Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Israeli strategists came up with a great way to “sell Israel” to the American government. The Soviet Union, they argued, was turning the Middle East into a battleground of the Cold War. (I should point out that this was actually true.) Israel was the only pro-Western democracy in the region, and would gladly turn itself into the fifty-first state if only the U.S. would provide nearly unlimited arms and money.
When the Cold War came to an abrupt end in the late 1980s, the Israeli strategy nearly bankrupted. Tensions between the Bush administration and the Shamir government peaked when U.S. Secretary of State James Baker read out his telephone number to a televised Congressional hearing, telling the Israelis to give him a call when they got serious about peace-making. Fortunately, the election of the Rabin-Peres government in 1992 gave the Israeli-American “special relationship” a new lease on life. Instead of pointing to the persistence of conflict as the reason for U.S. support for Israel, the Labor government opened up the prospect of the end of conflict — and a stable, peaceful “new Middle East.”
Shimon Peres’ vision tied in neatly with Bill Clinton’s own post-Cold War strategy of promoting stability everywhere — and in turn, strengthening American business competitiveness in a globalized economy.
Just like politicians in South Africa, Ireland, the Balkans and elsewhere, so Israeli politicians figured out that the persistence of conflict in the region could not be the basis of a strong relationship with Washington. Instead, Israel needed to be seen by Americans as a country promoting a stable environment in the whole region. A stable environment for investments, that is.
It is in this context, I believe, that we must understand Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s “Iranian” strategy in dealing with Washington.
Bibi, Meet Bill
In just about another week, Bibi flies off to the American capital for his first meeting (as head of government) with Bill Clinton. To show the Clinton Administration just what kind of guy he is, Bibi has asked for the Americans to open up the National Air and Space Museum so that Bibi, Sarah and the Netanyahu boys can enjoy Washington’s most popular tourist attraction privately and alone. Rumor has it that Sarah also wants to take the boys to the National Zoo, and this will mean shutting that down too for a few hours to allow the Israeli Government delegation to check out the primates. In between the Star Trek exhibit and the monkey cage, Bibi and Bill will try to squeeze in some serious man to man talk about other pressing problems like, um, war and peace in the Middle East, for instance.
In anticipation of that meeting, Netanyahu and his top aides have already met with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher. (Christopher did not ask for a private visit to Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo, as far as we know.) Netanyahu has described the meeting with Christopher as a great success — probably because the Secretary is not publicly giving out the State Department’s email address just in case anyone here gets serious about making peace.
The Netanyahu government is also delighted with two other recent developments vis a vis Washington and the Middle East:
1. The Clinton government and nearly everyone else is blaming Teheran for the terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia which cost dozens of American lives and left hundreds wounded.
2. At the recent G-7 summit in France, Clinton called on the world community to wage war against state-sponsored terrorism — meaning, Iran.
Anyone who’s read Netanyahu’s best-selling book on international terrorism (as I have) knows that this kind of thing is Bibi’s dream come true. To Netanyahu, there is no terror but state-sponsored terror, and no means of fighting terror other than conventional state-to-state warfare. (This means that terror can never actually grow because of oppression or poverty, but is always and everywhere a kind of low-intensity warfare waged by one government against another — nothing more than that.)
Therefore, Bibi no doubt sees the increasing tension between the Islamic Republic and the West as providing a new basis for the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Instead of Israel acting as a guarantor of stability in the region by promoting peace (which is what the Rabin-Peres government tried to do, to Washington’s delight), Bibi sees Israel back in the role the Likud mastered in the 1980’s (during the Reagan-Bush years): as spearhead of U.S. military interests in the region, this time directed against Islamic fundamentalism instead of Soviet Communism.
This might even be a decent strategy, especially when you’re planning to discard the whole U.S.-sponsored peace process. But there are a couple of things to think about:
* It’s possible that Iran was not behind the bombing in Saudi Arabia. According to a couple of seasoned journalists writing earlier in the week in The Jerusalem Post, Iraq is a far more likely candidate to stand behind bombings of U.S. military installations in Saudi Arabia. By the way, Iraqi-backed terrorism, which is as well-documented as the Iranian kind, is practically never mentioned by the Israeli government, which sees no easy way to profit from it. And anyway, secret contacts between Israelis and Iraqis have gone on for years. The only reason why Israel didn’t take up Iraq’s offers of a rapprochment in the 1990s was out of consideration for American policy.
* It ignores the complex relationship the American government has with the Islamic revolutionaries in Teheran. All through the 1980s, while Washington and Teheran were denouncing each other, they were both backing the same side — with arms, advisors and money — in the bitter war in Afghanistan. That military cooperation continued in the 1990s in Bosnia. In the decisive 1991 Gulf War, Iran was America’s tacit ally in the campaign against Saddam Hussein. To bet everything on Washington’s unrelenting enmity toward Teheran is a mistake.
Bibi’s “Old-New” Diplomacy
Bibi has decided to junk the “new diplomacy” of Shimon Peres. That “new diplomacy” was rooted in a post-Cold War understanding of the necessity to put out brushfire wars around the world and get down to the real business of international capitalism, which is making money. Bibi comes from the old school, which sees in the persistence of conflict the best hope for a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship.
As he begins to retreat from the Oslo agreements, freezes up any hope of progress on the Syrian-Lebanese front, and so on, Bibi hopes that the Americans will forgive and forget because Israel is now a “strategic partner” in the global struggle against Khomeinism.
And if that doesn’t work, he can always count on Bill Clinton not saying one bad thing about Israel during an election year. Especially not when polls show the gap between him and Bob Dole closing by the hour.
Letters from Readers
Greetings from South Africa again. Just to let you know that BibiWatch remains my most favourite link on the WWW. No kidding. Today’s commentary is spot on: loaded with classic Jewish wit and wisdom, kinda like an Ephraim Kishon Knesset primer. P.S.: Is Voice of Peace still on the air, or is my memory serving me right when I think it shut down after the Oslo Accord? If so, perhaps it needs, URGENTLY, to be revived. Michael Herman, South Africa
Unfortunately, Voice of Peace is no longer on the air. And yes, it should be revived. But why not try, with a much smaller investment of money, to broadcast using the Internet. A technology like RealAudio would allow us to send out audio messages (which could also be re-broadcast on conventional radio) for a fraction of the price of traditional broadcasting. And there are even Israeli Internet servers who now have the capacity to serve up RealAudio. Internet Peace Radio — that’s what I’d call it. Anyone else like this idea? Click here to let me know what you think.
How come didn’t I think about it? It’s a great idea. I’ll be with you every Monday. Good luck. — Nizan, Israel
And I’ll be here every Monday, too. B’ezrat ha’shem.
Finally I’ve found the only text-based site that’s worth reading! Your newsletter is vital to the democracy in this country, now that the press is sucking up to Bibi. By the way, at the end you said “Try to censor this, Bibi!” It should be “Try to censor this, Limor!” — Ofir Thaler, Rehovot, Israel
Thanks, Ofir. Your letter and others like it from Israelis who were too young to vote in 1996 offers us hope that next time around, things will be different.
I’ve read your page (bookmarked) and find it hilariously funny and in-line with my personal politics. Merely by making reference on your site to the stranglehold the religious parties maintain, as you have already done, helps to spread the message that personal rights are being violated here in Israel. I am going to add your page as a link to ours. — Andrew M. Greenseid, Israel
Andrew is involved with the coalition of Reform, Conservative and other Jews who are struggling against all odds to preserve something of a pluralistic and open society in this country. We’ll have more details on their new Web site in the next BibiWATCH. Meanwhile, I loved the opening of the next letter. Usually these begin with “Dear Eric,” but not this time . . .
Somethin’ like a storm of panic seems to blow through the Western media these days. After spending so much energy trying to demonstrate that “handsome Bibi” was nothing but an inexperienced hollow-talker, you guys woke up to a nightmare:aargh, the bad guy is in charge now! It’s quite delightful on a sociological point of view to see that defeat generate much more hate and fear reflexes (see i.e. the stinky articles and cartoons in american press); instead of constructive criticism. Should have Peres & Labour won the game, I would have give him support and respected the decision of the citizens of this country. I’ll be pleased to read again your webpage; I’m a freedom of thought and expression lover, and not the ugly peace-hater that you probably think I am… From the right with love, Shoshana Berr, Rehovot, Israel
I have to admit that I’m surprised by letter. It’s one of the first from our brothers and sisters on the Israeli Right that doesn’t begin with “fuck you Arab lover” (see last week’s letters column).
Why not to rename it to BiBiBASH? In my understanding WATCHing assumes some objectivity and intellectual honesty. Just look at your logic, argumentation (absence of) and style. It’s so simplistic, primitive and predictable, so evident that no matter what new govt. does anything would be wrong, unless they all paint themselves red and green and look the same as you’re guys. You leftist flock tend to look nothing better than your rival’s clout – same cult of “great” rabies [sic] (Rabin, Peres, etc.) , collectivist tendency to flock and sing slogans or to cry en masse, tireless repeating of magic mantra “shalom” words, addiction instead of amulets to stickers for cars and labels for people, ritual admiration of the Big Brother(s) and no less hysterical hatred and fear of devilish social groups (settlers, haredim), personified demons (Amir, Goldstein), etc., etc. Too much of Orwell, too much of AGITPROP, too much of bad taste. Too bad… P.S. I’m not a right-winger, nor am I a “Likudnik” or observant. I’m quite young, do computer programming for leaving thus have not enough time to milk cows 🙂 Please, forgive my tone (nothing personal) and English (my native language is Russian). I just tried to express my feeling of something going wrong with peace camp in Israel. I just told myself: Look you belong to that kind of people, young, educated, yuppie, West-oriented, ashkenazi, hate totalitarism and violence, etc. So nice …but stinks! Why? — Alec Bau, Israel
Predictable? I don’t think so. Has my analysis of Bibi’s possible concessions to Syria on the Golan been the usual, predictable leftist line? Simplistic and primitive? I’m describing a government which was elected on the most simplistic and primitive program imaginable. Did I say that anything the new government does must be wrong? I devoted one of the last three issues to discussing various possible things Bibi might do to surprise us (including quitting the Golan). I haven’t mentioned Baruch Goldstein, but would I call him a demon? You bet. Anyone who goes into a house of prayer and starts blasting away at the worshippers with an M-16 is a demon in my eyes. He’s not in yours? I’m not even sure I get all of this; are bumper stickers used only by the Left? Is it wrong for a movement to have leaders? (And you can hardly accuse me of making a cult around Mr. Peres; I did call in the pages of The Jerusalem Post only a week ago for him to step down.)
Finally, as for Orwell and Big Brother, well, you know, I’m actually a big fan of the author of “Animal Farm” and “1984”. But readers should never forget for a moment that George Orwell was not only a great writer but also a committed democratic socialist, and as he himself once said, every word in his books has been against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.
Although BibiWatch has merit, the total leftist outlook and jibes makes it a bit hard to look for objectively important journalistic insights. Just a couple of points on the latest issue:
* Why single out Shas and the National religious party as the modern torch bearers for Richard Daley’s Chicago machine? I think labor did a damn good job (at least a couple of billion dollars) with the combined kibbutz movement and Generals sick fund (kupat clali) bailout. I guess some great traditions can even cross party lines.
* A chill in the air when Netanyahu reaps the fruits of murderer’s crime? And what shall we say about a full page ad during the Peres administration describing his reaping the fruits of a murderer like Arafat? Would that have gone unnoticed? We won’t even talk about rounding up Rabbi’s who “incited” an entire generation of B’nei Akiva into a violent frenzy. Of course they’re Rabbis not journalists, so I guess its OK.
* Yigal Amir was a bit of a low blow — since the connection to Bibi’s swearing in is primarily temporal. As I recall under the Labor government police actually had to physically silence him from making court outbursts. Is that to say he felt even more confident and connected to the Peres government?
Keep up the interesting work and please don’t forget to include some tidbits on the opposition from time to time. P.S. BibiWatch is so great I’d go as far as to call it the Arutz Sheva of the left. Now if only Limor Livnat could learn a couple of tricks from Shulamit Aloni, perhaps she could do police raid while your doing some site maintenance and close you down for a while. — Drew Tick, Jerusalem, Israel
You know the old joke about this Jewish guy who gets shipwrecked on a desert island? He lives there for twenty years before a ship comes by and rescues him. The rescuers are amazed at what he has done — created a little farm, built a house, and even built two synagogues. “But why two synagogues?” they ask him. “Well,” replies the old Jew, “that’s the one I go to and” — pointing to the second synagogue — “that’s the one I refuse to go to.” Drew Tick is my cousin, and heck of a nice guy. Really.