The front page of one of Jerusalem’s free weekly newspapers, mostly catering to the city’s Zionist religious community, features a picture of the Prime Minster of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, beaming before the United States Congress before rousing applause. The headline reads: ‘Bibi charms America’ – literally in Hebrew, ‘Bibi catches America.’ The week that began with Obama’s reasserting America’s commitment to a peace deal based on the borders of 1967 – ominous-sounding for most Israelis – ended, after a joint press conference and Obama’s speech to AIPAC, with Netanyahu soaking in the adulation of Congress and, even more, of Israelis at home.
For one writer of the left-leaning daily Haaretz, the credulity of Congress was its ‘mark of shame.’ But the majority of Israelis, credulous or not, sounded Bibi’s praises. More than once I heard Bibi invoked as, in the army vernacular: ‘gever, gever’: ‘he is a real man, our real man’ – Bibi actively, maybe even aggressively, in the eyes of Israelis, ‘catching’ America, and especially its President.
But Bibi played the part with care – adopting and transforming the role that Jews have played for centuries in relationship to emperors and princes. The Hofjuden or ”court Jews” who worked at the whim of the Hapsburg princes, for example, pursued the latter’s diplomatic and financial interests, while trying to maintain, often at great peril, their own precarious wealth and status. So Bibi in his press conference with the increasingly-perturbed looking president, starts by playing that role, repeating his thanks, his appreciation, his admiration for Obama’s ‘important speech’ of the previous day. ‘You are the leader of a great people,’ Bibi affirms, eliciting Obama’s perfunctory return of the compliment, though Bibi responds with theatrical humility, ‘a much smaller people.’
‘He’s one of us,’ I heard on the Jerusalem streets, not only ‘a real man,’ but, again the army-slang, a ‘buddy.’ So Bibi may have begun as traditionally deferential, but was not afraid to step out of the role, and on the proposed return to sixty-seven borders, he affirms to the leader of the free world, ‘it’s not going to happen.’ But the real muscle-flexing, so appreciated back in Israel, came only in front of Congress the following week. Bibi’s exclamations: you got rid of Bin Laden; good riddance!’ followed by ‘History will salute you!’ enraged left-wing newspaper editors here as transparent obsequiousness: ‘Americans will buy anything.’ But that was just the prelude, as Bibi masterfully transformed into the ‘real man’ – the mention of his forty-pound ammunition pack in the Suez, and battles with terrorists on the banks of the Jordan not just incidental to his presentation. ‘We defend ourselves,’ the recipient of billions of dollars of American military aid boasted, then going on to repeat standard positions, defiantly refusing again to accede to the borders of sixty-seven as ‘indefensible,’ referred to in Israel always as ‘Auschwitz borders.’
The Israeli prime minister as stand-up military hunk compared to his American counterpart is shown in a side-by-side photo, circulating here, of the two leaders in their youth. There is Bibi in a flack-jacket, military-boots, grasping an Uzi; and then, there is Obama, more like Barry in jeans, reclining, in a leather jacket, clutching a cigarette. After seeing the split-photo, I admitted to my students, ‘now I get it, Israelis prefer the macho Bibi to the effete Obama.’ But many of them protested: Bibi, educated at MIT and Harvard and a former diplomat, is not just more macho than Obama, he is also smarter. And so they reminded me that Bibi lectured the President of the United States at their joint press conference (to the latter’s evident displeasure) on the ‘realities’ of the Middle East, the former soldier giving instruction to the former law professor and Commander-in-Chief. Obama may have tried to counter Bibi’s professorial display in his AIPAC address with “the facts.” But by the time of the speech to Congress, neither facts nor reality mattered much, least of all to Israelis.
In the gushing finale of his speech, Bibi won over even more of the country, leaving the intricacies of geopolitics to wax poetically about freedom, liberty and democracy. Though continuing with the ‘thank you’s – seven in the last three paragraphs – came the blessing, ‘May God bless America, and may God forever bless the United States of America.’ To a congressional audience where blessings (always and increasingly) matter, Bibi’s bravado with his well-placed ‘forever’ suggests that though America may be the ‘guardian of liberty,’ the ‘Jewish people and the Jewish state’ are the source of blessing. ‘Let’s see Abbas,’ I overheard at a local café, ‘come to Congress, and do that!’ And so it seemed in Israel: Bibi, triumphant.
After his return to Israel, chatting with my Jerusalem cabdriver – one of a savvy, cynical, and usually right-wing breed, I asked, ‘what do you think of all this?’ ‘I don’t believe in Obama,’ he returned quickly, ‘nor in Bibi.’ I was surprised: then who do you believe in? To this, he raised his hand in the air, pointing to the Heavens. Not conventionally religious – he was not wearing a kippa – his invocation of God was probably less a gesture of belief than skepticism at all the political theatrics, both Bibi’s and Obama’s, however compelling to some.
So Israelis are not that gullible, not all of them at least, after all.
William Kolbrener is author of Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love