Last Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prevailed in his reelection campaign. Unfortunately, the controversial statements he made during the campaign have overshadowed his victory. Last Monday, Netanyahu appeared to reverse his support for a two-state solution, a long-held pillar of both Israeli and American policy. And during Wednesday’s election, a Facebook video from his Likud party quoted him as decrying high Arab turnout in comments with clear racial overtones. Even though he has since walked back his apparent rejection of and apologized for his election day remarks, these statements and Netanyahu’s subsequent election successes are reflective of a broader and deeper sentiment that is both harmful to Israeli democracy and America’s relationship with Israel.
Sadly, the blatantly racial rhetoric Netanyahu used during the recent election is far from an aberration in the political climate he has engendered. Recent proposals from Netanyahu’s government like one for a Jewish nationality law have moved Israel’s political system in the wrong direction. As President Barack Obama put it in a recent interview, “Israeli democracy has been premised on everybody in the country being treated equally and fairly,” and that idea is under threat. Certainly, Netanyahu’s most recent statements about his pride in governing a diverse Israel are a positive step forward; this rhetoric, however, must be backed by action.
In addition to the deleterious effects of these comments on Israel’s democratic institutions, they reflect a lack of seriousness about the long-term U.S.-Israel relationship on the part of the current Likud government. When coupled with Netanyahu’s controversial address to Congress as well as past insults like a settlement announcement during a visit by Vice President Joseph R. Biden, it is becoming clear that he places a far higher priority on his own political survival than on his country’s critical relationship with the United States. Not only does America’s unyielding support lend credibility to the Israeli government, but it also provides crucial aid and military protection that represent a vital safeguard of Israel’s national security.
Moving forward, the United States needs to make good on the President’s recent signals and reassess the nature of its relationship with Israel, especially with Netanyahu in power. The White House’s initial moves to question America’s traditional unfailing support for Israel at the United Nations are steps in the right direction. Unfortunately, the lack of alternative partners in the Middle East and the relative solidity of Netanyahu’s political base constrain the U.S.’s options. That said, the administration must begin to more seriously question the apparently unconditional status of our massive economic, diplomatic, and political support for Netanyahu's government.
This election is a step backward for Israel. The rhetoric alone has harmed the political inclusivity of the Israeli system, the credibility of its government, and the prospects for peace in the region. Regardless of whether Netanyahu is right or wrong on the peace process, Iran, or a host of other domestic issues, the election of a candidate so shameless in his politicking is unfortunate. Israel deserves better.
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