David A. Graham: Bibi Is the New Bush

Roundup: Media's Take

[David A. Graham is a reporter at Newsweek.]

An ideological, right-wing leader comes to power. He seems sure to be more disciplined than his predecessor, a centrist politician who sailed from scandal to scandal. Domestically, the electorate is sharply polarized—they’re still sore over terrorist attacks that have killed many of their fellow citizens, but they have strong disagreements about how best to respond. The government, however, has no such hesitation. The cabinet is stacked with veterans of the armed forces and the defense establishment who are sure that a strong show of force will finish off the country’s Muslim tormentors. The world doesn’t see it that way, and despite impressive deployments of troops—and plenty of military victories—the nation becomes more and more diplomatically isolated, tarnishing its reputation as a beacon of freedom.

Sounds awfully like the United States in the mid-2000s. But it is also Israel today. Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies increasingly echo American policies under George W. Bush. He has deployed overwhelming force where nuanced, tactical approaches would have worked better; spurned international opinion; and ignored gathering discontent among voters at home. Staying the course, to use a favorite phrase of Bush’s, could do serious harm to Israel’s reputation abroad and be disastrous for Netanyahu and his Likud Party at home.

Let’s look at the parallels. America’s long slide into the international doghouse began soon after September 11. It wasn’t so much the campaign to unseat the Taliban as the presidential tone that increasingly seemed to hold global Islam accountable for the attacks; the limitless detention of newly designated “enemy combatants”; and a march toward unilateral war with Iraq that seemed inexorable from the moment it entered the national debate. From there, opinion makers around the world seemed pleased to draw Bush as a cartoon—an incurious cowboy whose peculiar blend of greed, narcissism, and Manichaeanism explained warrantless wiretapping or Katrina-related incompetence. In 2007, a Pew poll found widespread disapproval of the U.S. and its foreign policy in 45 countries. The following year, respondents in 19 of 24 countries—several of them key allies—said they lacked confidence in Bush.

Netanyahu seems to be treading a similar path. His predecessor as Likud leader was Ariel Sharon, who initiated Israel’s slide into pariah-hood with his response to (some would argue provocation of) the second intifada in 2000: he reoccupied—often with tanks—some West Bank towns that had previously been left to their own devices. He also made targeted assassination a declaratory state policy. Yet with his road-to-Damascus realization that Israel couldn’t sustain settlements—he withdrew his countrymen from Gaza (and eventually left Likud for a more centrist party)—Sharon rehabilitated his image, becoming an unlikely prophet of peace, rather than a warmonger responsible for thousands of Palestinian civilian casualties.

But Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, proved a bungling prime minster, and after a short interlude Likud is back in control under Netanyahu, who is reading from Sharon’s early playbook. He has not only refused any meaningful compromise on West Bank settlements, but his government answered intense White House pressure with an embarrassing snub to visiting Vice President Joe Biden. At a time when Israel is already under scrutiny for alleged war crimes in a Gaza war launched by the previous premier, Netanyahu ordered a disastrous raid on the Gaza-bound aid flotilla that attracted the maximum possible attention (nine aid workers died) with the least possible benefit. As the world is turning against Netanyahu, so are Israelis: a poll last month showed that a majority of voters don’t approve of the prime minister...

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