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.