Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “Budapest speech,” in which he urged Europe to stop supporting the Palestinians, was the clearest expression yet of his worldview. He arrived as an international rock star and crony of U.S. President Donald Trump; the leaders of Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic flew in to meet him alongside his Hungarian host.
In a semi-closed forum, Netanyahu dispensed with the restraints and niceties that characterize his official speeches, abandoned political correctness and let loose. At least in the section broadcast to journalists (apparently by mistake), he didn’t speak about “peace” or the “two-state solution,” but about Israel’s growing power to help form alliances with other countries, a message repeated in all his speeches of the last year.
In Paris en route to Budapest, Netanyahu surprisingly harshly criticized the Trump administration. He accused his friend in the White House of endangering Israel’s security interests via the Russian-American cease-fire deal in southern Syria. Netanyahu often spoke that way about Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and his nuclear deal with Iran, but is that any way to speak about his friend Trump?
After eight years of spats with Obama, one would have expected Netanyahu and Trump to resolve their differences quietly and not reveal the cracks in their relationship. But Netanyahu had no qualms: On top of criticizing Trump’s Syria deal, he also publicly scorned the president’s peace initiative.
What happened? Netanyahu apparently feels Trump is weak and isolated, is having trouble functioning and, most importantly, has no control over Congress, Netanyahu’s bastion of support. This week, a few Republican rebels in the Senate foiled Trump’s health insurance bill, thereby leaving Obamacare in place.
Netanyahu understands politics and knows that in this situation, he has nothing to fear from the new administration, just as he didn’t fear confronting the last one. He assumes the Republican majority in both houses of Congress will thwart any attempt by Trump to impose “the ultimate deal” with the Palestinians on Israel. A few more empty talks with U.S. envoys Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, a few more videos of Palestinian incitement, and Trump’s initiative will join those of his predecessors on the scrap heap.
The basis for Netanyahu’s diplomatic activism is his assessment that America is growing weaker and gradually withdrawing from the Middle East. The visit to Haifa Port by the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush, the first such visit since the beginning of the second intifada, doesn’t change the overall trend.
Oil is cheaper, and America no longer depends on the Middle East for its supply. Public opinion is isolationist, opposed to wars far from home. America’s internal rifts are deep and getting wider, and Netanyahu has taken the conservative side without even a pretense of bipartisanism. Perhaps bipartisan support is no longer even possible when Americans are so divided over everything. It’s better to have the Republicans’ support, since their control of Congress seems unassailable.
Netanyahu sees the Christian community as Israel’s most important bastion of support in America, alongside Orthodox Jews. His recent decisions against the Reform and Conservative movements – canceling the Western Wall deal and advancing the conversion bill – reflect a strategic disengagement from liberal American Jews.
This wasn’t a caprice caused by momentary pressure from Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties, but a calculated decision that won almost wall-to-wall support in the cabinet. Netanyahu’s circle sees liberal Jewry as a transient phenomenon that will disappear on its own in another generation due to intermarriage and lack of interest in Jewish tradition or Israel.
Beat them to the punch
For years, liberal Jews have threatened to break with Israel if it continues discriminating against their denominations, and some have also vocally opposed the unending occupation of the territories. They didn’t expect a right-wing Israeli government to break with them first.
This is Netanyahu’s message: Anyone who wants to support Israel must accept it as it is, with the occupation and the settlements. Anyone who accepts Israel only in the pre-1967 lines, like the European Union, is “crazy” and not wanted here. Reform Jews can keep praying at Temple Emanu-El on Fifth Avenue and see the Western Wall in pictures.
Liberal Europe, devoted to human rights and moral preaching, is sinking under the weight of waves of Middle Eastern refugees. Netanyahu doesn’t need it; he believes he has found alternatives in Russia, China and Narendra Modi’s India, and less openly, in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Those countries admire only power, not justice.
The main thing is for Germany to keep giving Israel the submarines that lend force to Netanyahu’s intensifying threats against Iran (“anyone who threatens our existence puts his own existence at risk,” “threaten destruction to anyone who threatens to destroy us”). And Germany’s support can always be bolstered with more Holocaust memorial ceremonies, as Netanyahu did this week in France and Hungary.
Now he just needs to find a similar solution to make police investigators’ annoying questions go away.