The now-former Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, is as much American as he is Israeli. While other Israeli leaders have made their strong relationship with Washington a cornerstone of their politics, Netanyahu’s political style was essentially American from the start.
He spent many of his formative years in the United States, living in Philadelphia as a child before he went on from Cheltenham High School to a degree in Management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976. He then opted to live in the US, not Israel, when he joined the Boston Consulting Group.
Presumably for family reasons, namely the death of his brother Yonatan, Netanyahu returned to Israel in 1978 to head the “Yonatan Netanyahu Anti-Terror Institute”. This did not last for long. He returned to the US to serve as Israel’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 1984 to 1988. At the time, Israel was governed by a coalition, which saw the rotation of two prime ministers, Labor leader Shimon Peres, and Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir.
In those days, terms such as “Labor” and “Likud” meant very little to most American politicians. The US Congress was, seemingly, in love with Israel. For them, Israeli politics was an internal matter. Things have changed, and Netanyahu has played a major role in that.
Even in the past three decades when Netanyahu became more committed to Israeli politics, however, he remained, at heart, American. His relationship with US elites was different from that of previous Israeli leaders. Not only were his political ideas and intellect moulded in the US, but he also managed to generate a unique political brand of pro-Israel solidarity among Americans. In the US, Netanyahu is a household name.
One of the successes attributed to his approach to American politics was the formation of deep and permanent ties with the country’s burgeoning Christian fundamentalist groups. Such groups as John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel used support for Israel — based on messianic and Biblical prophecies — as a point of unity and a stepping stone into the world of politics. Netanyahu used them as reliable allies who, eventually, made up for the growing lack of enthusiasm for Israel among liberal and progressive circles across America.
The Israel-evangelical connection seemed, at the time, to be a masterstroke that could be attributed to the political “genius” of Netanyahu. Indeed, it looked as if he had guaranteed American loyalty to Israel indefinitely. This assertion was demonstrated repeatedly, especially as the fundamentalists came to Israel’s rescue whenever the latter engaged in a war or faced any kind of threat, whether real, imagined, or fabricated.
As US politics shifted towards more populist, demagogic, and conservative ideologies, the evangelicals moved closer to the centres of power on Capitol Hill. It is noteworthy that Tea Party conservatism, one of the early sparks of the chaotic Trumpism that followed, was purportedly madly in love with Israel. The once marginal political camps, whose political discourses are driven by a strange amalgamation of prophecies and realpolitik, eventually became the “base” of former US President Donald Trump. He had no other option but to place support for Israel at the core value of his political campaigns; his voters would never have accepted anything less.
A prevailing argument often suggests that Netanyahu’s mortal error was making Israel a domestic issue in America. Whereas the Republicans support Israel — thanks to their massive evangelical constituency — the Democrats have slowly turned against the colonial state, an unprecedented phenomenon seen only under Netanyahu. While this is true, it is also misleading, as it suggests that Netanyahu simply miscalculated. He didn’t. In fact, he fostered a strong relationship with various evangelical groups long before Trump considered the possibility of running for president. Netanyahu simply wanted to change the centre of gravity of the US relationship with Israel, which he accomplished.
For Netanyahu, the support of the American conservative camp was not simply a strategy to garner support for Israel; it was an ideologically motivated choice, linking Netanyahu’s own beliefs to American politics using the Christian fundamentalists as a vehicle. This assertion can be demonstrated in a recent headline in the Times of Israel: “Top evangelical leader warns: Israel could lose our support if Netanyahu ousted”.
This “top evangelical leader” is Mike Evans who, from Jerusalem, declared that “Bibi Netanyahu is the only man in the world that unites evangelicals.” Evans vowed to take his 77 million followers into the opposition camp against any Israeli government without Netanyahu. Much can be gleaned from this but, most importantly, US evangelicals consider themselves fundamental to Israeli politics, their support for Israel being conditioned on Netanyahu’s centrality in the Israeli body politic.
In recent weeks, many comparisons between Netanyahu and Trump have surfaced. These comparisons are apt, but the issue is slightly more complex than merely comparing political styles, selective discourses, and personas. Actually, both Trumpism and Netanyahu’s brand of Likudism — let’s call it Netanyahism — have successfully merged US and Israeli politics in a way that is almost impossible to disentangle. This shall continue to prove costly for Israel, as the evangelical and Republican support for Israel is clearly conditioned on the latter’s ability to serve the US conservative political — let alone spiritual — agenda.
Similarities between Trump and Netanyahu are obvious but they are also rather superficial. Both are narcissistic politicians who are willing to destabilise their own countries to remain in power. It’s as if they both live by the French maxim, Après moi, le déluge — “After me, the flood”. Moreover, both railed against the elites, and placed fringe political trends — often tainted by chauvinistic and fascist political views — centre stage. They both spoke of treason and fraud, played the role of the victim, and posed as the only possible saviours of their respective countries. It’s quite a list.
But popular political trends of this nature cannot be wholly associated with individuals. Indeed, it was Trump and Netanyahu who tapped into and exploited, existing political phenomena which, arguably, would have arisen with or without them. The painful truth is that Trumpism will survive long after Trump is gone and Netanyahism has likely changed the face of Israel, regardless of the now ex-prime minister’s next step. Whatever that is, it will surely be situated within the familiar context of Netanyahu’s angry army of Israeli right-wing zealots aided and abetted by Christian fundamentalists in the US and elsewhere. He may have won America, but — for now — he has lost Israel.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.