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‘Putting lipstick on a pig’: Why Washington is fawning over Israel’s new government

June 22, 2021 at 9:12 am

A far right Israeli holds a poster with a photo of new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett saying in hebrew “Liar” on June 15, 2021 in Jerusalem [Amir Levy/Getty Images]

When former US President Barack Obama used an old cliché to denigrate his political opponent, the late US Senator John McCain, he triggered a political controversy lasting several days. “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig,” said Obama at a campaign event in 2008. The maxim indicates that superficial changes have no bearings on outcomes and that modifying our facade does not alter who we really are.

American politicians are authority on the subject. They are experts on artificial, rhetorical, and, ultimately, shallow change. And now, once again, Washington’s political make-up artists are getting to work on the public face of Israel.

Since the dramatic ousting of his former mentor, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is being presented as the alternative to Netanyahu’s right-wing, chauvinistic and rowdy political style. However, it will take more than a bit of lipstick to make this believable.

READ: Global leaders urge Biden to stand up for the people of Palestine

Much can be said about Bennett and his party of ultra-nationalists and right-wing extremists, Yamina, not least that it is a decidedly racist political party. Its meagre seven seats in the Israeli Knesset (parliament) were garnered through a constant appeal to the most violent and racist constituencies in Israel, whose oft-repeated chant “Death to the Arabs” is a daily reminder of a sinister political discourse.

Bennett is often cited for this infamous statement from 2013: “I’ve killed lots of Arabs in my life and there’s no problem with that.” Yet, there is more to the man’s politics than such an abhorrent declaration. Since Israeli leaders do not perceive any form of Palestinian resistance to be legitimate and, in their eyes, Palestinians are either terrorists or potential terrorists, consider the following “solution” offered by Bennett to deal with the problem of “Palestinian terrorism”.

As Israel’s Minister of Education in 2015, Bennett proposed the building of a “deterrence” wall; one which “demands that incitement be ended and that terrorists are shot dead before they have a chance to hurt innocent people. It means that a terrorist who is shot will be dead and never walk again. It means that Israel remains in control of its homeland forever, unmoved by terrorism.”

So why does the Biden administration want us to believe that Bennett is different? Immediately following the prime minister’s inauguration, the US president was the first world leader to call and congratulate Bennett on his new post. This act carried a deeper symbolic meaning when compared with the fact that it took Biden three long weeks to phone Netanyahu following his own inauguration as president in January.

Naftali Bennett is already carrying on Netanyahu's legacy - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Naftali Bennett is already carrying on Netanyahu’s legacy – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

A close aide to Israel’s new prime minister explained the nature of the amiable phone conversation between Biden and Bennett in an interview with the Axios website. “The White House wants to have close and regular consultation and engagement with Bennett and his team based on a candid exchange of views, respect for differences, a desire to work toward stability and security,” the Israeli source was quoted as saying.

Aside from the emphasis on candour and “respect” with reference to the future US-Israel relationship, there has also been an equal and constant emphasis on the need for privacy in dealing with differences between the two countries. “Unlike its predecessor,” the Times of Israel reported with reference to Netanyahu, the Bennett government “would voice its criticism [of Washington] in private.” For months, the US had pleaded with Netanyahu to tone down his attacks on Washington, to no avail.

Now that Bennett is in charge, he is clearly ready to play along. And why shouldn’t he? He is eager to present himself as the antithesis of Netanyahu. By making such a “concession”, he would surely be expecting Washington to reciprocate. For Bennett, it is a win-win.

He understands that US policy towards Israel is not determined by the attitude of Israeli leaders. For example, in comments made last month, Biden laid to rest any suggestion that the US will hold Israel accountable during his term in power. There is “no shift in my commitment, commitment to the security of Israel. Period. No shift, not at all”. If this solid pledge was made when boisterous Netanyahu was still in power, no change whatsoever should be expected now that the supposedly agreeable Bennett is Israel’s prime minister.

American politicians are fawning over Bennett and his main coalition partner and future Prime Minister, Yair Lapid. They are eager to turn a new page and move forward from Netanyahu’s tumultuous years. Bennett is expected to visit the US in July, while Lapid has already been invited to visit Washington by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Meanwhile, a large Israeli military delegation headed by Army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi should already be in the US to discuss various topics, including Iran and Hezbollah, and to “negotiate” yet more US gifts to Israel in the form of military hardware.

The US is keen on rebranding its relationship with Israel, not because Israel has changed, but because Washington has suffered repeated humiliation at the hands of ousted Netanyahu. With him at the helm, the US found itself often accused of not doing enough for Israel. Even Obama’s $3.8 billion annual military aid package did not spare him from repeated Israeli verbal attacks. Biden is willing to do whatever it takes to avoid that sordid scenario.

READ: Biden to host Israeli President Rivlin on June 28

Joe Biden’s doctrine on Israel and Palestine is thus very simple. He does not want to make an actual commitment to relaunching the peace process, for example, nor does he want to be placed in a position where he is forced to make demands from, let alone put “pressure” on Israel. Since Biden has few expectations of Israel, Bennett seems willing to play the role of the accommodating and sensible politician. He would be foolish not to do so, for, according to his own political “vision”, he merely wants to manage the conflict and prolong the occupation while, like his predecessor, he continues to promote his own version of the deceptive notion of “economic peace”.

While the Americans and the Israelis are busy engaging in the ever-familiar ritual of “putting lipstick on a pig”, the Palestinians remain irrelevant. Their political aspirations continue to be discounted, and their freedom delayed, while Biden and Bennett attempt to gloss over the brutal reality of the colonial-occupation state.

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