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Mitt, Bibi and Sheldon: The Wrong Way

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Mitt Romney's trip to Israel and Sheldon Adelson's campaign against President Obama are just the latest of many attempts to pry American Jews from the Democrats. Neo-cons, Old-cons and just plain Con-cons have been at it for decades with little success. Now they promote a particularly unfortunate linkage between bad American politics and bad Israeli politics. In the meantime, cant churns out to a drumbeat: "the administration is anti-Israel."

This comprises only part of the story.

The other part?

It is time to talk straight about it. Israelis and their American friends need to wake up: nothing in Israel's past is quite like Benjamin Netanyahu's government when it comes to alienating sympathizers abroad. The Jewish state faces serious strategic predicaments and "Bibi,' as the prime minister is known, seems bent on being the Great Squanderer of Israeli history -- squandering bipartisan friendship for Israel for the sake of right-wing agendas.

A key aspect of Netanyahu's two terms in office (it is unclear which ought to be called worse, his first in the 1990s or the current one) has been attempts to blur real Israeli security interests into ultra-nationalist mythologies that are irrelevant to security but represent traditional aspirations of his Likud party.

Otherwise, how to explain a willingness to build more settlements beyond the Green Line (the 1967 borders), just when the Jewish state needs expansive support in the U.S. and Europe to face a threatening, nuclearizing Iran? Not to mention other legitimate causes for Israeli nervousness. A Muslim Brother as Egypt's president. Syrian uncertainties. Worries about Jordan. Missile-laden Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hamas, the Palestinian version of the Muslim Brotherhood, in Gaza. A Sinai Peninsula that has turned into dangerous territory. The breakdown of Israel's alliance with Turkey.

Exactly why in this strategic setting should settling the Jewish equivalent of Salafists in the West Bank be a priority (with American Fundamentalists cheering them on)? Why, in these circumstances, should it be a priority to coddle ultra-orthodox Jews within Israel proper, allowing them to dodge responsibilities of citizenship? (Netanyahu's "National Unity Government" just fell apart over drafting devout young Jews who believe apparently that lives of secular Israelis should be risked to enable them to study religious texts).

David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister and leader of a social democratic party, once stated that the chief priority of a prime minister is to set priorities. Those who apologize for Netanyahu and his government ought to think hard about that.

As they think they might consider some other things. Avigdor Liberman, Bibi's foreign minister, is a nationalist extremist who demands loyalty oaths of citizens and is barely presentable to much of the outside world, especially not to liberal democrats. (None other than Bibi fostered his political rise). Think back to the great Mideast crisis of May-June 1967. Compare Liberman's posturing to the persuasive intelligence of the Israeli Labor Party's foreign minister Abba Eban then and you'll know what I mean.

The list goes on. Netanyahu's defense minister, Ehud Barak, has been mired in political and managerial problems in his own ministry and broke up his own party (Labor) on behalf of his career. Netanyahu's interior minister was unprepared to handle massive forest fires not long ago, a matter with implications if there is conflict with Iran. Netanyahu's finance minister pursues policies that move Israel further and further away from social egalitarianism, once a principal, widely praised characteristic of its society (the shift began decades ago but was also ushered along by Bibi when he was a finance minister inspired by Milton Friedmanesque ideas).

Is it any wonder that anti-Zionists, especially in parts of the left, are having a field day with "boycott-Israel" campaigns? Netanyahu's government is their best ally in PR wars.

Don't be misled: the "Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions" (BDS) movement fortifies Netanyahu and hurts Israeli doves. Who knows how many votes Israeli right-wingers might garner in the country's next elections -- they will come soon -- if they have a campaign ad showing a BDS advocate explaining with one deceptive analogy after another that Israel is, has always been and will always be the devil incarnate, the original sinner of world history, and the new South Africa rolled into one? (Could Blacks vote in apartheid South Africa? No. Can Israeli Arabs vote in Israeli elections? Yes. Could Blacks denounce apartheid on the floor of South Africa's parliament? No. Do Arab members of the Israeli parliament -- they tend to identify as Palestinian Israelis -- skewer their government, indeed the very idea of a Jewish state, regularly on the floor of Israel's parliament? Yes.)

There is legitimate criticism of Israel's occupation of the West Bank; there is legitimate criticism of discrimination within Israel. Anti-Zionist McCarthyism, however, is something else altogether.

Policies of particular Israeli governments and the moral and political justification of the Jewish state are also two radically different things.

And so here comes Mitt Romney to Jerusalem while Sheldon Adelson dishes out dollars for attack ads in the latest phase of "Get Jews to support Republicans." Why should they support them? Because Romney salutes whatever Netanyahu does wrong? Because Netanyahu sympathizes with Romney's economic world-view -- the casino capitalism that has already proven bad for both the U.S. and Israel? Romney has blown smoke at America's economic woes, which resulted more than anything from his own party's policies and the Bush years. Netanyahu blows smoke at his country's quandaries, which are not due solely to events in the Arab world or anti-Semitism -- although both these factors are real and critical and parts of the left, animated by anti-Zionist obsessions, blow their own smoke in denying them.

It's time for some balance. American support for Israel is, has been and ought to be bipartisan. There were very good American reasons for it in the past and there are very good American reasons for it in the future. They are not found in election-time pandering. They do not include entwining the priorities of an incompetent, ideologically driven right-wing Israeli leadership with those of a Republican presidential candidate whose social and economic world-view, put into practice, would bring more inequality to the United States along with more plutocracy, more social unfairness and more intolerance.

There are many Golden Calf Awards to be handed out these days.

MITCHELL COHEN is former co-editor of DISSENT magazine and professor of political science at Bernard Baruch College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York.