Friday, April 16, 1999

Staying Out Of Israeli Politics

(Originally published in the New York Jewish Week)

Americans love wrestling because it is loud, outrageous and phony. The participants and the audience are all part of one act, as phantom blows are struck and the wrestlers feign pain and injury. James Carville and Mary Matalin, the husband-and-wife tag team, engage in liberal vs. conservative verbal wrestling, and their act is on a par with the crude product that is sweeping the country. When she says to her spouse, “down Rex,” as she did not long ago on “Meet the Press,” the aim is to enhance marketability. They were probably laughing all the way to the bank.

Carville’s recent experience in Israel is more serious. Along with other Clintonites, he has been enlisted by Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader vying to replace Prime Minister Netanyahu, who again is relying on the expertise of Arthur Finkelstein. While Carville has an instinct for exhibitionism, Finkelstein is secretive. Whatever their styles, the expanding reliance on American spin masters and political strategists is an unsettling development.

The practice has more to do with America’s place in contemporary affairs than with the particulars of Israeli politics. There is an assumption that our goods and services are superior, and this has carried over to political gurus as well.

This represents the triumph of celebrity over ideas, morality and even politics, since outsiders are unfamiliar with local terrain and often are no more than amateurish interlopers who advance pat formulas and cliches.

Carville’s first round of advice to Labor quickly demonstrated his deficiency, and it appears his role has been sharply curtailed. That enhances Mr. Barak’s prospects, but does not dispose of the fundamental question of White House interference in the election.

We are seeing, of course, a repeat of what transpired in 1996, when the Clinton administration openly worked for Shimon Peres. It is one thing to favor an incumbent and something quite different to attempt to engineer his defeat. The White House strategy may backfire, as it did three years ago. Netanyahu has the skill to turn Washington’s opposition into political advantage by demonstrating that he is independent and tough enough to withstand American pressure when he believes that Israel’s security is at stake.

While Netanyahu’s skill is not in question, his style is. He has an extraordinary capacity to alienate those around him, people who have provided political cover and support. He is a loner who shows little loyalty. He also has a tendency to mislead, as he has on the peace negotiations. His Likud Party is shattered and should he be re-elected, his ability to govern effectively is likely to be compromised by his alienation of groups and people whose support he will need.

Still, it certainly is his right to exercise the mandate given by a majority of Israelis to go slow on implementing the Oslo agreement, even to evade concessions agreed to by Yitzchak Rabin and Peres. He was not elected to be subservient to the U.S. or the political clone of his predecessors. He campaigned against their policies, was elected and given the rather difficult task of abiding by the peace treaty, but not too faithfully.

The moral dimension provides an even more compelling argument in support of Netanyahu’s tactic. For all of what is deeply unattractive about the diehard opponents of Oslo — they prefer a state of permanent war over any settlement — it remains that they are motivated by urgent security concerns. The divide in Israel between doves and hawks is not over abstract ideology or a distant war. It concerns matters that make the familiar “clear and present danger” appear to be child’s play. There is, in other words, little or no margin for error in the neighborhood where Israel is located. It is not prudent to ignore the intense hatred of Israel throughout the Arab world, a hatred that is not going to disappear because a treaty is signed.

It is instructive to contrast Israel’s situation with how the United States acts when its security needs are at stake. We fired cruise missiles into Afghanistan and Sudan, hoping to destroy the very distant terrorist infrastructure of Osama bin Laden. These countries and the terrorists they harbor are thousands of miles away from the U.S., while the dangers and terrorists Israel faces live across the border, at times even closer.

A majority of Israelis may soon decide to replace Netanyahu. That’s their choice, not ours, and we — including American Jewry and certainly the U.S. government — ought to allow Israeli democracy to work without outside interference. As for James Carville, once more, “down Rex.”