Israel’s dangerous game of partisanship

Israel’s dangerous game of partisanship

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

It has become increasingly obvious over the past few months and in fact for years that Prime Minister Netanyahu has a special interest in election politics in the United States. He has clearly been more sympathetic and interested in the success of Republicans and the Republican Party than the Democrats. Whether it is a function of his personal dislike of President Obama, or his perception that Republicans are more supportive of his own more aggressive anti-Iran position, or his desire to maintain the financial and political favor of his friend, Las Vegas entrepreneur and Republican benefactor Sheldon Adelson, Bibi Netanyhau has marked himself as generally not a friend of Democrats. 

This attitude raises two serious questions, one immediate and one long term. The answers to both of them could well place the U.S.-Israeli relationship in considerable jeopardy in the weeks and years ahead. They also raise serious questions as to the current and future political leadership in Israel. Will the perceived arrogance of the current Israeli government be an even greater stimulus to the isolation of Israel than will be its position on Palestinian negotiations?

As far as the current U.S. elections are concerned, Netanyahu clearly has concluded that the Republican leadership is more sympathetic to Israel’s security concerns than the Democrats. He senses that the Obama administration and congressional Democrats are too interested in reaching an accommodation with both Fatah on the West Bank and even Hamas in Gaza, and that Israel’s safety and security could be more quickly jeopardized by their policies. 

What Netanyahu does not want to recognize is that much of the Republican interest in Israel is based not exclusively on Israel’s security considerations. In fact, their interest is based at least as much on accommodating Netanyahu’s Jewish supporters in America, whom Republicans hope to attract to their own party’s agenda — not only on international issues but on domestic ones as well. Such success could yield them an increasingly larger portion of the campaign giving of American Jews, which historically has gone largely to Democrats. 

Netanyahu believes Republican control of the Senate and their continued control of the House will enable Israel to gain more congressional support for Israel’s hard-line position on Iranian sanctions. He senses that the Obama administration is trying to avoid ratcheting up sanctions should Iran not meet the agreed-upon conditions on Nov. 24. He may well be correct, but Netanyahu’s willingness to encourage Republican hardliners suggests his inability or lack of desire to repair his relationship with what he perceives of as a recalcitrant White House, as well as his desire to flex his personal muscle in the forthcoming American elections. 

Why this behavior might have longer-term consequences for Israel is more subtle but perhaps of potentially greater consequence. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party has clearly demonstrated a tendency toward isolationism. This is not to suggest that the Democrats at the moment are flaming interventionists, but that the Tea Party ascendency in the Republican Party ought to give Israeli leadership far greater pause than they have evidenced to date. 

It is very cavalier for Israel to suggest that it will be able to create its own defense industry to rival what it has succeeded in obtaining from American foreign assistance programs. Even if that were to be true, it is probably years away from coming to fruition. Consequently, any possible cut or redirection in foreign aid from the United States, for example, which is certainly part of any isolationist platform, would work against Israel’s best interests. In addition, isolationist forces in the United States have a long history of anti-Semitism. There is reason for American Jews to be concerned should this historical nativist streak within the Tea Partyers once again emerge. 

Finally and perhaps most importantly, the Netanyahu government needs to give much more attention to the reality that, irrespective of what happens in the mid-term elections next week, President Obama has another two years in office. His administration will be managing the executive branch, regardless of the political disposition of the next Congress. It might behoove the Netanyahu government to consider the extent to which it might be able to repair a damaged relationship with the Obama administration. Better to fix that before there is a truly existential crisis to be addressed.

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