Why Benjamin Netanyahu Lost His Mind

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Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in one of his trademark gestures of narcissistic venality, decided to set up an address to the United States Congress without notifying the executive branch of the American government. The maneuver is so unusual that Netanyahu’s former ally and ambassador to the U.S. called on him to reverse course. Even Fox News has questioned him. Jeffrey Goldberg attempts to understand what Netanyahu might have been thinking. “Why doesn’t Netanyahu understand that alienating Democrats is not in the best interest of his country?” he asks. “From what I can tell, he doubts that Democrats are — or will be shortly —  a natural constituency for Israel, and he clearly believes that Obama is a genuine adversary.”

Netanyahu’s behavior might be best understood as the expression of a kind of apocalypticism that has always colored right-wing Zionist thought, but which has gained force over the last dozen years or so. Right-wing Zionists have grown increasingly convinced of a series of interconnected propositions: that Israel (or the Jewish people) faces an existential threat; that opposition to Israel is a pure function of anti-Semitism and therefore cannot be mollified; and that liberal Zionists are at best useless as allies and at worst detrimental to the cause of preserving Israel from the onslaught.

One obvious cause of the Zionist right’s deepening millennialism is Iran’s quest to obtain a nuclear weapon. In comparison with other military threats to Israel, right-wing and liberal Zionists think of this development in strikingly different terms. Moderates and liberals consider a nuclearized Iran a serious strategic problem. But they also consider military options useless to stop it, and further believe that a nuclear Iran can be deterred. (Kenneth Pollack, a former Clinton aide most famous as an Iraq hawk, has made the case for the possibility of deterring Iran.) In this view, Iran’s nuclear ambitions represent a threat to be avoided, if at all possible, with sanctions and covert sabotage. Conservative Zionists see the matter much more starkly. The Iranian nuclear program is an existential threat best understood in the context of the Holocaust denialism of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Another window into this psychology comes from a long, portentous editorial in Commentary, which was once an important journal of Jewish-American thought that has become a somewhat-important journal of right-wing Jewish-American thought. After lingering over the alarming rise in anti-Semitism in France, which Commentary’s editors correctly interpret as further justification for the existence of a Jewish homeland, the editorial turns to the perfidy of the liberal Zionists. The need for a Jewish state is shared by liberal Zionists, Commentary concedes, but the trouble is that liberal Zionists also demand that Israel hold itself to certain standards of international behavior and domestic governance. Commentary devises what it imagines to be an insult for these squeamish quasi-Zionists: “conditional Zionists.” As the editorial sneers, “If Israel does not behave as the conditional Zionists wish it to behave, if it does not enact policies the conditional Zionists wish it to enact, if it does not confront its own external challenges in a manner that salves the consciences of the conditional Zionists, then it is not deserving of their support.

This is a remarkable way to put it. Obviously, liberal and conservative Zionists differ as to what sorts of standards Israel ought to be held to. But Commentary isn’t arguing for different standards. It is arguing against standards at all. If you are not a “conditional Zionist” whose support for Israel is predicated on Israel meeting certain standards of behavior, then you are an unconditional Zionist who would support even an Israeli government that abolished elections and eradicated the Palestinian population.

Whether Commentary actually believes the implications of its own arguments is hard to say. Its argument is best understood as an expression of the Zionist right’s sense of trauma and encirclement — indeed, most of Commentary’s editorial is devoted to anti-Semitism in Europe, with which it is justifiably concerned, rather than defending its wild arguments about liberals. The Zionist right has no long-term strategy and is so consumed with terror it can barely even think beyond the current moment to formulate one. Netanyahu and his allies have no plan to out-maneuver Israel’s enemies, so the next best thing that occurs to them is to alienate its friends.