Thus far, President Barack Obama is sitting out the January 22nd Israeli elections. There is no indication about who he hopes to see as the next Israeli prime minister. His noninterference, even disinterest, is not surprising except when contrasted with Prime Minister Netanyahu's open preference for the Republicans in the U.S. election two months ago. One might have thought that a little payback would be in order.
One reason for Obama's apparent indifference may be that there is almost no possibility that Netanyahu will not be the next prime minister. The only question is whether Netanyahu's next government will be as far right (and pro-settlement expansion) as his current government or much farther to the right.
To put the Israeli election in U.S. terms, it is as if the choice two months ago was between the right-wing Republican Party and the ultra-right-wing Tea Party with the Democrats merely hoping to win enough support to compose a credible opposition or to get a cabinet post.
But that is the case in Israel where Netanyahu and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Likud-Beytenu coalition is being challenged by a new party to its right, the Jewish Home party. The Jewish Home party is led by 40-year-old Naftali Bennett who is running on an openly annexationist platform, in contrast to Netanyahu and Lieberman who, although also expansionist, occasionally pay lip service to the idea of reaching a two-state agreement with the Palestinians.
Bennett favors the immediate annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank which would make the creation of a viable Palestinian state impossible. His 60 percent plan is rejected by other leading figures in his party, even more radical, who favor a 100 percent annexation just to make sure.
Needless to say the new party is dominated by ultra-nationalist settlers and religious fanatics who, in addition to supporting land grabs, vehemently oppose equal rights for gay people, women, Arabs, and non-Jews in general. Nonetheless, Jewish Home is the first choice of Israelis under 30, who are abandoning the old right-wing parties for the extreme right.
Perhaps the craziest thing is that the new ultra-right party is rising as the Netanyahu/Lieberman party has shifted rightward, too. Gone are the more pragmatic Likud types like Benny Begin and Dan Meridor. In their place are the likes of Moshe Feiglin who told the Atlantic's Jeff Goldberg:
Why should non-Jews have a say in the policy of a Jewish state?" Feiglin said to me. "For two thousand years, Jews dreamed of a Jewish state, not a democratic state. Democracy should serve the values of the state, not destroy them." In any case, Feiglin said, "You can't teach a monkey to speak and you can't teach an Arab to be democratic. You're dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers....The Arab destroys everything he touches.
Feiglin isn't alone either. Take a look at this list of rightist extremists who top the Netanyahu-Lieberman list, yet who are seen as too moderate for voters drawn to the up and coming new party.
The interesting thing is that few Americans are paying any attention to the Israeli election, a sign that even the pro-Israel community is losing interest in and hope for Israel. A country that once was a source of joy for so many Americans is now a source of pain; the prevailing attitude seems to be to just look away and hope that things will improve by the next time they pay attention.
But then it doesn't really matter what most Americans think or don't think about what is happening in Israel. Except for one.
The President of the United States matters very much. Every Israeli is aware that without the support of President Obama, Israel would be in desperate straits. The United States provides Israel with billions of dollars of aid a year, aid which is used to purchase the weapon systems that sustains Israel's "military edge" and the occupation of the West Bank too.
That aid also provides Israel with the economic cushion it needs to preserve its immunity to the recession that has afflicted most of the world. It is the President of the United States who decides whether to stand (virtually alone) with Israel at the United Nations, using our veto to block any resolution that Israel opposes. It is the president who has adopted Israel's position on Iranian nuclear development as our own, leading the effort to punish Iran with sanctions and reiterating Israeli threats that there will be war if Iran develops nuclear weapons (despite the fact that Israel is said to have some 200 war heads).
In short, Israel is almost entirely dependent on the President of the United States. As for Congress, it matters too but, on all foreign policy matters, it is the President who leads. That is how the United States Constitution works. It is the president who defends the national interest abroad.
And the fact is that U.S. interests are being damaged by Israel's current course. Whether we like it or not, the United States is viewed as linked at the hip with Israel. An Israeli government dominated by the extreme right impacts on our standing throughout the world. After all, the world (and not just the Muslim world) sees us as Israel's enabler.
That is why it is time for President Obama to send a clear message to Israel by nominating former Senator Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense. That is not because Hagel is anti-Israel. He isn't.
The reason to nominate Hagel, in addition to his qualifications for the post, is that the Israel lobby has decided to demonstrate its clout by preventing his nomination. Like the National Rifle Association, the lobby has an intense need to demonstrate that it's in charge. It does not like Hagel, so he will not get the post. Successfully blocking him would demonstrate that no matter how far Israel lurches toward the right, no matter how many settlements are built, no matter how many Palestinians are thrown off their land or just abused, the United States will simply grin and bear it.
Obama could, of course, issue a statement or deliver a speech re-stating U.S. policy on settlements, a Palestinian state, and the need for peace. But the sad fact is that no one believes that this administration will ever back up its fine words on Israel and Palestine with deeds, not after the past four years of giving in to Netanyahu over and over again.
There is only one way to send a message to Israel that will be heard: it will be by nominating Hagel. It is Israel and the lobby that created the Hagel issue. Why not use it to America's advantage? And Israel's too. After all, it is Israel not the United States that seems to be going over a cliff and, sadly, it is not just fiscal.
Mr. President, nominate Hagel. And fight for his confirmation.