Why Can’t Republicans Beat Obama Like Netanyahu Just Did?

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprise victory in the Israeli elections grew even bigger overnight. Not only did his Likud Party edge the opposition Zionist Union in the exit polls after trailing roughly 25 seats to 21 seats just days before the election, but the overnight vote total was even more staggering: 29-30 seats for Likud versus 24 for Zionist Union. In other words, Netanyahu beat the projections by nearly 50%–and humiliated U.S. President Barack Obama, who hoped for his defeat.

There are many reasons that Netanyahu surged toward the end. But they all boil down to one: enough Israeli voters knew that a loss for Netanyahu meant a victory for Obama. And they weren’t going to stand for it. On both occasions when Bibi surged in the polls–just prior to his speech to Congress, and on Election Day–a major theme of campaign rhetoric was the charge that Obama was interfering in the elections. (Those charges have merit, as a Senate committee is about to find out.)

Netanyahu won, in other words, by standing up to Obama. That was not the main purpose of his speech to Congress, and it was not something Netanyahu addressed explicitly. But he didn’t need to. All of his last-minute statements–the warning that foreign governments (in general) were trying to overthrow him, the reversal of his support for a Palestinian state, the alarm that Arab voters were being bused to the polls–were rejections, albeit indirect, of Obama’s policies and interventions.

American conservatives are exultant about the result–how could we not be, when the likes of lefty Jan Schakowsky were openly calling for “regime change” in Israel?

More specifically, conservatives are thrilled that Netanyahu stood up to the president–who has openly defied the American electorate and the U.S. Constitution–and won in a landslide.

The question that remains is why Republicans have failed to do anything like what Netanyahu has done, from a far weaker position.

One answer–consistently–has been political correctness. In 2008, John McCain avoided making the racist Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a campaign issue because he was afraid of being accused of race-baiting. More recently, Republicans have declined to impeach Obama for flagrant violations of his oath of office, partly out of deference to his status as the nation’s first black president. Liberals complain Obama is treated worse because of his race; if anything, he is treated far more leniently.

Netanyahu has fewer hangups about political correctness, as in his 11th-hour warning about high Arab turnout (which, as it happened, never materialized). The warning was not racist, as his opponents charged–not when several members of the Joint Arab List are hostile to the state itself, not when the media spent weeks predicting high Arab turnout would doom the Likud. It was, however, an ugly and divisive warning. Bibi did it because he values winning above artistic impression.

A simpler answer is that winning elections begins with solidifying your political base. (Win first, compromise later.) Zionist Union led because it had unified what is left of the center-left in Israel. Netanyahu’s late appeal to the fractured right was simple: join, or die. Many of his new seats were cannibalized from other right-wing parties that would have supported him anyway. Netanyahu realized he needed more than their coalition agreements to win; he needed their voters and their seats.

So Netanyahu came home to Israeli conservatives, and they came home to him. That means he will be more politically constrained when he returns as Prime Minister: he will have less room for compromise with Obama or the Palestinians.

But, crucially, it means he will return as Prime Minister–and will remain in office, if his coalition holds, long after Obama is gone.

In fact, his victory is the first brick in the foundations of the post-Obama era. Republicans have much to learn.


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