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Netanyahu’s Arab-bashing paired 'Hussein Obama' and Palestinian Israelis

Likud canvassers reportedly warned voters that Israel would be forced to take orders from 'Hussein Obama' if Netanyahu was not re-elected

World media have been buzzing about Bibi Netanyahu’s last-minute racist media rants, which helped pull his Israeli election victory from the jaws of defeat. Everyone from rabbis of the Conservative movement to the New York Times to Barack Obama has criticised the Israeli prime minister’s appeal to what I call - in an inversion of Lincoln’s famous phrase - the greater demons of our nature.

But the media have mainly focused on Netanyahu’s invocation of “Arabs” coming to vote “in droves”, which mobilised Israeli-Jewish voters to switch their allegiance from smaller right-wing parties to Likud. Hardly anyone has reported far more troubling statements from both Netanyahu himself and his Likud Party. Some of these comments exploited the claim that President Obama is Muslim to yoke him with the Palestinian citizens of Israel - who are mainly Muslim.

The Jerusalem Post and The New Yorker report that party phone canvassers evoked Islamophobia, warning voters that Israel would be forced to capitulate to “Hussein Obama” if a strong Likud was not returned to power. The clear intent was to warn Israeli Jews that the "American-Muslim" president wanted to topple the Netanyahu government through his alliance with Israeli Muslims.

US House member James Clyburn, a key Obama ally, understood this linkage:

“For black Democrats like Clyburn, it was Netanyahu's coded election-day warning [that] pushed them from anger to outrage. Netanyahu later apologised for his remark, but his contrition appeared to have no effect on Clyburn and company. ‘The Congressional Black Caucus is gone,’ a Democratic congressional aide told Newsweek.”

In the US and most other Western countries, such overt racial memes would not be tolerated. If candidates employed them, they would be penalised at the polls. But Israel is a country so immersed in a racist ethos that no nationalist politician or party willing to exploit such base tactics faces any consequences. In fact, Netanyahu understands his far-right Jewish constituency so well, he knows they will flock to him, rather than reject him, for using such campaign rhetoric.

The prime minister made an election day video appeal that was so political that the Elections Committee refused to allow Israeli TV to air it. However, it was uploaded to Facebook, YouTube and other social media platforms (I translated it here) where it was widely viewed. In his pitch, in which Bibi had an unusual air of desperation, he warned Israeli Jews that there was a conspiracy financed by “American money” to bring masses of Palestinian citizens of Israel to the polls.

Earlier in the campaign, he had warned Israelis more vaguely of “foreign money” tipping the election to the Israeli left. But as his pollsters told him he stood to lose in the closing day of the campaign, he became even more explicit, attributing the conspiracy against him to American money.

This was an allusion to a nominally independent campaign called V15 (“V” for “victory”), founded in collaboration with the liberal Zionist NGO One Voice. The leader of the group was a veteran Obama presidential campaign operative, Jeremy Bird. There were claims from Likud that much of the funding for V15 came from J Street, a political organisation closely linked to the Obama administration.

The Obama administration protested vigorously against the Likud’s racist campaign tactics. In effect, it placed Bibi in the deep freeze. Nor has it allowed him to come in from the cold. When the Israeli leader tried to walk back his pre-election rejection of the two-state solution, the Americans refused to believe him.

Now, Netanyahu has released a new video apologising for his election-day racist dog whistles to his right-wing Jewish constituency. The video is a rather truculent apology. Just after telling a carefully selected audience of Palestinian village elders who support Likud - yes, astonishingly a few who benefit from the party do vote for it - that he “never intended to insult” them, he went on the counter-offensive, again raising the spectre of foreign interference in the election: “No foreign entity is entitled to interfere in the democratic processes of our nation.” Ironically, 90 percent of Likud Party financing for this election came from three US Jewish families, yet there was not a word about that in Bibi’s speech.

He also boasted to his listeners about the “enormous sums” his government invested in the “minority sector”. Israeli economist Shir Hever told me this claim was false.

“The per-capita investment in Palestinian citizens of Israel [during Netanyahu’s rule] remains below average in education, infrastructure, health, transportation,” Hever said.

The prime minister closed his talk - to the rousing applause of his pliant Palestinian audience, which also included the Likud campaign workers responsible for the Arab sector - declaring he would be the prime minister of every citizen of Israel regardless of ethnicity or religion. Those, of course, would be nice words if they’d come from a leader who hadn’t essentially labelled Palestinian citizens of Israel and their followers an Arab horde seeking to turn Israel into an Arab state with the connivance of a few Israeli-Jewish traitors called the Zionist Union - AKA “the extreme left”.

Shortly after this meeting, 63 Palestinian-Israeli mayors signed a statement saying a Likud political operative had asked them to participate in this promotional effort for the prime minister and they refused. Those who did participate, they said, didn’t represent Palestinian citizens of Israel, nor did the signers accept Netanyahu’s apology.

Coverage of the apology video in the New York Times and elsewhere calls the following an “official Likud translation” of Netanyahu’s remarks. It includes this sentence:

“‘I know that my comments last week offended some Israeli citizens and offended members of the Israeli Arab community,’ Mr. Netanyahu said, according to a translation provided by his political party, Likud. ‘This was never my intent. I apologise for this.’”

I noted the apparent dichotomy between “some Israeli citizens” and “members of the Israeli Arab community”. It seemed as if Netanyahu was implying that some Israeli-Jewish voters (“Israeli citizens”) were offended by his rhetoric along with Palestinians living in Israel, who weren’t even accorded the respect of being called “citizens”. This led me to check the actual statement Bibi made in Hebrew. Sure enough, the translation is wrong. The correct translation is “my comments … hurt the Arabs of Israel.”

I doubt the Likud translator was incompetent. So why did the translation change Bibi’s speech?  My guess is that Netanyahu is extremely cognizant that he’s not only damaged relations with the US government, but also with American Jewry, who largely supported the liberal Zionist Union. In order to appear more inclusive and respectful of these views, he appears to be saying: “I understand I hurt both the Arabs and the Israeli Jewish party you wanted to win.”

Despite Bibi’s back-pedalling, it doesn’t seem to be working. Obama spokesperson Josh Earnest has stated that even if the prime minister reaffirms his support for a two-state solution and gives an apology to Palestinian citizens of Israel, the US government policy assessment of relations with Israel will go forward.

To mitigate this possibility, Netanyahu has begun floating temporising concessions he will offer to the administration. The New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren, who often promotes the views of Israel’s leadership to American readers, summarises them:

“Middle East experts in Jerusalem and Washington said Mr Netanyahu was likely to make moves soon to show the White House that his position on Palestinian statehood had not changed. The first would be to release nearly $400 million in Palestinian tax revenue Israel has withheld since January.

“Israel has dangled the possibility of up to 5,000 work permits for residents of the Gaza Strip. It could also allow a badly needed desalination plant in Gaza and provide more electricity there. …

“[Though a settlement freeze] is unlikely to pass muster with Mr Netanyahu’s conservative coalition partners … People who know the prime minister well said he might relax restrictions on Palestinian development in areas under Israeli control, give the Palestinian Authority more autonomy in other places and even impose an unstated settlement slowdown.”

This is precisely the sort of gestural approach which has proven so unpersuasive in the past, both to the Palestinians and the international community. Why Netanyahu should believe after his recent election performance that these meatless bones will satisfy anyone, is beyond me. It hasn’t moved the Obama administration.

Considering the past six years of practical immobility on the part of the Americans in opposing Israel’s provocative, counter-productive behaviour, it is a wonder why the President has suddenly developed a spine. As with much of what he does, the answer is most likely strategic.

Obama believes a nuclear deal with Iran and the long-term impact this will have both on relations with Iran and the stability of the region is both more achievable and more productive than anything he can achieve regarding Israel and the Palestinians.

The Israelis and Americans are playing a cat-and-mouse game regarding the talks. Obama wants them to succeed. Netanyahu wants them to fail. So how do the Americans win at this game?  They deflate the Israeli position at every turn. They put the Israelis on the defensive. They discredit their tactics and motives. They make it hard for any member of Congress to side with Israel on the issue. That’s why Obama has proven so implacable in refusing any Israeli olive branches. He wants Israel to be on the ropes until a deal is signed.

An example of this US strategy at work is the leak to the Wall Street Journal that the Israelis have spied on the US delegation to the nuclear talks. The article further contends that the Netanyahu government has conveyed the supposed concessions offered by Secretary of State Kerry in the talks to Congressional Republicans, in order to rally them in opposition to any accord.

There is little that will rally people in American politics more than a foreign power spying on America and using the information to damage this nation’s interests. The reaction here has followed this line. While Israelis have denied they spy on America - a notion scoffed at by virtually all serious national security analysts - the news has further cowed the Republican opposition.

Once the nuclear agreement is finalised, the Americans will probably ease up on the Israelis and there will be reconciliation, but only after Obama gets what he wants, which is a nuclear pact.

Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war, A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the upcoming collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: The Israelis and Americans are playing a cat-and-mouse game regarding the Iran nuclear talks (AFP)