Bibi's Blunder

How Netanyahu killed the Israel lobby.

Starting Sunday evening, we marked the beginning of the Jewish New Year. Numerologists with too much time on their hands noted that the digits of the year 5773 add up to the same numerical value as the word tovah, meaning good. That is supposed to be an omen, I suppose. But ever since Madonna embraced Kabala, I've been dubious about it. I like my omens more concrete and, where possible, drenched in irony.

Fortunately, this New Year has begun auspiciously even for skeptics like me -- because it has been ushered in by a fierce debate that may finally have done in one of the most pernicious and enduring myths of our time: that of the existence of an all-powerful Israel Lobby. Neatly, providing just enough irony to offer the honey sweetening we Jews look for to start off each year, the myth has been done in by the most unlikely of perpetrators: Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel.

The irony and even the deed may have been cloaked for many by the circumstances under which they occurred. That is due in part to the fact that there have been so many other stories dominating the headlines recently. For example, last week's story of Netanyahu's decision to publicly confront his most important ally and the resulting further decline in U.S.-Israel relations would have dominated the news at virtually any other time. But the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the riots that spread across the Middle East forced it into the background. (Indeed, the confrontation between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands would have been and should have been big news in any week in which those other two stories did not occur.)

But even the story of the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans did not end up dominating the news last week. Instead, that story was partially elbowed aside by the self-inflicted wounds Mitt Romney delivered to his campaign when he precipitously offered up a critique of the Obama administration in the middle of the breaking news of the tragic attack. Barack Obama would have had a bad week indeed if Romney had simply kept his mouth shut. Very real questions exist about embassy security and the intelligence that could have led the United States to secure its compounds in the region differently. The Israel rift is ill-timed. In fact, there is virtually not one single area of U.S. foreign policy in Middle East that is moving in the right direction at the moment. And all that would have had the president on the defensive if his luck in being confronted by one of the most inept challengers in recent presidential campaign history had not kicked in once again.

The bad advice Romney is getting and, more importantly, acting upon, brings us back to our exquisite New Year's irony. Because at least one of those giving bad advice to the Romney campaign is Dan Senor, former mouthpiece of the United States in Baghdad, "Morning Joe" talking head, and one of the original shoot-first, aim-later neocon functionaries who has undermined the GOP's once-solid claim to national security competence. In Sunday's New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd cited Senor among others in her attacks on Romney for falling, as he has, under the thrall of the discredited far right of his party's foreign policy establishment. This triggered an avalanche of criticism from some, like my good friend Jeff Goldberg, who attacked her for her use of imagery that he asserted was anti-Semitic.

Goldberg is invariably smart, often witty, and typically right. But in this instance, he, like Romney, should have stood back and let silence do its work. Because the imagery to which he objected, that of "an old stereotype, that gentile leaders are dolts unable to resist the machinations and manipulations of clever and snake-like Jews," while tiresome, was really secondary to the bigger issue at stake. Through what seems to be careful if ill-considered collaboration, Netanyahu, Romney, Senor, and Co. were in the midst of blowing up one of the overarching myths of which the Jewish snake/Gentile dolt imagery was just one component.

And here we see the perils of believing your own hype -- apparently Bibi and friends actually believed the idea of the all-powerful Israel Lobby. Whether through Romney's bald-faced pandering to that perceived lobby with his ugly comments about the cultural inferiority of Palestinians or, more shockingly, through Netanyahu's decision to take sides in the 2012 presidential campaign, they seem to think that if they can portray Obama as "weak on Israel" they will materially advance their own causes. It's worth noting, of course, that those interests are different. For Romney, the approach only works if it undermines Obama in key states, notably Florida. For Netanyahu, it would work if the fear of losing Jewish support pushed Obama to get visibly tougher on Iran, to accept, for example, the Israeli leader's call for clearly demarked and more aggressive "red lines" with Iran.

Netanyahu, who dug in deeper this weekend with a high-profile showing on Meet the Press, seems to have swallowed the myth of the power of the Jewish Lobby so completely that he has bet his reputation and his country's future relationship with its most important ally on it. But here's the problem: Whatever lobby exists for Israel, it neither lives up to its press clippings nor to what it may have been in the past. And this week before Rosh Hashanah proved it.

In the first, instance, the Obama administration bravely kicked off last week with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's outright rejection of the idea of red lines, a strong message that they would not be bullied, even in an election year, regardless of the political consequences. This was further underscored later in the week when the Obama administration allegedly rejected a meeting with Netanyahu. The rejection was leaked by the Israelis hoping the lobby would be outraged. The administration held its ground, in part because they knew something that Netanyahu did not: American Jews do not vote as a monolith, they don't vote Israel's interests first, they don't like foreign leaders trying to meddle in U.S. elections, and the polling results show it.

Since Romney and Netanyahu first started making their play to harness the power of "the lobby," their standing in the polls has slipped. In Florida, Obama has gained ground since this effort started and is up by as much as 5 points in the most recent NBC News poll for that state. In fact, even with Netanyahu making the rounds of the Sunday morning television shows this past weekend, he found his points being publicly rebuffed by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, showing yet again that the Obama team is not giving in to the power of the approach -- or that somehow AIPAC's puppet masters have lost their touch. Michele Bachmann may be calling for Obama to meet with Netanyahu. Paul Ryan may be howling. But here's the problem: Romney and Ryan and their cheerleader Bibi are very likely to end up on the wrong side of the November results.

In short, this year is getting off to a good start for those of us who have always found the notion of some dark Jewish conspiracy of super-K Streeters to be laughable. Jews are just as divided, just as sometimes impotent and sometimes successful as anyone else. Of course, if I said it, the list of commenters suggesting that somehow I was part of the cover operation for this lobby would be long. But when it is none other than the prime minister of Israel who proves once and for all the limitations of the lobby and, by November, will have proved that estimations of Jewish political influence of all types are overstated, well, then that's something worth celebrating.

And if the myth survives the drubbing the facts are giving it this fall, well, then it will at least prove once and for all that it is what many of us, like Jeff Goldberg and I, have been arguing for a long, long time: The Israel Lobby is just another boogie monster cooked up to serve the nasty agenda of people all too eager to sacrifice the truth on the altar of their prejudices.

Happy New Year, everybody.


David Rothkopf

Bin There, Done That

Since when did the Democrats start talking like Rudy Giuliani?

According to FP's tally, Osama bin Laden was mentioned 21 times during the nighttime speeches at the Democratic National Convention. I don't believe it. It had to be way more than that. In fact, there were times when he was being invoked so often -- by name or by suggestion - that I could have sworn he was the candidate.

I understand the impulse to summon the ghost of bin Laden. Getting Osama not only served justice and satisfied a deep emotional need within many Americans -- it made it tough for Republicans to say President Obama was somehow soft on national security. So too did doubling down in Afghanistan, but frankly, given the mess that is AfPak, it's just not the kind of thing a campaign wants to dwell on.

Republicans of course, reiterated their feigned outrage that the president would tolerate this kind of "end-zone dance" as John McCain described it earlier this year. Given George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" moment and the ugly undertones of the post-touchdown showboating imagery, however, it is easy to dismiss it for what it is: cheap, sour-grapes politics.

There were, however, aspects of the bin Laden refrain that were genuinely troubling. First was the fact that giving it such centrality dramatically overstated its importance. This compounded the central error of America's response to the 9/11 attacks: reorganizing the country's entire national security priorities around what was a real, but limited threat from a small group of extremists whose capabilities we systematically and sometimes very nearly hysterically overstated. Even in the context of combating terror, last week's long-overdue decision to categorize Pakistan's dangerous Haqqani network as a terrorist organization underscores the fact that killing any individual terrorist or even crushing any individual terrorist group does not make the threat go away. New threats appear. Groups reorganize. Violent extremism lives on and continues to warrant a proportional, targeted response.

Even worse was the failure to recognize what was probably the best and most important consequence of getting bin Laden: It allows us to close the chapter on a dark period in U.S. history and move on. Bigger, more complex national security challenges remain for the United States. But you didn't hear about them at either convention.

Oh, sure, there was Mitt Romney once again overstating the threat coming from Russia. But that could hardly be characterized as looking forward. It's not quite as foolish as Sen. John Kerry's line about Mitt getting his views of Russia from the movie Rocky IV made it seem. Vladimir Putin is a bad guy and Russia is an increasingly thorny problem for the United States. But to call it our No. 1 geopolitical threat is still, like the bin Laden refrain, an effort to stir up passions linked to old feelings more than it is a clear-eyed appraisal of the future risks we face.

Those risks have to do with a rapidly changing geopolitical environment, the rise of new powers in China and elsewhere in the emerging world, the proliferation of new technologies both of mass destruction and of mass disruption (cyber), and so on. But more importantly, these threats are compounded by America's collective failure to address problems at home that compromise our strength, sap our resources, and make us more vulnerable with each passing day.

Romney did at least acknowledge these problems when he said we had to get our fiscal house in order. But for him to then suggest that somehow we could do that while actually increasing defense spending reveals what should be a disqualifying failure to understand the true risks to the United States going forward. We can't continue to spend as we have. We must cut the spending that drains our fiscal health -- including defense. If we don't, Romney of all people should understand the markets will stop lending us money to paper over problems and the relatively modest cuts associated with sequestration -- the awkward and harsh budget deal set to hit in January -- will seem like the nibbling of mice next to the draconian measures that will be required when our lines of credit dry up.

To cut defense spending requires a creative reappraisal of what the real threats we face might be and what the best means open to us are to contain and reverse those threats. It requires us to move beyond the old formulations that have effectively guided U.S. policy for the past 70 years, such as the idea that we must hugely outspend other powers (especially since most of those other powers are our allies), that we must always evenly distribute funds between service branches, that we can continue with multiple redundancies between those branches (every branch has its own "air force," and how many intelligence organizations does one country need?), and that we must move beyond old, costly models of projecting force when cheaper, safer, more efficient ones exist.

It requires, in short, the most profound rethinking of our national security strategy since the end of the World War II -- one that undoes some of the grievous errors associated with the prior vaunted and failed attempt at such an effort: the bipartisan response to the 9/11 attacks. (It's worth noting that another big event that should have produced such a reassessment, the end of the Cold War, generated much talk but considerably less material change than warranted.)

In private conversations, Obama's team promises that the second term will bring greater opportunity to be more creative and address issues that they didn't have time to focus on during the past three and a half years. I have no reason not to believe them. But it is a pity that this political season is not a time when we consider what each party would bring to such a reassessment or when the public acknowledges whether it sees such a reassessment as being important. Cheap jingoism goes well with the convention pageantry. But that doesn't mean it's not risky, especially at a time when profound, unprecedented changes are urgently required.