Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory has led the President to scowl and reassess, Republicans to rejoice, and Hillary Clinton to scratch her head. Like taxes, abortion, and Keystone XL, Israel is now one more flashpoint in our political firmament. Indeed, Israel may be on its way to becoming an updated version of Taiwan, aka the Republic of China (ROC), a country that once earned America’s affection but over time became a casualty of realpolitik and a less concerned public.
aiwan? Yes, Taiwan, the island-nation off of the coast of mainland China. After Mao and the Communist Party overthrew the republican government in 1949, 2 million Chinese fled to Taiwan, joining the 6 million already there, and from where the exiled ROC government claimed to be the true China. Indeed, between 1945 and 1971, even as an island state, the ROC held China’s seat as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council—that is, until things changed.
While the Cold War raged between the Soviet Union and the United States, tensions also began to simmer between the Communists, who controlled the Chinese mainland, and the USSR. The official Sino-Soviet split happened in 1960, and true to the adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) began extending an olive branch to the United States. In turn, the United States and the West reached out to the PRC.
First, there was ping-pong diplomacy in the spring of 1971, with the PRC inviting the American table tennis team to play in what was then called Peking. There were also secret visits to China by Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s national security adviser. Then in October 1971, the U.N. General Assembly voted to give the PRC the China seat in the Security Council. The United States opposed that move, but after the vote, we decided to go with the flow.
The next year, Richard Nixon, who had earned a well-deserved reputation as a red-baiting cold warrior, visited China. Taiwan’s status had clearly slipped.
But things didn’t end there. In 1973, America opened a liaison office in Beijing, one that in time would be headed by one George H.W. Bush. Six years later, in 1979, President Jimmy Carter extended full diplomatic recognition to the PRC, and the two countries exchanged ambassadors.
Not surprisingly, Carter’s move evoked the wrath of the Republican right, culminating with Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee, bringing a legal challenge against Carter that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Goldwater saw America’s China pivot as an act of moral betrayal, this being the same Goldwater who voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Suffice it to say, Goldwater lost, as the court was unwilling to get into a tussle between the White House and the Congress. These days, China buys our debt and hacks our computers, while its nationals funneled $1.3 million to the Clinton Foundation. As for Taiwan, it’s more an afterthought than anything else.
To put things in perspective, Taiwan earned a single paragraph in the 2012 Republican platform and, as for the Democrats, it got just two mentions in a wordy sentence: “We remain committed to a one China policy, the Taiwan Relations Act, and the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues that is consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people of Taiwan.”
Which brings us back to Israel, and so why the change? Chalk it up in part to persona and demographics, both here and there. Barack Obama is not Bill Clinton, who privately fumed about Netanyahu’s bravado and antics, but bit his lip in public.
Israel’s blood and soil roots are now on parade, while a minority- and youth-driven coalition of the ascendant is occupying a larger space within the Democratic Party. A Brazilified America is less comfortable with an increasingly ethnocentric and overtly religious Jewish State.
Yet, Netanyahu appears less than concerned about America’s changing demographics. Nor does he seem to care that an African-American family lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Last Tuesday, Netanyahu warned that Israel’s Arabs—who are Israeli citizens—were voting “in droves.” To many, including Obama, Netanyahu’s 11-hour campaign pitch must have sounded like, “OMG, blacks are voting, how dare they?”
For Netanyahu to out-Willie Horton the GOP against the backdrop of the 50th anniversary of Selma is a problem. In a Huffington Post interview, Obama took Netanyahu to task, saying, “We indicated that that kind of rhetoric was contrary to what is the best of Israel’s traditions... Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly... If that is lost, then I think that not only does it give ammunition to folks who don’t believe in a Jewish state, but it also I think starts to erode the meaning of democracy in the country.
From Obama’s vantage point, Netanyahu’s approach toward the United States is a nonviolent recapitulation of the Bush Doctrine: We will befriend the Iraqis by attacking them, so to speak.
Instead of going out of his way to antagonize the president, as when Netanyahu effectively hosted a 2012 Romney rally in Jerusalem, Netanyahu ought to focus on improving Israel’s own military capabilities and toning it down.
With Iranian troops perched on Israel’s border with Syria, the possibility of another war in Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority potentially collapsing, Netanyahu has plenty on his plate. Throw in the not-so-veiled threat of America declining to exercise its veto in the Security Council, and one is left to think that being Israel’s prime minister is not all that it’s cracked up to be.
Rather than magnifying differences, Netanyahu should strive toward finding common ground with the United States. Obama has 22 months left in office, and as Taiwan can teach Israel, a lot can happen in a short time.