Considering the U.S.-Israel Relationship
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
There is a serious rift between American Jews and the Government of the State of Israel. To be clear it is not Israel or Israelis themselves which is creating this problem; rather, it is the policies and conduct of the Government of Binyamin Netanyahu. Those American Jews who have the least problem with Bibi and his Government’s policies are largely the modern Orthodox community as well as the charedim or ultra-Orthodox Jews. It is these same segments of the Jewish community, approximately 20-25% of American Jews, who voted for Donald Trump and continue to support him.
Israel’s problem begins with the fact that Netanyahu has made his bed with Trump and with the Republican Party—as has AIPAC and some other of the American pro-Israel organizations—that there is barely a veneer of bi-partisanship in how Bibi approaches American. This shift became most obvious during the Obama period when Netanyahu and Obama had a toxic personal relationship. It was intensified when Netanyahu went around the President in his efforts to push the U.S. not accept the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement concerning Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The relationship reached its nadir in December 2016 when the U.S. abstained and did not veto the U.N. Security resolution on the illegality of Israeli West Bank settlements.
As the mid-term elections approach and the likelihood that the Democrats may take control of at least the House of Representatives, the Israeli Government may well find itself having to improve relationships with many House Members or newly elected Democrats who have felt dismissed and taken for granted by Israel’s leaders. With a likely divided Government in Washington, Netanyahu will not have the free ride that Trump and the Republicans gave him in the bi-lateral relationship.
Should Bibi accept this reality, it will present him with two complications if he seeks to repair his relationships with some of the offended Democrats. First, such action will undoubtedly annoy President Trump and Sheldon Adelson, neither of whom appreciate being contravened. Second, Bibi will rattle his coalition if he walks back any of the decisions he has reached in the U.S.-Israel treatment of Abbas and the PA.
This situation is similarly complicated for American Jews whose support for Israel in some circles has been challenged in recent years. Should Netanyahu moderate some of his positions—or at least his rhetoric–regarding the newly passed nation/state law, or access to the Western Wall for non-Orthodox, that would contribute to at least improving the atmospherics.
With regards to treatment of the Palestinians and the regional issues, Netanyahu has enjoyed watching Trump do all his bidding for him. This has been true with respect both to Iran and the Palestinians. Netanyahu has also been given virtual carte blanche to deal with the Syrian threat, while Trump has addressed Russian intrusion. Similarly, Israel’s moves to change the calculus and hostility with the Saudis has been beneficial to the U.S. as well.
Netanyahu does not want to walk away from this tight arrangement with the Trump Administration, but he recognizes that Israel’s historically close relationship with the U.S. largely rested on Israel’s knowledge that it had bipartisan support in Congress. There is no reason to assume that this relationship cannot be repaired, but much will depend on Netanyahu’s ability to accurately reorder his priorities. He could begin by actually building serious bridges for peace to the Palestinians and/or to Hamas.