THE BLOG
10/27/2015 07:44 am ET Updated Oct 27, 2016

Israel's Richard Nixon

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Imagine, if you will, Richard Nixon without the vision which informed his better moments. The residue is insular, divisive, self-serving, rhetorically dishonest and politically amoral: an ersatz Churchill who exploits the dangers facing his country to assure his grip on power. In short, Benjamin Netanyahu.

His latest distortion of truth -- asserting that the Holocaust originated not with Hitler, but a Palestinian -- captures his essence. For 20 years, Netanyahu has thrown verbal matches on geopolitical tinder boxes, feeding his myopic tactical solipsism at whatever cost to the homeland whose savior he purports to be. Grant him that he deeply believes the indubitable: that the tragic history of the Jewish people is an indelible lesson for Israel's present. Grant further that the Palestinian leadership has been a roadblock to peace -- inept, recalcitrant, deficient in statesmanship or stature, and reluctant to denounce violence or tell its people hard truths. But it is everyone's misfortune that Israel's Prime Minister is morally and characterologically unfit for the Sisyphean task of making peace.

Those who have dealt with him limn an unnervingly Nixonian persona: A man who is disingenuous, disloyal, isolated, calculating, ungenerous, uncomfortable with others and pathologically suspicious. A parochial politician who substitutes marketing for leadership, deploying inflammatory language without regard for consequence, yet fearful of taking any action which might imperil his own survival. And -- a fatal divergence from Nixon -- a tactical bean counter bereft of strategy or vision.

These traits are imprinted on his history -- and Israel's. One starts with Yitzhak Rabin, a hard man for hard times, who, in life and death, casts a pitiless light on Netanyahu's smallness. In the early 1990s, Rabin grasped that Israel's occupation of the West Bank, home to several million Palestinians, posed an existential conundrum. Incorporating the Palestinians as citizens would doom Israel as a Jewish state; incorporating the land while oppressing its people would metastasize into violence and despair. So this cold-eyed realist put aside his loathing for Yasir Arafat, and resolved to make a secure peace with a demilitarized Palestinian state.

Enter Netanyahu. Determined to become prime minister by currying favor with extremists who believe that God granted the West Bank to the Jewish people, he did not stop at opposing Rabin's plans. Instead he labeled this war hero a traitor: comparing Rabin's negotiations to Neville Chamberlain's efforts to appease Adolf Hitler, he accused him of giving away "parts of our homeland" and precipitating "the destruction of the Jewish state."

Shortly before Rabin's assassination 20 years ago this month, Netanyahu appeared before a seething rally of right-wing zealots. Many carried placards showing the Prime Minister dressed in SS garb and shouted" death to Rabin" so loudly that at times it drowned out speakers. Warned by a colleague in the starkest terms -- "You'd better restrain your people. Otherwise it will end in murder " -- Netanyahu demurred. In a harsh attack he denounced Rabin and his plan as "not Jewish" -- a particularly toxic choice of words.

Within days, a young extremist murdered Rabin. It would be irresponsible to blame Netanyahu for this act; irresponsible, as well, to ignore what became his pattern -- a dangerous penchant for stoking crises for his own narrow ends.

Netanyahu's accession as Prime Minister is also instructive. Rabin's successor was Shimon Peres, a principal architect of the peace negotiations. Well ahead of Netanyahu in the polls, Peres called a snap election. Promptly Hamas launched -- and took credit for -- a wave of suicide bombings plainly calculated to damage Peres' electoral chances. 59 Israelis died. Pouncing, Netanyahu accused Peres of placing the fate of Jewish children in Arafat's hands and leading Israel "to the brink of disaster." Netanyahu squeaked out a narrow victory, his leadership dependent on a right-wing coalition opposed to peace. Whatever its alchemy, this perverse dynamic has intermittently recurred, each wave of violence fortifying Netanyahu's power while devastating the peace process Hamas deplores.

The two decades of failure stemming from Rabin's murder has too many causes to rationally apportion blame. But Netanyahu is surely a principal author. His tenures as Prime Minister (1996-99; 2009-present) are diplomatic dead zones which bear his imprimatur. He talks of a two-state solution only when pressured, lip service without a meaningful follow-through. He has mastered the art of the lethal precondition, offering to negotiate if the Palestinians would first agree to terms which, while sounding superficially reasonable, are crafted to be poison pills. Thus his demand that the Palestinian leadership recognize Israel not just as a state -- which they have -- but as an explicitly Jewish state; thus, too, his periodic ultimatum that they renounce the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their former home in Israel.

These, of course, are agreements which must result from a peace process, not precede it. More fundamental, Netanyahu knows that the Palestinians will relinquish the right of return in exchange for their own country, but not before, and that labeling Israel a Jewish state ignores that 20 percent of its citizens are Arab. But when the Palestinians refuse his preconditions, as they must, he erupts in outrage at their intransigence. All this serves as cover for real impediments to peace -- such as Netanyahu's aggressive settlement policy, and his systematic efforts to hem in the Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

And so Israel falls ever deeper into the dangerous abyss between his refusal to risk his right-wing power base, and his readiness to say anything to retain it. During his 2015 campaign for reelection, he used the world as a soundstage for his own self-serving electoral theatrics. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, France organized a massive march against terror. So as not to cloud their message of pluralism and national unity, the French implored Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to stay away. Netanyahu not only came, but maneuvered his way to the front rows of the march, calling on "all French Jews to move to Israel" -- later bragging to Israeli voters that "the world saw the Prime Minister of Israel marching with all the world leaders in a united effort against terror."

The apotheosis of his extraterritorial self-aggrandizement was his Republican-sponsored denunciation of President Obama's Iran negotiations to a joint session of Congress. The result was not simply defeat, but lasting damage to Israel: Netanyahu alienated an American president and his political party; turned our previously bi-partisan support of Israel into a bitterly divisive wedge issue; and alienated a large portion of America's Jewish community. But Netanyahu assured Israelis that he had stood up to Obama on behalf of "all the Jewish people."

In the final days, polls foreshadowing defeat stripped his character bare. In a disturbing echo of his rhetoric against Rabin, he attacked his opponents as "anti-Zionist." On the eve of the election, desperate for right-wing votes, he renounced the peace process itself, repudiating any Palestinian state as long as he held office. Election day marked his descent into outright racism -- claiming that, Arab voters " are turning out in droves," he implored voters to "save right-wing rule" by saving him. And so he squeezed out a Pyrrhic victory, selling the remnants of his political soul to a coalition of fundamentalists, settlers and other adamant opponents of a Palestinian state. As long as this government survives, there will be no peace agreement.

Little wonder, then, that Western leaders despise him. The question is why Israelis returned to power a figure most neither admire nor trust. A partial answer is his talent for appealing to deeply rooted existential fears; another is his readiness, as ever, to rally hardline opponents of peace. But what makes these tactics work is Israel's Balkanized multiparty system, which allows the winner of a narrow plurality -- in Netanyahu's case, less than a quarter of Parliament -- to bargain for power by meeting the demands of splinter groups. And so the character of his campaign is mirrored in his Faustian bargain of a government.

The quicksand of despair ever deepens. Polling now shows that half of all Israelis no longer believe that a two-state solution is possible. A soluble political divide has become a religious one, far less soluble, in which extremists on both sides touch the levers of power. The despicable violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem is less an intifada than a Hobbesian state of nature, bred by a comprehensive failure of leadership which murders hope day by day and death by death. In this terrible picture one can foresee a future even worse: the collapse of the Palestinian Authority ; a tide of murderous encounters between settlers and Palestinians; a reintroduction of further Israeli troops; and a populace radicalized by despair for the future.

And what does Netanyahu bring to this new crisis? Little but his reflex to disclaim responsibility by blaming others. Sometimes his targets are near at hand -- Abbas, he claims, has "joined with ISIS and Hamas." More creative was his shameful assertion that the Palestinian Grand Mufti of Jerusalem -- a vicious anti-Semite now 40 years dead -- had persuaded Adolf Hitler to abandon his supposed plan to expel Jews in favor of mass extermination.

For Netanyahu, at last, there is no historic falsehood too grotesque, no tragedy -- not even the Holocaust -- beyond his exploitation. It is Israel's tragedy, and the world's, that its leader has so thoroughly squandered his moral authority to speak for "all the Jewish people," either the living or the dead.