WASHINGTON — Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t do regret.
Earlier this year, the Israeli prime minister did more than any of his predecessors over nearly 70 years to turn his country into a partisan political issue in the United States. In his speech to Congress and in other venues, he fought hard against President Obama and the Iran nuclear deal — losing the battle but driving a deep wedge through America, and the American Jewish community.
An introspective leader might be chastened by the damage he had done to relations with his country’s most important ally. So what has Bibi been doing lately?
Three weeks ago, he declared in a speech that “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews” but was advised to by a Palestinian cleric to “burn them.” It took a week of international furor before Netanyahu retracted his remarks.
Two weeks ago, he scolded but did not fire his deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, who said that “my dream is to see the Israeli flag flying over the Temple Mount” and called on Israel to allow Jews to pray on the mount, where al-Aqsa Mosque stands.
Last week, Netanyahu appointed as his new chief of public diplomacy a man who called Obama an anti-Semite and who said Secretary of State John Kerry has the intellect of a 12-year-old.
Now, as Netanyahu visits the United States, he decided to accept, on the same day he met Obama in the Oval Office, an award from a group of neoconservatives at the American Enterprise Institute who applaud his stand against the Obama administration. The acceptance of the award, which has previously gone to, among others, Dick Cheney and Antonin Scalia, led The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg to conclude that “Netanyahu has decided to troll Obama.”
The White House meeting was a tense and perfunctory affair. The two leaders, as usual, didn’t hold a press conference. The White House allowed only a small pool of journalists to film the two leaders trade statements in the Oval Office. Obama, grim and barely glancing at Netanyahu, acknowledged the “strong disagreement” on the nuclear deal, but he said, defensively, that “we have closer military and intelligence cooperation than any two administrations in history.”
Netanyahu didn’t mention the Iran deal, instead offering boilerplate phrases about “shared values,” “shared interests” and “shared destiny.” Neither man offered praise of the other, and the thing was done in nine minutes. White House press secretary Josh Earnest briefed reporters while the two leaders were still meeting, which spared him from providing details — such as whether they discussed Netanyahu’s speech to Congress.
Apparently even Netanyahu, or somebody in his entourage, recognized that he was doing more political damage. After announcing his acceptance of the AEI award, Netanyahu’s government also solicited an invitation for him to speak to the liberal Center for American Progress on Tuesday.
Polling of American Jews is difficult because of the small population, but there’s little doubt that Netanyahu’s heavy involvement in American politics has made many uneasy. A September poll conducted for the American Jewish Committee, though methodologically suspect, found that half of Jewish American respondents supported the Iran nuclear deal — more than double the overall support for the deal among Americans. Fifty-two percent of respondents said U.S.-Israel relations were getting worse, and only 5 percent said they were getting better.
The split on Israel, aggravated by Netanyahu, is worrying because it emboldens those on the left who really aren’t friends of Israel. More than 50 of them demonstrated outside the White House on Monday morning at the time Netanyahu was to arrive. Led by the anti-war ANSWER Coalition and including groups such as Code Pink and Veterans for Peace, they held signs proclaiming “Netanyahu War Criminal,” “Stop all aid to Israel” and “Boycott Israel.”
“There has been a sea change in U.S. attitudes toward the Israeli government and its policies and toward U.S. aid toward Israel,” Brian Becker, ANSWER’s national coordinator, said via megaphone. Israel’s “terrorism” in recent years, he said, has meant that “many people, including a large sector of the Jewish American community, are now critical of Israel instead of giving a blank check to Israel.”
Now anti-Israel interests are exploiting that division. Sharing the microphone with Becker was Rabbi Dovid Weiss from a bizarre sect of Orthodox Jews who oppose Israel’s existence. Weiss, in the dress of a Hasidic Jew, used the platform ANSWER gave him to call for Israel’s abolition, because the Jewish state is “causing endless rivers of bloodshed with your mere existence.”
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.
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