for alleged war crimes in a Gaza war launched by the previous premier, Netanyahu ordered a disastrous raid on the Gaza-bound aid flotilla that attracted the maximum possible attention (nine aid workers died) with the least possible benefit. As the world is turning against Netanyahu, so are Israelis: a poll last month showed that a majority of voters don’t approve of the prime minister.
Commentators both in Israel and among its American supporters recognize that they’re now fighting a perception war as much as a real one. Israel, they argue, can easily be in the right about everything and still lose traction in the international PR battle. There are a variety of reasons for that, from fading memories of the Holocaust to frustration among many—particularly young people, and especially young American Jews—that Israel has done little to advance a final settlement with the Palestinians (even if the Palestinians have done likewise).
But the fact remains that perceptions are crucial, and Netanyahu has no idea how to cultivate them. Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic, a staunch defender of Israel who also loathes the West Bank occupation, made the case forcefully this week: “The militarization of the Israeli government’s understanding of Israel’s situation—this has been the most sterile period for diplomacy in all of Israel’s history—is not all that led to the debacle at sea. It is hard not to conclude from this Israeli action, and also from other Israeli actions in recent years, that the Israeli leadership simply does not care any longer about what anybody thinks.” (This was exactly the attitude Bush was expressing when he said that “opinion polls are nothing but a shot of yesterday’s news.”)
Israel is beginning to feel the burn. Policymakers in Washington, its lockstep ally, are tearing their hair out over Netanyahu’s settlement intransigence. President Obama’s one-on-one White House meeting with the prime minister after the Biden snub was so chilly that a readout for the press—standard protocol after a chat between national leaders—was not produced. And the U.N. was able to make an unusual condemnation of the flotilla raid because the United States declined to veto it. Even among Israel’s supporters, people are fretting openly about the possibility that Jerusalem will become as isolated as South Africa’s apartheid government. “Israel cannot afford to become another South Africa, Burma, or North Korea,” Max Boot wrote in Commentary the day after the raid. “The IDF should be mindful of the French experience in Algeria and the American experience in Vietnam: it is possible to win every battle and still lose the war.”
To be fair, Netanyahu (like Bush) has not acted entirely alone: his defense minister is a member of the center-left Labor Party. And he’s also caught in a political pickle. Israel’s doves and the international community want him to stop acting so recklessly and to do something about his ostensible—albeit reluctant—belief in a two-state solution. Yet a large portion of Israelis oppose even more moderate steps like freezing West Bank settlements. If he tacks too far left, Netanyahu loses his hawkish base (and his job); if he tacks any further right, he’ll go down in history as an insecure ideologue rather than a visionary statesman.
Still, his current path—see no evil—is not sustainable. Here Bush offers an object lesson: when he left office, he was regarded as a has-been even in his own country, where only 22 percent of Americans approved of his job. Much of Obama’s campaign appeal was a promise to restore America’s reputation abroad. Israel, too, has been a comeback country, regaining popularity (outside of the Muslim world) after periods of international disdain, particularly in the 1970s. The question now is how long Israelis want to keep digging before they start the process of rebuilding their reputation.