When your back is against the wall, you need a hero. So it is not surprising that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, flailing in a hard-found election, has turned to Chuck Norris, martial arts master and star of films like Delta Force and the TV series “Walker, Texas Ranger.” Norris cut an ad urging Israelis to vote Tuesday for Netanyahu's Likud Party, saying, “You have an incredible country, and we want to keep it that way. That’s why it is so important that you keep a leader who has the courage and vision to stand up against the evil forces that are threatening not only Israel but also the United States.”
Norris isn’t the only formerly prominent American actor backing Bibi. Jon Voight, from classics such as Midnight Cowboy and Deliverance, also made a pro-Netanyahu ad, where he made the case for ignoring the rift between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu. “I love Israel,” Voight said. "I want to see Israel survive and not be overtaken by the madmen of this world. President Obama does not love Israel. His whole agenda is to control Israel, and this way, he can be friends with all of Israel’s enemies. He doesn't want Bibi Netanyahu to win this election.”
The intervention of Hollywood C-listers in the Israeli election might seem comic, but Netanyahu's turn toward these washed-up stars speaks to something larger: that Bibi is a profoundly Americanized politician, one more comfortable in the United States than in the country he leads.
In fact, Netanyahu is the most Americanized prime minister that Israel has ever seen. Although born in Tel Aviv, he spent many childhood years in the U.S., graduating from Cheltenham High School in Pennsylvania. His easy way with English, which still carries a Philadelphia tinge, certainly helps in making the case that he can be an essential bridge between Israel and its most important ally. When Netanyahu appears, as he frequently does, on “Meet the Press” or “Face the Nation,” he presents a demeanor and voice that many Americans can relate to.
Politically, Netanyahu has forged an unprecedented alliance with American conservatives, working closely with both the Republican Party and right-wing billionaires like Sheldon Adelson, who has given money to Likud and supported the party through Israel HaYom, his popular free newspaper in Israel.
But it is worth asking whether Netanyahu’s American connections, long one of his greatest political strengths, are any more helpful in getting out the vote than Chuck Norris’s name is in selling box office tickets. Netanyahu's tight alliance with the Republican Party led to his contentious speech before Congress challenging Obama’s Iran negotiations. While Netanyahu got a small bump in the polls after that speech, his numbers then dropped amid reports that the stunt was fraying American-Israeli relations
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once paid a back-handed compliment to Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion by saying, “It’s a pity his shoes are too small for him. He could have been given his real measure in a state bigger than Israel.” It often seems that Netanyahu has had the same thoughts about himself, that he needs a bigger stage than the Jewish State to work on.
“Israel is too small for him,” Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in an email. “He feels he is unappreciated at home, but loved in Congress.”
Levy notes that Netanyahu rarely gives interviews to the Israeli media, but is a fixture on American news networks. And Netanyahu’s polarizing vision of politics—his Manichean rhetoric, reminiscent of former President George W. Bush—is closer to the American model than to Israel’s multi-party democracy.
“Playing in US politics allows him to forget / transcend even for a moment the weaknesses of the Israeli non-Presidential system which so frustrate him,” Levy said. “His slogan in this election has been ‘it's us or them’ but even that is much more befitting a two-party system like US (rare today in West) than Israel, where it's us vs them and them and them.”
Netanyahu’s American ties have been a boon over the years, a source of political support, media celebrations, and campaign donations. But if Netanyahu is in trouble in today’s election, the root problem may be that he’s lost touch with the country he governs, focused as he has been on shoring up the support of John Boehner and Chuck Norris rather than the concerns of the average Israeli.