01/08/2013 03:22 pm ET Updated Mar 10, 2013

Israel's Discontents

The old woman, then 80ish, looked at me that June morning in 1982 with sad eyes. She said softly but firmly, "Everything we always said about them was true." She was referring to the maximalists of the Zionist Right, led in the 1930s by Vladimir Jabotinsky, a charismatic intellectual, then by Menachem Begin, today by Benjamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu.

We were having breakfast, as we often did when she came to New York. Her name, not so well remembered, was Marie Syrkin. Her father, Nachman, was a leading theorist of the Zionist Left in the early 20th century. Marie was tough-minded, among Golda Meir's closest friends, and a champion in the U.S. of the labor movement that led Israel until Begin's electoral victory in 1977.

Her foreboding was justified. Begin had just led Israel into an ill-conceived war in Lebanon. He called it a "war of choice." Before then, Israelis insisted that they went to war when they had no choice. "A huge mistake," Marie went on, "No judgment, lots of slogans."

Something similar might be said in 2013. Bibi, a prime minister responsible for untold damage to his country's image, looks to come in first in elections scheduled for January 22 -- regardless of a record of ineptness and the indictment of Avigdor Liberman, his (now ex-) foreign minister for fraud, breach of trust and possible "moral turpitude." Liberman, once Bibi's protégé, leads a secular ultra-nationalist party that has amalgamated with his mentor's Likud. Some of their vote, polls say, is being lost -- but to an even more radical party, both religious and right-wing, led by Naftali Bennett, another Bibi protégé.

After the recent UN vote giving Palestinians special UN status -- one hopes Kurds will be awarded this too, one day, with backing from the Arab League and Palestinians -- an Israeli official bemoaned his country's loss of support in Europe.

Anti-Semitism, too often masquerading as anti-Zionism, plays a real role in this loss but the story is also more complex. Israel is indeed demonized like few other countries. (Anyone who knows the history of anti-Semitism will recognize remodeled tropes). It is impossible, however, to exonerate Israel's rash right-wing government for its current difficulties. It is one thing to thwart Muslim extremists who shoot missiles from Gaza; it is another to settle Jewish fanatics in the West Bank.

Europe is not Israel's sole diplomatic problem. Bibi seemed bent this past year on alienating American Democrats and even liberal American Jews. Recall his promotion of Mitt Romney. Yes, I know he says he just hosted a Romney visit to Israel. But for some years American neoconservatives, Jewish and non-Jewish, have sought to bind Israel's fate to the American Right and Bibi is amenable.

Moreover, they have Israeli counterparts, among them some ex-Americans. The name of Ron Dermer, an anti-Obama senior advisor to Netanyahu who once worked for Republican consultant Frank Luntz, was circulated recently as possible ambassador to the U.S. Dermer helped put together Romney's Israel trip with the candidate's associate, Dan Senor. After a meeting with Bibi, Romney cancelled (supposedly on technical grounds) a scheduled conversation with Labor party leader, Shelly Yachimovich, an advocate for social democracy.

Then there is Danny Danon, who is not of American background but was also a Romney cheerleader. He is deputy speaker of Israel's parliament and number five on the Likud election list. He too says he didn't really champion Romney. He just declared that the U.S. presidential contest provided a "starker choice than usual." There was, you see, the good guy -- the Republican. There was the bad guy -- the Democrat who supported freezing new settlement construction.

Whose "starker choice?" Israel's major center-left parties -- and Israel's president -- have also opposed Bibi's settlement policies. Since when does a deputy speaker of one country's parliament stick his nose in this way into elections in another country? It seems Danon has a bridge to sell -- from West Bank settlements across the Mediterranean and Atlantic to Fox TV where he has appeared to promote his extremism.

Bibi and company seem blind to changes in America. Republicans won a majority in the House this past fall, helped by redistricting, but Democrats won a small plurality on the national level in the congressional elections. Israel's right throws away Democratic friendship at Israel's peril.

"The objective of diplomacy," Shimon Peres, Israel's president, recently warned at a meeting of Israeli ambassadors (some of them disgruntled at defending indefensible policies) "is to create friends, not point out enemies." One might add: and not to create enemies.

So what should Israel's friends do? I mean real friends -- those who support the Jewish state's right to self-defense but not Likud's blinkered right-wing world-view.

One urgent matter should preoccupy them: defeating Netanyahu's politics. If it proves impossible in this upcoming electoral round, then they need to back openly and incessantly the opposition parties so they can build to win in the future.

Smug calls from abroad for boycotts of Israel do little beyond helping right-wing propagandists ("See? Everyone is against us"). Even the "moderate version," aimed at boycotting settlement goods, is an unworkable sideshow, easily exploitable by ill-willed promoters of total boycotts. These latter do not believe in a strategy of "let's-be-just-partially-pregnant." They believe Israel should not have been born.

Political change within Israel is the only thing that matters. Israel's real friends abroad need to help the Jewish state turn left again.

The conduct of Netanyahu-Danon crossed red lines. Time to return obtuse meddle with partisan mettle: an ongoing effort to undermine the Israeli right. It may not be able to match Sheldon Adelson's funding of a pro-Bibi daily. But Israel's real friends can start by shouting, facebooking, tweeting and emailing to Israelis: "Reelect your disastrous government at your peril." Pro-Israel American political action committees could support vigorously the center-left. (My preference is Labor). Left-leaning projects and think-tanks could foster young Israeli journalists, activists and trade unionists who recognize the perils facing their country. Perhaps friends of Israel could also place billboards across the Jewish state together with ads in its media that say in Hebrew:

"Be Shortsighted, back Bibi."
Or: "Be Foolhardy: Bind Israel's Future to American Fundamentalists and Right-wingers."
Or, "If Iran is a threat, you need friends abroad: Support a balanced foreign policy,
not settlements."

What could a moderate Israeli government really do in today's volatile Middle East? Next post, coming soon.

Mitchell Cohen, former co-editor of Dissent, teaches politics at Baruch College and the Graduate School of CUNY.