Ticking bombs: Iran, the GOP and Israel’s secret plan (for self-destruction)

Behind the asinine antics of Bibi and the Republicans lies a seductive vision of doom – but not from Iran

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 14, 2015 4:00PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Nir Elias/AP/Danny Johnston/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Nir Elias/AP/Danny Johnston/Photo montage by Salon)

It was a marriage made in heaven – or, more likely, in the other place – one that’s been waiting decades to be consummated, as in an old-fashioned soap opera whose sundered lovers pine for each other from afar but are kept apart by one plot device after another. The Republican Party and the ruling Israeli faction of Bibi Netanyahu and his Likud party have long played footsie under the table and passed mash notes back and forth, so the flowering of their forbidden love over the last two weeks is no big surprise. Just to jump way ahead, I’m arguing here that the secret key to this romance lies in the fact that both groups are doomed by history. Beneath their shared posture of arrogance and triumphalism – so maddening to their political opponents – lies a deep-seated, half-conscious awareness that the end is nigh. It’s like the medieval legend of Tristan and Iseult, except with ugly people.

Many people on both sides of this affair have long believed that their hearts beat as one and their destinies were joined; Fox News and the New York Post have been pimping for Netanyahu since the ’90s. But this love story has faced daunting obstacles. To the endless frustration of Netanyahu and his loyalists, most American Jews remain allied with the Democrats, and a large proportion are liberal or left-leaning Democrats. For generations the social-justice movements of American politics – the labor movement, the civil-rights movement, feminism, the LGBT struggle -- have been closely allied with the Jewish intellectual tradition. If Noam Chomsky is an extreme example, he is certainly not an isolated one. Yes, it’s actually a longer and more tangled story than that, since the neoconservative movement also has Jewish roots stretching back to the Trotskyist left of the 1930s. We might get back to talking about the spectral force of Leo Strauss, dragging his chains through the corridors of American political life like Marley's Ghost, but that’s way too big a tangent right now.

Then there’s the fact that the most enthusiastic supporters of Israeli expansionism on the American right include many people who believe that all Jews will go directly to hell and suffer eternal torment (following the reign of the Antichrist and the blowing of the trumpets and all that), unless they abandon their ancient tradition and embrace the heretical sect their ancestors specifically rejected 2,000 years ago. No doubt we can shave that reed a little finer, and observe that there are the people who really believe in that pre-millennial Rapture doctrine, who at least are not hypocrites, and then there are the shameless cynical bastards who manipulate such pseudo-Christian superstition – as they were taught by Leo Strauss! -- in order to gain power. I’m sure true believers like Pat Boone and Mike Huckabee feel heartbroken about that aspect of the End of Days, and plan to look down from heaven on their slow-roasting Jewish friends with nothing but love and pity in their hearts.

Details, details. The course of true love never did run smooth, and so on. With Netanyahu’s, um, “controversial” speech to Congress on March 3, and last week’s not-so-well-thought-out open letter from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, and 46 other Republican senators to the Iranian leadership – both seeking to undo a nuclear deal that does not yet exist – the GOP-Likud love affair has come out of the closet and into the streets. They’re here, they’re queer; get used to it. (To the forces of sexual liberation: I’m so sorry. I couldn’t help myself. Merriam-Webster reminds us that “queer” can also mean odd, questionable or “mildly insane.”)

But here’s the thing: These declarations of love may have felt good at the time, but they have been totally counterproductive, at least in terms of the avowed goals of the right-wingers in Washington and Jerusalem. Bibi and his GOP love machine overplayed their hand, by a lot, and now they are likely to reap the rewards of that hubris. Sure, the conservative punditry has put up a brave front and anointed Netanyahu the real “leader of the free world” and all that, but none of it has stuck. A deal with Iran is now more likely, rather than less likely. (To take a darker view, it’s also more likely that Iran will wind up with the Bomb after all.) Netanyahu’s prospects in next week’s Israeli election continue to slide, with the final polls showing Likud falling further behind the center-left opposition.

As for the Republicans – sure, in a certain light, they appear unbothered by all this. They control both houses of Congress until at least 2017, and they’re about to have a really exciting presidential campaign in which 85 candidates will strive to outdo each other in fire-breathing, Koch-pandering and promises to expel all the Muslims and Mexicans. So what if their Congressional leadership has been humiliated on the international stage, not once but twice within 10 days? Republicans will tell each other in private that their xenophobic, know-nothing constituents welcome the world’s scorn – and they are largely correct. So what if Cotton and his pals just got schooled in public on both international law and American constitutional law by Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Denver (making him better educated than any member of the U.S. Senate)? Zarif is a diabolical Muslim liar, first of all, and if it’s a contest between the finer points of book-learnin’ and the dumbest and most dogmatic version of American exceptionalism, Republicans know how their bread is buttered.

But beneath all the bluster and confrontational rhetoric many Republicans can feel the whirlwind coming, even if they don’t want to admit it. A deep strain of panic runs beneath everything they say and everything they do. Through the magical kismet produced by blending their stupidity with Netanyahu’s, the GOP has managed to make the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran look reasonable, which is quite a feat. In fact, Iranian officials are behaving more reasonably than their histrionic enemies on the Israeli and American right, as virtually the entire world has noticed. One should never treat nuclear weapons lightly, and an agreement to restrict them is always a good thing. But I have never felt remotely convinced by the argument that a nuclear-armed Iran will lead to the end of the world, or the destruction of Israel.

North Korea has the Bomb (despite our repeated efforts to stop them). Pakistan has the Bomb (ditto). Those places are several orders of magnitude crazier and less stable than Iran, a nation that has been incrementally if unsteadily moving toward more democracy and more engagement with the outside world over the last two decades. To offer the obvious rebuttal, Israel has had a nuclear weapons program since the mid-1960s, one of the most poorly kept secrets in world affairs. (There are two known gag orders that prevent U.S. officials from discussing Israel’s nukes, an especially bizarre symptom of the Frankenstein-monster relationship between the two nations.) Facing an Israeli arsenal variously estimated at 75 to 400 nuclear warheads, the Iranians would literally have to be insane and suicidal to launch a first strike. You don’t need to endorse Iran’s recent actions in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere to conclude that they appear calculated and strategic, and reflect no such apocalyptic delusions.

That may seem like an inflammatory side argument, but it’s important because the real current of delusional, apocalyptic thinking is not found in Tehran. All those dire pronouncements made by Likudniks and Republicans about how a nuclear-armed Iran will bring the end of civilization are a form of psychological displacement. They have almost nothing to do with Iran or civilization, and everything to do with the Republican Party’s continuing decline and the perilous, self-inflicted predicament that Israel now faces. If the American right and the Israeli right had sealed their love with a suicide pact, vowing to destroy each other so they can be together in the hereafter, they could hardly be fulfilling it more perfectly.

I want to drop the mode of political snark and observe that the human consequences of all this are dire, and likely to get worse. The not-so-secret Israeli-GOP scheme of self-immolation is more than a clown show or a badly played melodrama; it’s also an unfolding tragedy. Let’s take the question of Israel first, which has bedeviled the world for more than 60 years and fueled numerous wars, waves of international terrorism and the rise of Islamic extremism. In their darkest moments of sleeplessness, every major Western leader from the time of Truman and Churchill onward has probably wished they could undo the events of 1948 that brought Israel into being. It’s decades too late for that, of course, and for all its abundant problems modern Israel is a vibrant and distinctive society, armed with the aforementioned non-secret nukes. But as Netanyahu’s Iran paranoia reflects, albeit in distorted form, the question of Israel’s survival hangs in the balance.

It has been obvious for years that Netanyahu’s aggressive policy of expanding Jewish settlements on the West Bank (exhaustively detailed this week in a Pulitzer-friendly New York Times feature) has pretty much killed off any realistic prospect for a two-state solution to the “Palestinian question.” Indeed, as former Salon editor Alex Halperin and I discussed with settler leader Dani Dayan two years ago, this is just about the only place where radical Palestinians, international leftists and right-wing Israelis can all agree: There will be no independent nation east of the Green Line. About one in five people living inside Israel is a Palestinian, and between the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Jewish proportion of the occupied territories approaches one in four. Extricating these two peoples from each other has, by design and by accident, become nearly impossible.

Barack Obama and John Kerry and everybody else in American politics still are not allowed to say this, but the only plausible long-term future is one state that comprises the entire territory both sides have been fighting over, with its Jewish and Arab populations alike. But what kind of state is that likely to be? From the viewpoint of present-day Israel, not to mention present-day America, there are few good outcomes. Dayan and Netanyahu presumably envision some form of “soft” apartheid, in which Palestinians self-govern at a local level but have few political rights within the nation as a whole. Leftists like Palestinian-American journalist Ahmed Moor or Israeli sociologist Yehouda Shenhav imagine a binational, bilingual federal democracy. That sounds almost utopian, and as a question of political reality it’s inconceivable that the current Israeli majority would surrender the Zionist dream – their nation’s core identity – for a future that is likely to mean a Palestinian majority.

It seems more likely that Netanyahu’s policies have committed Israel to what political scientist Khalil Shikaki describes as an “ugly one-state dynamic,” a poisonous and divisive future of repressive half-measures and continued conflict that can produce “no happy ending” for anyone involved. No doubt that could be sustained for a long time, perhaps decades, or at least as long as the Israeli government retains the backing of the world’s lone military superpower. But how long is that? As Netanyahu has just learned, the American public’s patience with Israeli arrogance and Israeli misbehavior may not be limitless. For that matter, how long will America remain unopposed as a military power, and do we even want that status anymore?

Compared to that bleak prospect in the Middle East, the ideological and intellectual decay of the Republican Party may seem inconsequential, a matter of internal political realignment. But liberals who remain hypnotized by the question of who will win the next election, and who are eager to dance on the GOP’s grave, are essentially surrendering to the dynamics of America’s political paralysis and dysfunction. It’s really no different from the conserva-trolls who are about to remind me about the glorious Republican victory in last year’s midterm elections, or to assure us that “real Americans” will resurface en masse in 2016 to put Jeb Bush or Scott Walker or Marco Rubio in the White House. It’s the wrong answer to an irrelevant question.

For one of our only two political parties to degenerate into an all-white, Southern-based festival of fear, ignorance and empty nostalgia, whose only agenda is to devolve all power to the corporate sector while pumping up the military and the spy bureaucracy, is not good news for anyone. It’s not just electoral suicide for that party; it's also a fast-growing and potentially fatal tumor within our so-called democracy. Pure Schadenfreude and hatred are one thing, and in the case of the modern Republican Party are understandable. But if you believe the GOP decline so vividly illustrated over the last two weeks is likely to renew or energize the current ideology-free, corporatized version of the Democratic Party, you haven't been paying attention.

We don’t have to go all the way back to the totally different context of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War to observe that it wasn’t always this way. For much of the 20th century, the Republican Party represented a diverse but largely coherent coalition of interests that favored limited government, individual rights and social order. Once upon a time, it was the party of Teddy Roosevelt and Fiorello La Guardia and Jacob Javits, not to mention the party of Edward Brooke, the first African-American elected to the Senate, and Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress. All those people seem inconceivable as Republicans now – but then, so do Bob Dole and Gerald Ford and even Barry Goldwater, supposed godfather of the conservative revolution.

I am not forecasting immediate electoral doom for the Republicans, despite the obvious demographic dilemma that may mean they never elect another president. Such predictions are always shortsighted, and in any case the rococo decadence of the current GOP is only one side of the debased political coin. As with the depressing one-state future of Israel, the Republicans can keep running on noxious fumes almost indefinitely as the Party of No, the low-turnout party, the party of embittered white folks committed to blaming others for their self-inflicted injuries.

Just as the Israeli crisis provoked by the Iran showdown could, in theory, open new possibilities beyond the self-evident failure of the two-state solution, the collapse of the GOP could unleash new political energies in America. Israelis and Palestinians must break free of old paradigms if they hope to make peace. Americans must escape the bitter bipartisan circus that conceals so many things – the management of the economy, the national-security apparatus and, come to think of it, the relationship with Israel – that are almost never discussed or debated in public. If the only alternative to the Party of Dumb is the Party of Smug, the party of Hollywood and the Upper West Side and the “Washington consensus,” the party so bereft of spirit and energy that it’s about to nominate a candidate nobody likes without even the semblance of a fight, then it's not just Bibi and the Republicans who are heading for Armageddon.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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