The U.S.–Israel Relationship
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
The last ten years have been very strained ones between American Jews and the State of Israel. More specifically, there is a level of tension and concern that has arisen concerning the relationship which Jews in the Diaspora have with the policies of the Government of Israel vis-à-vis America and its own political establishment. While this has emerged most recently in some new polls taken after the mid-term elections, they have only confirmed the trend that has been apparent since the end of the Bush Administration.
Many American Jews are facing a dilemma especially those progressive Jews who view themselves also as strong supporters of Israel. The conundrum that Jews in the diaspora—as well as their non-Jewish liberal supporters—face, but which has been largely ignored, is the role that the Netanyahu Government has played in creating and perpetuating this problem. This dilemma is largely a function of an Israeli right-wing government which has been feeding and been fed by the political polarization in the United States.
It is not a function that the Netanyahu Government itself is right-wing, but that it has decided to change its approach to American politics. It has aroused much of the animosity that a growing number of American Jews feel about Israeli policies towards the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. There have been many Jews, who have questioned the actions of the Israeli Government in the occupied territories, but the actions of the Netanyahu Government over the past ten years, in particular, has exacerbated it.
There have been outspoken critics of Israel in Congress from the time of Israel’s creation. The recent decline of the previous almost universal, bipartisan support for Israel is not a function of two Muslim Americans being elected to the House last fall. What has changed is the fact that the Government of Israel has thrown its political support almost entirely to the Republican Party and its American Jewish and Christian evangelical supporters. As a result, Jewish Democrats—who compose approximately 70% of the American Jewish community–have become frustrated at being either taken for granted or disregarded.
(It should be understood that this does not negate the long-standing battles between most American Jews and numerous Governments of Israel over matters involving religious Jewish pluralism; or the effect of the escalating rate of intermarriage among non-Orthodox American Jews; or the decline in day-school education among American children.)
Specifically, President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu did not personally like each other. The U.S.-Israel corroboration on all substantive matters including trade, military intelligence sharing, defense purchasing, and all security matters, however, were not affected by the relationship between the heads of governments. Netanyahu, nevertheless, played on the differences that existed on regional issues together with their lack of personal chemistry and threw his political support to John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump. It has been widely noted that Israel made no effort to disguise its clear preferences for Republicans in the White House and the Congress. This negatively affected Democratic voters and office holders.
Perhaps the most egregious affront to Jewish Democrats was Netanyahu’s sidestepping the White House and Congressional Democrats in his opposition to Obama’s decision to agree to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to curtail Iran’s nuclear weapons. Israel’s opposition was legitimate as was Netanyahu’s outspoken disagreement with all the signators to the agreement. What infuriated many American Jews was that he over-reached and addressed the Congress to rally opposition to the plan, thus circumventing the White House.
Since the election of Donald Trump, the Netanyahu Government has fawned over the President and his Administration. By driving the Israeli Government closer and closer to policies of the Trump Administration, regionally as well as globally, Bibi has driven more and more progressive American Jews to find themselves increasingly uncomfortable in supporting Israel. Netanyahu is eroding the bi-partisan support for Israel in Congress and is responsible—at least in part–for the increased challenges Israel is facing in the media; both the traditional forms as well as the social media. It also explains why it has become harder for many in the public sphere to defend Israel.
Israel is a vibrant, economic boom-town. Israel is culturally, artistically, and academically among the world’s most dynamic societies. Israel no longer needs to seek a place on line among struggling nations. Its Government can stand proud and not grovel. If Israel wants to reconnect with the growing segments of American Jewry, it must demonstrate that it actively is seeking bi-partisan support.
This situation is one of the major reasons behind the recent creation of the Democratic Majority for Israel. This newly formed American pro-Israel group seeks to reconnect Israel to many of those who have become disaffected with Israeli policies and Israel’s disregard of American Jewish concerns. The failure to sustain strong bi-partisan support in Washington is an issue which Israelis, as well, also ought to consider very seriously as they prepare to hold elections in April.