Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won an unexpected election victory, leaving him poised to form a new government and continue in office. What appeared to be an increasingly desperate and repugnant bid to hold on to power turned out to be a remarkably shrewd strategy. No one in Israel could have been surprised; if Netanyahu took off his mask, it was a mask made of cellophane that everyone could always see through. But by casting off even an insincere commitment to any kind of negotiated settlement with the Palestinians to proclaim that there will be no Palestinian state as long as he’s prime minister — and making a nakedly racist last-minute appeal to supporters by warning them that Israeli Arabs had the temerity to vote — Netanyahu may have initiated a significant change in American-Israeli relations, the consequences of which will be felt for years.
Yesterday, my American Prospect colleague Gershom Gorenberg tweeted out this photo that pretty much summed up the campaign:
Members of the Israeli right always believed, though they may not have said it quite so explicitly, that if the Palestinians were beaten down over a sufficiently long period, eventually they’d give up their national aspirations and resign themselves to their miserable fate. Ask an American supporter of Israel — liberal or conservative — about that, and he or she would say that there’s still hope that a settlement can be worked out. Yes, it’s difficult, and yes, it may take years, but it will happen one day.
Who can say today that they hold out that hope? If you support this government, you have to acknowledge that you’re supporting a situation in which Palestinians are denied fundamental political, economic and human rights, not just for the moment but permanently. It’s one thing to say that the Palestinians must change before they’re deserving of self-determination, but it’s quite another to say they should never have it. That position is one Americans (both ordinary people and politicians) now must confront, and accept or reject.
Combine that with the effects of Netanyahu’s visit to Congress, in which he all but filled out a Republican Party membership card, and the idea that everyone in American politics must be categorically “pro-Israel,” regardless of the substance of any controversy, may finally be on its way out.
I wrote in January that it wouldn’t be a bad thing if we stopped pretending Israel isn’t a partisan issue, with Democrats and Republicans having fundamentally different views on the country and our relationship to it even if everyone claims “support for Israel.” And maybe from our perspective, the newly honest Netanyahu government isn’t such a bad thing either. American governments can give up the endlessly frustrating task of trying to negotiate a Palestinian-Israeli settlement, because the Israeli leader is now on record saying he wants the occupation to be permanent. And with Netanyahu’s journey from the far right to the far-far-right, we can be less concerned with his opinion about Iran’s nuclear program or anything else, and treat him like what he is: an ideologically radical factional leader, albeit one capable of winning one-quarter of the seats in his country’s parliament.
Nothing is permanent, of course. Netanyahu could be prime minister for another five years, or another five months. But this election could convince many more Americans that blindly supporting whatever position the Israeli government takes on any issue isn’t good enough anymore.
Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Plum Line blog, and a senior writer at The American Prospect.