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Times Flubs Israel’s Elections, Slams Bibi’s ‘Racist’ Rant

Was his comment really worse than American politicians’ electioneering?

Liel Leibovitz
March 18, 2015
Copies of ballots papers and campaign posters for Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party in the aftermath of the March 17, 2015 election. (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Copies of ballots papers and campaign posters for Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party in the aftermath of the March 17, 2015 election. (JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s time for Final Jeopardy: following a heated election, the New York Times called this foreign leader “craven,” accusing him of bigotry and other “ugly” and “desperate” measures. If you wrote down “Who is Vladimir Putin,” you’d be wrong: the paper’s editorial board has either politely ignored the Russian dictator’s creeping grasp of power or referred to his electoral escapades with the level-headedness you’d expect from an even-handed, if somewhat bloodless, publication.

No such courtesy was extended to Bibi Netanyahu, of course. According to this morning’s Times editorial, Bibi has “has forfeited any claim to representing all Israelis” because of a “racist rant against Israeli Arab voters.” What Netanyahu actually said, in a video message released on his social media channels, was a curt warning to voters that the chances of a right-wing government were endangered due to “Arab voters coming out in droves to the polling stations” to vote for the United List, the Arab-Israeli party.

While Bibi’s off-the-cuff bellowing about the United List’s high election-day turn-out wasn’t polite, he was hardly calling for voter ID checks at the polls—as American political parties routinely do—or imposing Jim Crow. Nor did he suggest that Arab voters stay home, or that their votes shouldn’t count. Rather, he was trying to galvanize his own base by suggesting that unless they showed up and voted Likud, the next Israeli government might have very different values than the ones they hold. So while you can call Bibi’s statement an ugly—if effective—bit of electioneering, he hardly did anything beyond the pale of normal American electoral politics, unless you believe the same thing about every fretful politician who has ever employed hot-button tactics on the eve of a crucial election, which is another way of saying every politician, more or less, ever.

But while there’s nothing illegitimate per se about urging voters, Jewish or Muslim or Christian or Druze, to come out and vote, there’s plenty that’s fishy about the failed American effort—directly funded by American taxpayers, presided over by Barack Obama’s former political strategist Jeremy Bird, and currently under investigation by Congress—to unseat Netanyahu. Imagine, for example, if the monarch of Moscow had dispatched one of his high-tech Rasputins with a droshky full of Russian government cash to bring targeted voters—say, white Sunbelt males—to the polls in 2012 to vote against Obama and the Democratic Party. The Times would be outraged, and rightly so. In fact, America has laws that prohibit anyone except for American citizens and green-card holders from contributing to Federal election campaigns or Super PACS. Israel has similar laws; in the wake of the Obama Administration’s use of Federal dollars and Obama campaign staff to interfere directly in its domestic politics, the Jewish State might be well advised to apply stricter enforcement.

For the Times, however, such logical questions needn’t be raised when it comes to Netanyahu: Because Bibi is a priori bad, there’s little need to bother with the burdens of common sense or logical consistency. Which is why it’s also perfectly fine for the Times’s editorial to call Netanyahu’s speech to congress “subversive” without explaining just how a foreign head of state who travels to Washington, D.C. to deliver a speech detailing his own nation’s interests could somehow subvert something—like the institution of the presidency, say, or American foreign policy—to which he is not beholden, and which he does not represent.

Equally idiotic was the Times’s rebuke of Bibi’s stance on the Palestinian state: “On Monday,” went the editorial, Netanyahu “promised that if his Likud faction remained in power, he would never allow the creation of a Palestinian state, thus repudiating a position he had taken in 2009.” If you wonder why Bibi has “repudiated” his earlier position, you could ask yourself what might have possibly happened in the region in the last half-decade to contribute to Bibi’s about-face on a position that cost him enormous political capital at home.

Well, let’s see now: There was the collapse of Iraq and Libya and other Arab states in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring,” the ensuing wide-scale butchery in Syria which cost upwards of 200,000 lives, and three wars with Hamas in Gaza. There was also the “moderate” Palestinian rejection of every one of Israel’s peace offers and recent declarations that they will no longer negotiate with Israel but will instead seek a state through the UN and international courts. The last year has also seen the rise of ISIS, the sweeping expansion of Iranian power throughout the Middle East, and America’s decision to allow the Iranian nuclear program to proceed within unclear parameters instead of to continue pressing to shut it down, paving the way to an Iranian nuclear bomb, as Iranian rocket units take up positions on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.

Yes, a lot has changed in the Middle East in the past few years. But that hardly bothers the Times, which still displays the same smug assurance that the cause of all the problems in the region—and beyond—is Bibi Netanyahu. It’s enough to make me almost like the man, a reaction which was apparently shared by at least a quarter of all eligible Israeli voters.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.