April 21, 2016 § 1 Comment
Two important events took place in the last seven days related to Israel’s role in American political discourse. The first was last Thursday night’s Democratic debate in Brooklyn, when Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton had one of the longest sustained exchanges on Israel that I can recall in any presidential primary debate. The second was the annual J Street conference, which hosted speeches by Joe Biden and John Kerry that were both critical of the current Israeli government to some degree. The conventional wisdom that has coalesced around the first is wrong, and the second demonstrates why. What they both point to is not that some mythical taboo about Israel has been broken, but that the extent to which Israel is politicized is changing and that the pro-Israel community will have to grapple with a new landscape.
After being asked about the U.S.-Israel relationship during the debate last week, Sanders made a number of points that have attracted attention, among them that Israel used disproportionate force in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 despite defending Israel’s right to defend itself; that Palestinians must be treated with dignity and respect; and that the U.S. has to say that Bibi Netanyahu is not right all the time. Many rushed to dub this an unprecedented expansion of the dialogue surrounding Israel in the American political system. An ABC News article called it “something that Mideast experts and advocates on either side have never seen someone in his position do before,” while CNN went even further, trumpeting that “Bernie Sanders is taking a sledgehammer to the political status quo on Israel” and that “he upended a long-standing tenet of American politics: that unflinching support for Israel is non-negotiable.”
There’s no question that Sanders’ defense of Palestinian rights was unprecedented for a presidential debate, and he deserves credit for taking a principled stand. But let’s not overblow the big picture; to suggest that he has smashed some redline on Israel and the manner in which the U.S. supports it takes a unique type of historical amnesia or outright ignorance. It reminds me of those who denounce the suppression of critical views of Israel in the midst of embarking on speaking tours or writing best-selling books doing the very thing that they claim is impossible to do. Let’s leave aside the current very public contretemps that have taken place between President Obama and Netanyahu – both of whom would no doubt guffaw at the claim that Sanders is unique in saying that Netanyahu is not always right – or the famed incident during the first President Bush’s administration when Secretary of State James Baker in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee blasted Israel for obstructionism and recited the White House’s phone number for the Israelis to call “when you’re serious about peace,” or when President Ford publicly rebuked Israel and announced a reassessment of U.S. policy in the Middle East due to frustration with the Israelis. Perhaps the nastiest moment between the U.S. and Israel came during the Reagan administration and the debate over selling AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, when the White House and the deal’s supporters in Congress publicly decried Israeli influence and made the case that Israel was inappropriately attempting to subvert U.S. foreign policy for its own ends. In a foreshadowing of last year’s Iran debate, the Reagan administration repeatedly insisted that the AWACS sale would actually benefit Israeli security, despite the Israeli government’s insistence to the contrary. To argue in the wake of the Clinton-Sanders debate that we have now approached a unique moment, where politicians are for the first time doing anything other than providing Israel with a figurative blank check, is quite plainly abject nonsense.
In fact, Israel has always simultaneously been politicized while drawing bipartisan support. The question is not if, but to what extent, and that brings us to J Street’s annual gathering. J Street has done a very good job over the past eight years of building and selling itself as the home for Jewish Democrats, making the case that AIPAC no longer represents their thinking on Israel. While I have no doubt at all that AIPAC’s leadership continues to harbor, and always will harbor, bipartisan ambitions, and there is also little question that there are still substantial numbers of Democrats who are comfortable in the AIPAC fold, there is also little question that the monopoly AIPAC once enjoyed is now over. I find it hard to see J Street ever rising to AIPAC’s size or influence, but it has a permanent and significant niche. Biden and Kerry went to address J Street as a reward for the organization’s advocacy of the Iran deal, but do not expect this to be a one-time thing. Democrats are increasingly going to show up to both AIPAC and J Street, and it reflects the fact that J Street is in tune with much of the Democratic base.
This is also a function of Newton’s third law in action with regard to Netanyahu and the Republican Party. The symbiotic relationship between the two and the barely disguised effort on the Israeli government’s part to favor one side of the American political spectrum over the other was guaranteed to provoke a response. The form the response has taken is that Democrats are more comfortable criticizing Netanyahu, and J Street is happy to take a different approach to AIPAC on this subject and capitalize on the new political battle lines. Once the Republicans and Netanyahu dropped any hesitation at using Israel as a cudgel, the Democrats were going to drop their hesitation at using Israel in their own way, which means a tilt toward J Street. The battle to keep J Street out of the mainstream is over, even if AIPAC is still going to be the more obvious destination for many.
This ultimately means that the politicization of Israel will not only continue apace, but increase. J Street is a different sort of animal than AIPAC in that it is far more of an overtly political organization. I don’t mean this as a knock on J Street, since there is nothing wrong with being political, but it does mean that there are consequences for the structure of the pro-Israel community in the U.S. One need look no further than the debate in Las Vegas last month between J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami and Republican Jewish Coalition head Matt Brooks to see where things are headed. An AIPAC chief would never agree to participate in such a debate, but it is a simple fact that as more Democrats move toward J Street, AIPAC is going to look even more Republican than it already does to many by default. American Jews who legitimately care about Israel are going to divide even more starkly into two camps, and that means unification around a general platitude of being pro-Israel but harsh disagreement on the specifics and boundaries of what that means. Israel is being politicized, but if you think that a socialist candidate for president who criticizes Israel during a primary debate is the harbinger of a groundbreaking new trend, you haven’t been paying very close attention.
March 23, 2016 § 5 Comments
Thursday is Purim, the holiday that commemorates the story relayed by the Book of Esther of the near destruction of a diaspora Jewish community. Jewish kids all over the world will dress up like Mordechai and Esther, the Jewish heroes of the story, and Jews will loudly boo and hiss at the mention of Haman, the story’s villain, whose plot to exterminate a Jewish community was foiled. Amidst all of this, the central character of the story, King Ahashverosh, will be largely ignored, but this year he shouldn’t be. If anything, this should be the Year of Ahashverosh, because if Donald Trump wanted to dress up for Purim, he could not pick a truer-to-form costume than that of the Persian king.
The Ahashverosh that we meet in the Purim story is a vain, superficial king, who lives in a palace festooned with gold and marble and is obsessed with throwing the greatest parties and having beautiful women at his beck and call. We know nothing about his policy preferences or what his thoughts are on the pressing issues of the day because he never expresses any. Everything is outsourced to his coterie of advisers, who are more concerned with the king’s image and how he is perceived than they are with any other matter. It is the king’s honor and public image that matter above all, and it is thus public slights that irk him the most, such as his wife Vashti refusing to obey his command to parade herself before his party guests. He is a preening, buffoonish, wholly undeserving king, someone to be laughed at rather than respected and someone who gives no indication that he is prepared or terribly interested in the deadly serious task of governance. He wants to be king because it’s good to be the king.
The main problem with Ahashverosh is not that he is evil – since he is not presented as such – nor is it his enormous ego and vanity. The main problem with Ahashverosh is that he is a know-nothing who is manipulated by his advisers and prone to taking drastic measures based on his mood or whatever information happens to be presented to him, whether that information is accurate or not. The initial decree to wipe out the Jews comes about when Haman tells the king that there is a group of subjects in the kingdom who are different from everyone else and don’t obey the king’s law, and casually asks if he can have leave to kill them all. Ahashverosh doesn’t ask for any more information, think about the consequences of the request, look into whether it’s feasible to wipe out a whole ethnic category of people for ten thousand talents of silver, or even bother to inquire about the group to which Haman is referring. He basically says, “Sounds good to me,” and goes back to his drinking. When Haman’s plan backfires because it turns out that Esther, Ahashverosh’s new queen, is Jewish, the king reverses his decree with about as much thought as he put into the initial one. Genocide, no genocide; the details don’t matter. Because he has never spent any time seriously contemplating issues more momentous than red wine or white, all that matters is the king’s mood and what he happens to be feeling at the moment.
Unfortunately for all involved, it is nothing but Ahashverosh’s whims that control the fates of all of his subjects and the fates of many others given his reign over a global superpower, and this is what makes him the central character of the Purim story. Haman can be scheming behind the scenes, and Mordechai can be engineering a plan to expose him, and Esther can use her relationship with Ahashverosh to tug on his heartstrings and bring him over to her side, but none of this is dispositive. Ultimately, everything comes down to the snap decisions of a sovereign who has no clear decision-making process, is surrounded by mediocre third-rate courtiers, has never exhibited an interest in anything but spending his wealth in the most ostentatious way possible, and is willing to make life-or-death decisions affecting hundreds of thousands of people based on information less extensive than what you find in a fortune cookie. Sound like anyone you happen to endlessly see on the news lately?
The AIPAC attendees who gave Trump a standing ovation following his speech because he managed to throw some red meat to a hungry throng – Iran is bad, the Palestinian Authority is badder, and President Obama is baddest – should think about the shallowness of this response. Leave aside whatever Trump has said about Israel before his AIPAC address this week, and just focus on what he himself chose to highlight in a prepared speech with a venue all to himself and a captive audience. Should American Jews or supporters of Israel be comforted by a presidential candidate who views sending his private plane to Israel – not that he was on it himself, mind you – following the September 11 attacks as some sort of grand gesture? Should we embrace someone who implies that Jews are so marginal and Israel so controversially toxic by congratulating himself for having “took the risk” of being the grand marshal of the Salute to Israel Parade in that well-known hotbed of violent anti-Semitism that was the Upper East Side in 2004? Should we feel safe in our beds knowing that Trump actually manages to say with a straight face – and make no mistake, he delivered this line entirely unironically before the crowd started laughing – when referring to the Iran deal that he has “studied this issue in great detail…greater by far than anybody else,” suggesting that the overweening narcissist consumed by those who insult the length of his fingers genuinely sees himself as a nuclear arms control expert? Not only is it clear that Trump is a menace to democracy in general, it should be clear following his AIPAC appearance that his views on Israel itself are, like every other subject on which he opines, about as well thought out as those of my three year old son’s.
AIPAC members and supporters are supposed to be a sophisticated audience who study the issues, pore over policy details, and know their JCPOA from their QME. Yet, they stood up to laud a man whose actual knowledge on Israel-related issues runs about as deep as a puddle, which leaves whatever views he happens to hold today subject to change based on whatever was last whispered in his ear. As evidenced by the inane word salad that spilled out of his mouth when he met with the Washington Post editorial board, he cares about “winning,” what people say and write about him, punishing those who criticize him, and making sure to note when the other people in the room are good looking. Everything else – you know, actual policies – are just details to be improvised and maybe filled in later if he gets around to it. Do we really want to entrust the U.S.-Israel alliance and American policy in the Middle East to Ahashverosh come to life, a guy whose mood can be instantly determined by whether his baseball cap is white or red? The Jews of the Purim story avoided being victims of Ahashverosh’s id through sheer luck. The American Jewish community of 2016 can’t afford to take a similar gamble in the casino of Donald Trump’s mind.
March 18, 2016 § 3 Comments
On Monday, Donald Trump is set to address AIPAC’s annual policy conference. Some think that he should never have been invited. Others want Trump’s appearance at AIPAC to be vigorously protested. Both of these positions are eminently understandable, and I will be very surprised if Trump’s appearance at AIPAC is a smooth one, marked by nothing more disruptive than a smattering of polite applause. Republican Jews’ attitudes toward Trump appear to range from nonplussed to horrified, and Democratic Jews’ attitudes probably start at the horrified end of the spectrum and continue further out. Trump should not expect the adoring, genuflecting audience that is typical of his rallies, even if Sheldon Adelson and the editors of Yisrael Hayom appear to be eager to fill the role of Lionel Bengelsdorf to Trump’s Charles Lindbergh.
There will be plenty of time next week to dissect Trump’s AIPAC address after the fact, but there are some important points to make ahead of time. First, Trump’s very appearance at AIPAC turns the thrust of Jewish history on its head. For centuries, Jews lived according to the whims of demagogues and tyrants. Not only were their opinions not relevant, it was often dangerous for the entire Jewish community for their opinions to be expressed at all. Jews were an exceedingly silent minority, just hoping to get through life without being noticed by the Gentile majority. If anyone would be expected to reinforce the idea that Jewish opinion doesn’t matter, it would be Trump. Leaving aside his comments in December about Jews not supporting him because he doesn’t want their money, Trump doesn’t appear to care about winning over anyone’s opinions, Jewish or not. This patron saint of blowhard braggadocio has offended too many groups to count, and while the only things bigger than his ego seem to be his monumental insecurities and desire to be praised, he is also either incapable or unconcerned with telling people what they want to hear. Yet, the man who blows off debates, refuses to do television interviews in person, and retracts the press credentials of reporters who challenge him still feels it necessary to show up at AIPAC’s annual gathering despite what is likely to be a less than welcoming crowd. To the anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists that seem to make up Trump’s core base of support, this will cause a contagious outbreak of confirmation bias that Jews control the country. To the rest of us, we should revel in the fact that Jewish and pro-Israel causes are deemed important enough to the bully-in-chief – who, like all bullies, cannot handle being denigrated or confronted – that he is willing to show up at the risk of being bullied himself. It says something about Jews in America at this moment of history, and while Trump’s appearance at AIPAC is distasteful, this is still something remarkable to note.
Second, while I agree with Jonathan Tobin’s assessment that AIPAC had little choice but to invite Trump when it invites every other presidential candidate, it is vitally important that AIPAC not be seen in any way as validating Trump’s candidacy. Here is a plausible, but hopefully far-fetched, scenario: Trump walks out onto the convention hall stage to widespread boos, gives a stem-winder of a speech about how wonderful Israel is and how crucial it is to stand with Israel, does his best insult comic routine targeted at the Obama administration and its policies toward Israel, and leaves the stage to applause and convention attendees remarking that Trump isn’t nearly as bad as they thought. Should this happen, not only will it be a disaster for this country, it will be a disaster for American Jews who will be seen as providing Trump with a springboard toward the Oval Office. AIPAC cannot be seen as legitimizing Trump, even if it provides him with a pulpit. If this means allowing the crowd to boo, or multiple anonymous quotes to journalists from AIPAC grandees about how odious they find Trump, or some other way of signaling that Trump is outside the boundaries of what is acceptable in the American political arena, it must be done.
The reason for this has nothing to do with Israel, which brings me to my final point. As I wrote last week, Trump has not provided a shred of evidence that he is committed to democratic governance beyond collecting votes in order to assume power, which is why his utterances are quite literally indistinguishable from Middle Eastern autocrats (and if you think I am exaggerating and didn’t read me on this subject last week, click on the link at the beginning of this sentence and take my quiz). Trump is a vicious race baiter who singles out religious and ethnic minorities, a misogynist who thinks nothing of belittling women with crude insults, a wannabe strongman who encourages his supporters to employ violence against those who look or think differently than they do, and a majoritarian demagogue who darkly warns of dangerous consequences should he and his supporters not get their way. He represents democracy’s nightmare, and the fact that he was the grand marshal of the Salute to Israel parade or has Jewish progeny or won an empty Jewish National Fund award means absolutely nothing. Jamie Kirchick said it best: “He is the candidate of the mob, and the mob always ends up turning on the Jews.” AIPAC is not only the largest annual gathering of Israel supporters in the U.S., but so far as I can tell it is the largest annual gathering of Jews in the U.S., and it is important for the American Jewish community to send a message. Trump must be rejected not on the basis of his approach to Israel; he must be rejected on the basis of everything else. What he does or does not think about Israel is ancillary to the conversation, because American Jews and the state of Israel do not need a friend who looks like this.
January 28, 2016 § 4 Comments
Israel has an American Jewish problem. This problem manifests itself in different ways, but it seems unquestionable that varied segments of American Jewry do not support Israel in the all-encompassing and largely uncritical way that they once did. This can be seen nearly anywhere one looks, whether it is on college campuses where J Street student groups dominate the scene, or in the string of articles by American Jews – including this American Jew – that take the Israeli government to task on a number of issues, or in the criticism from prominent Jewish intelligentsia that left former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren so disappointed in his memoir. This is not to say that there are not large segments of American Jews whose relationship with Israel has remained the same over time, and making broad characterizations about an entire group is always going to miss the nuance inherent in a detailed examination. But suffice it to say that Israel’s status with American Jewry writ large, while still very strong, is not quite as strong as it once was.
Yet, in ways large and small, the current Israeli government oftentimes gives the impression that it just doesn’t care. Take the Iran deal, for instance. The Jewish community in the U.S. was bitterly divided over its merits, but Prime Minister Netanyahu and other members of his government gave the impression that anyone who cared about Israel must oppose the deal, which divided the American Jewish community even further. The prime minister then insisted on coming here to campaign against it before Congress over the objections of myriad American Jewish groups – reportedly AIPAC included – who knew that the speech and overall campaign would put American Jews in an uncomfortable position. None of this, however, managed to change Netanyahu’s calculus, and so events proceeded apace. Other examples abound as well. It would not be a stretch to suggest that Israel’s current ambassador to the U.S. is controversial, to say the least, among many American Jews, and yet Netanyahu is content with the status quo. The overwhelming preponderance of American Jews are not Orthodox and are alienated by Israel’s position on religious issues that affect them directly, from conversion to being able to pray at the Western Wall in an egalitarian tradition, but such issues are consigned to the sidelines. One of the things that was so remarkable about Netanyahu’s recent partial about-face on the NGO bill was that it came after weeks of hammering away by American Jewish groups (although there is no evidence that this was dispositive, rather than pressure from Western governments). So why doesn’t the Israeli government care what we think?
One important factor is of course the one that I wrote about last week, which is that American Jewish organizations – in contrast to ordinary American Jews – are more willing to give the government leeway on most issues. The Israeli government knows that even if support is softening among significant numbers of American Jews as individuals, the organizations are going to remain a lot less critical of the government. This is an enormous mitigating factor, and there is no question that for very practical and understandable reasons any Israeli prime minister cares more about what AIPAC’s position is on an issue than the position voiced by your representative American Jew on the street. The irony is that so long as American Jewish groups are more supportive of Israel than American Jews, the wishes of many American Jews will be subsumed to the wishes of the organizations tasked with representing them.
There is another important factor that has nothing to do with groups but with demographics. The group most supportive of Israel in the U.S. is Orthodox Jews, who have the strongest ties to Israel that are inculcated in a variety of ways, from day schools that put a premium on Zionism to students spending a gap year in Israel before college. As the Pew study demonstrates, the farther away from Jewish observance and Jewish identity one gets, the less supportive of Israel one tends to be. Israeli officials look at the rising intermarriage rate among non-Orthodox Jews and the growing proportion of Orthodox Jews in urban centers such as New York, and assume that the numbers are on their side. What looks like a growing trend of eroding support for Israel becomes little more than a squall that Israel only needs to wait out for the next couple of decades, since the intermarried and non-observant will likely cease to have much Jewish identity and a more Orthodox American Jewry is a more supportive American Jewry. This thinking is erroneous on a number of fronts – among other things, it ignores the influence disproportionately wielded in American Jewry by pockets of non-Orthodox Jews in places like Wall Street and Hollywood and also assumes that Orthodox Jews will remain uniformly supportive of rightwing Israeli policies forever – but it does explain a lot about why American Jewish voices often go unheeded.
So is this a battle cry for American Jews to abandon Israel until the Israeli government becomes more felicitous of its desires? Absolutely not. Any Israeli government has to worry first and foremost about its own constituents – who in this case are more politically conservative and more religious than their American Jewish brethren – before it worries about Diaspora Jews. More saliently, there are some small but encouraging signs that things may be changing a bit, from Netanyahu’s new position on the NGO bill to the reports of an emerging deal on egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. The relationship between American Jews and Israel has often resembled a one-way street since the state’s founding, and it is naïve to believe that this will change wholesale overnight, but if the Israeli government’s sudden responsiveness on the NGO and pluralism issues were affected by American Jewish concerns, it reiterates the importance of keeping our voices up. Even if unrequited love is more often than not going to continue to be American Jewry’s lot in life, we should make sure that we are heard in order to make a difference wherever we can and continue to give the Israeli government a way of listening to the American Jewish community’s disparate parts rather than just the ones that reinforce its current policies.
January 21, 2016 § 5 Comments
Why are American Jewish organizations predominantly silent on Israeli illiberalism? This is the question posed and answered by J.J. Goldberg in a much-discussed piece this week on Martin Luther King Day tying the American Jewish organizational voice on Israel to the breakdown of the black-Jewish partnership on civil rights. Goldberg’s theory quickly summed up – and you should really read the piece in its entirety if you haven’t yet – is that the biggest factor in how American Jewish organizations relate to Israel today is the collapse fifty years ago of the alliance between blacks and Jews on civil rights. As black activists increasingly called for blacks to fight for their civil rights by themselves, and as Jews got to a point where their own equality seemed secure, Jewish organizations that were built to fight for civil rights needed another battleground. This coincided with the Six Day War, which imparted the lesson that Israel was living in a neighborhood where its neighbors wanted it gone and could be wiped out at any time, and American Jewish organizations thus pivoted to devoting their time to supporting Israel as their primary mission. Despite the liberal bent of American Jews, they are passive on the Israel issue because they learned to live without a collective voice that was connected to group self-interest.
There is a lot to mull over in Goldberg’s piece and many typically keen insights. He makes a strong historical argument, but as strong as that argument is, I am not sure that the fracture in the civil rights movement is what is primarily driving today’s dynamic. To begin with, Goldberg rightly points out a number of organizations that do not fit into this picture of checking their liberalism at the door when it comes to Israel, and their number is not insignificant. Furthermore, the three most prominent Jewish organizations that were involved in the civil rights movement were the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League. The American Jewish Congress has all but folded and the ADL is one of the organizations that Goldberg identifies in his piece as not being afraid to speak out on Israel today, so the historical institutionalist argument that he sketches doesn’t appear to apply in scale to the organizations operating today. In addition, the organization that most people would point to as driving the American Jewish organizational stance on Israel is AIPAC, which does not fit into Goldberg’s theory.
I would instead point to two other variables that I believe are causing the dissonance between a very liberal American Jewry and a far less liberal American Jewish organizational stance toward Israel. The first fits into the structure of Goldberg’s overall argument about a crisis in mission leading to a new focus on Israel, but rather than point to civil rights, I would point to the decline of Judaism itself. As traditional religious observance waned over the course of the 20th century, Israel was elevated into a religious cause that became for many American Jews their primary way of expressing their Judaism as a religion, as opposed to their embrace of Judaism as an ethnicity or a culture. Support for the Jewish state became de rigeur at synagogues of all denominations, prayers for the Israeli government and the IDF were adopted into the Shabbat morning liturgy, and Israel itself became intertwined with Judaism so that it became a focal point of the American Jewish religious tradition. Support for Israel was the equivalent of fasting on Yom Kippur or holding a Passover seder; even if your religious observance was minimal, Israel was a part of it. For many American Jews, Israel was what bound them to Judaism, rather than the religious practices of their parents and grandparents. For Jewish organizations that needed to stay relevant, pivoting to supporting Israel was an obvious move, and naturally any organization devoted to advocating for something is going to be reluctant to be overly critical, even when there are things taking place that are particularly unpalatable.
The second variable is political trends in Israel. In the twenty years since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Israelis have only once voted a left of center prime minister into office, and Ehud Barak did not last even two years. Going back even further to the 1977 election of Menachem Begin, which marked a revolutionary shift in the Israeli political landscape, Rabin’s election in 1992 was the only other time since then that Israelis have voted a Labor prime minister into office (Shimon Peres’s first term in 1984 was part of a rotation agreement with Yitzhak Shamir and Likud). In other words, for nearly four decades Israelis have displayed a clear rightwing preference when it comes to their leaders. Is it any surprise then that American Jewish organizations, both those that deal primarily with Israel issues and those that don’t, take those cues and reflect what is taking place in Israel itself?
This is not, incidentally, applicable only when a rightwing government is in power in Israel. When Rabin began the Oslo process, AIPAC did in fact support it, even if begrudgingly. The major American Jewish organizations that now seemingly fall in lockstep behind the Netanyahu government were not out front challenging the Rabin government on its priorities, even though he represented a major break from the previous fifteen years of Israeli government policy. It would be fascinating to see what American Jewish organizations would look like with regard to Israel policy were Israel to spend an uninterrupted decade under the control of left of center governments; my instinct is that American Jewish organizations are shaped by the structural environment of Israeli politics in a significant way and would presumably change with the times.
There is no question that the priorities of the bulk of American Jews appear out of sync with the priorities of many American Jewish groups. I think that Goldberg is definitely onto something in looking back at historical trends and moments that shape today’s environment, but I would point to a different set than the ones that he has identified.
January 22, 2015 § 30 Comments
Anyone reading this blog knows by now that it has been a wild and wacky 24 hours in the never-ending soap opera that is Prime Minister Netanyahu and his involvement – whether direct or indirect – in American politics. The newest chapter was sparked by President Obama’s State of the Union vow to veto any new sanctions bill that Congress passes targeting Iran, and Speaker John Boehner’s response the next day of inviting Netanyahu to address Congress and speak about “the threats posed by radical Islam and Iran.” While Netanyahu is often himself accused of trying to intervene in American politics, this was a clear cut case of someone else using Netanyahu to intervene in American politics, as Boehner’s hope is that a speech to Congress by Netanyahu will rally the troops and establish enough political cover for wavering legislators to override any future veto by Obama. The White House was obviously incensed, and declared this to be a breach of protocol since Boehner had invited a foreign head of state to Washington without first checking with his own head of state. Things started to become a bit more sticky today when Nancy Pelosi confirmed that she had nothing to do with the invitation and thus it was not a bipartisan invite, and then the White House stated that Netanyahu would not be meeting with Obama while in Washington because it is longstanding policy not to meet with visiting political candidates so soon before an election, and Netanyahu’s visit is going to be two weeks before Israeli elections on March 17.
This last point is key, because contra Max Fisher, who primarily sees this whole thing as the latest Netanyahu intervention into U.S. politics, I don’t think that is what Netanyahu is actually up to here. When Boehner was the one who invited Netanyahu in a clear effort to bolster GOP thinking on Iran policy, it strikes me as strange to argue that this is somehow a Netanyahu initiative, and that this is really the GOP cheerleading an anti-Obama campaign on Netanyahu’s part rather than the GOP using Netanyahu for its own ends. No doubt Netanyahu is as eager for new sanctions on Iran as his Republican friends, but the main reason speaking before Congress at the beginning of March holds appeal for him is because it is a unique campaign rally opportunity. One of the largest criticisms the Bujie Herzog-Tzipi Livni Zionist Camp alliance has had of Netanyahu’s conduct of foreign affairs is that he has needlessly alienated the Obama administration, and in so doing damaged relations with the U.S. and Israel’s standing in the world. Given the paucity of serious security figures in the Labor-Hatnua list, not to mention the fact that Labor’s comparative advantage when it comes to Israeli voters is on social and economic issues, harping on the alleged damage that Netanyahu has caused to U.S.-Israel ties is going to be the left’s biggest security and defense campaign issue. This is even more salient in the aftermath of this summer’s fighting in Gaza and given the widespread disillusionment with the Palestinian Authority and the peace process across the political spectrum, removing Netanyahu’s foot dragging on two states as a potent campaign issue.
In such a political climate, Netanyahu would be hard pressed to come up with a better rejoinder to the left’s argument about deteriorating relations with the U.S. on his watch than being invited to speak before Congress for a third time (tying his hero, Winston Churchill) and being cheered and applauded by members of both parties as he touts the common U.S.-Israel fight against Islamic extremism. The timing here couldn’t be better for him in terms of the vote, and no doubt he will use the speech during the final two weeks of his campaign as proof that the relationship with the U.S. is still rock solid and that Herzog and Livni are off-base with their criticisms, never mind the fact that Congress does not the entire U.S. government make.
While the logic might seem sound to both Boehner and Netanyahu, there are some potentially serious pitfalls in the plan. Starting with the GOP, there is the risk that the charge Fisher raises – of it being unseemly to side with the leader of a foreign country over one’s own president – will stick, particularly given the contention that it is inappropriate for Congress to invite a foreign leader without first consulting with, or at least informing, the president in advance (as an aside, I get the head of state argument, although I don’t see why Congress needs to clear its speaking invitations with the president, no more than the White House needs congressional approval to hold a joint Rose Garden press conference or hold a state dinner – I’d be grateful if any readers with particular expertise in constitutional law could elucidate whether there is a separation of powers problem here or not). More importantly for Boehner’s purposes, the Netanyahu invite could potentially backfire from a tactical perspective if there is a backlash against invoking the strength of the pro-Israel lobby to torpedo a president’s policy priority. This is precisely what happened in the 1981 fight during the Reagan administration over selling AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, where the role of pro-Israel lobbying became a hot button topic. After public opinion had initially been opposed to the arms sale, with 73% opposed, Israel’s strident lobbying became an issue and public opinion shifted as a result, with 53% expressing that “once the President had decided to sell the planes to Saudi Arabia, it was important that Congress not embarrass him with the rest of the world,” and 52% agreeing that “the Israeli lobby in Washington had to be taken on and defeated so it’s a good thing the U.S. Senate upheld the plane sale to Saudi Arabia.” By explicitly tying Israel to new sanctions, Boehner is hoping to capitalize on Israel’s general popularity with voters and Netanyahu’s popularity among GOP and some Democratic lawmakers, but doing it so nakedly and overtly can have some unintended consequences.
Moving to Netanyahu, I’m not sure this is a winning maneuver for him, and I think he is actually taking a substantial risk. He is already being criticized at home for trying to subvert election laws through this speech to Congress, and in fact there has already been a petition filed to judicially block the speech from being aired on Israeli television. Furthermore, he is opening himself up to a mountain of opprobrium for further damaging relations with the Obama administration – and yes, the refusal to meet with Netanyahu when he is here may be justified given the election timing, but it is also an unambiguous slap down from a furious White House – and Democrats in general. Don’t forget that Pelosi has already hung him out to dry, and other Democrats will follow suit as they do not appreciate Netanyahu’s blatant coordination with the Republicans, irrespective of how they feel about Israel or further sanctions on Iran. If Herzog, Livni, Lapid, Kahlon, and the rest of the cast of characters looking to take down Bibi are smart about it, they will also seize on the fact that Netanyahu is being used as a political football here and either not aware enough to realize that it is going on, or worse, willingly allowing it happen. It does not speak well to Netanyahu’s instincts or leadership to be manipulated by Congressional Republicans for their own purposes and possibly damaging himself in the process.
Finally, in accepting such a charged invitation to speak, Netanyahu is keeping to a pattern of putting his personal political prospects ahead of Israel’s longterm interests with regard to the U.S., and that is where the real danger comes from. It’s one thing to blame Netanyahu for bad relations with a president who will be out of office in two years; one can argue that this is a problem that will resolve itself with no residual effects. But if you view Netanyahu’s machinations in a larger context, by constantly and openly favoring the Republican Party – either himself or through Ron Dermer’s actions in Washington – he is putting Israel itself at long term risk by helping make it a wedge issue in American politics. I constantly argue that Israel’s primacy of place in the U.S. is due to popular opinion, but the caveat there is that this only works when it is bipartisan popular opinion. Netanyahu’s actions, where he sides with the Republicans in a very exaggerated manner, are having a serious effect and eroding traditional cross-spectrum popular support for Israel, and once that passes a point of no return, Israel is going to have serious problems. I don’t place the blame for wavering support in the Democratic Party for Israel solely at Netanyahu’s feet by any means, but he is a big part of the problem and has stoked the fires at many points. The GOP has an obvious political interest in making Israel a full-fledged wedge issue and using it as a cudgel to hammer the Democrats as often as it can. The burning question for me is why Netanyahu is so willing to allow himself to be used in furthering this outcome when it is so obviously not in Israel’s interests.
October 31, 2013 § 11 Comments
The all-powerful and nefarious Israel lobby is in the news again. On Tuesday, the White House briefed officials from the Israel lobby Legion of Doom – AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations – on efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program, with the real aim being to get pro-Israel groups on board with the effort not to impose new sanctions on Iran. In the administration’s view, the tough sanctions that have been imposed accomplished the task of getting Iran to the negotiating table, and now that Iran appears ready to talk, even more sanctions will be counterproductive by spurring Iran to make a reinforced push to go nuclear. On the other side is Congress, where the overwhelming view is that biting sanctions are the only reason that Iran agreed to negotiate at all, and now is the time to ramp up pressure in order to force Iran into a deal rather than allowing the Iranian government to use negotiations as a mechanism for running out the clock. So far, pro-Israel groups appear to be leaning toward Congress’s view of things, and Tuesday’s meeting was part of the White House’s strategy for getting Congress to hold off.
Naturally, the fact that Jewish and pro-Israel groups received a private NSC briefing on Iran has a bunch of people up in arms about the Israel lobby wielding inappropriately outsized power, and a bunch of more unreasonable people raging about Jews controlling U.S. foreign policy. For Mondoweiss, the meeting is the latest datapoint for the proposition that Jews and the Israel lobby are the groups that count the most in foreign policy and that pro-Israel rightwing hawks drive U.S. policy in the Middle East. There is little question that pro-Israel groups are influential and that AIPAC is extremely successful, but where the argument breaks down is when it gets taken to Walt and Mearsheimer proportions, i.e. that pro-Israel groups are able to push the U.S. government into doing things it would not otherwise do or that pro-Israel groups are able to control outcomes in Congress. Max Fisher yesterday compared the lobbying efforts to strike Syria and the lobbying efforts to capture African warlord Joseph Kony and noted that the “all-powerful lobby narrative” does not stand up to the evidence at hand. I’ll quote Fisher directly on the section on AIPAC:
If the conventional wisdom about lobbying and U.S. foreign policy were true, we would expect Obama to have received wide support for his Syria plan and basically zero support for the Central African hunt for Kony. But that’s the opposite of how it turned out.
In mid-September, as President Obama pushed to get Congress’s support for Syria strikes, his administration turned to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. If you’ve spent any time at all working on Israeli issues, Palestinian issues or MidEast issues generally, you’ve heard people on all ideological ends of the spectrum speak in hushed tones about the awesome power of AIPAC. Critics of the right-leaning, pro-Israel group often refer to it simply as “The Lobby,” as if it were so powerful that other lobbyist organizations hardly even mattered. It’s not considered especially controversial to suggest that the group plays a major role in shaping U.S. policy toward the Middle East.
AIPAC’s influence is thought to be strongest in Congress, where support for pro-Israeli policies is indeed bipartisan and passionately held. Its membership is thought to include lots of Washington power-brokers and heavy-hitters, the types who, in the common telling, pull all the hidden levers of American governance and foreign policy. So when AIPAC began lobbying on behalf of Obama’s Syria strike plan, many assumed it was a done deal, particularly since the administration most needed help in Congress, turf AIPAC knows well.
There is every indication that AIPAC threw its full weight into generating support for Obama’s Syria plan, both in Congress and among its own constituency. But the group failed utterly to even move the needle on the policy: Congress only strengthened its opposition to Obama’s Syria strikes. It was a rare public test of AIPAC’s ability to shape U.S. foreign policy and it flunked.
As Fisher then goes on to explain, the lobbying campaign to go after Kony was carried out by underfunded, inexperienced, not well connected lobbyists who targeted high school and college students, a group not exactly known for its power and influence. Yet the Kony campaign succeeded to the point where the U.S. military is currently engaged in what has been a fruitless search to locate Kony, backed by Congressional support that has not wavered. How to explain this conundrum? Fisher suggests that public opinion may be the answer, but I’ll take it one step further: public opinion is absolutely the answer, particularly when it comes to AIPAC. Pro-Israel groups succeed when the cause they are championing is already popular, and they fail when it isn’t. Yes, AIPAC is very-well connected, pro-Israel groups get courted, and even get benefits – such as private briefings – that other groups do not get. But let’s take a look at why support for increased sanctions are running so high in Congress and why the White House campaign to keep them steady is going to fail (hint: it has nothing to do with what AIPAC does or does not want).
In mid-September, Gallup did a poll asking whether Americans consider Iran to be an ally, friendly, unfriendly, or an enemy. 45% of respondents categorized Iran as an enemy and 38% said Iran is unfriendly. In early June, a CBS/NYT poll found that 58% of respondents favored military action against Iran to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon while 37% opposed it. In March, Pew asked people which was more important: preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons even if it means taking military action, or avoiding military conflict with Iran even if it means that Iran develops a nuclear weapon, and 64% favored military action vs. 25% who wanted to avoid military conflict. Finally, in the most recent poll that asked about sanctions, which was from March 2012 (after the first round of sanctions had already been put in place), 74% were in favor of increasing sanctions against Iran while 21% were not. (All of the polls can be found here). Given Iran’s recent outreach efforts following Rouhani’s election, it is very possible that a poll taken today would find that support for increasing sanctions is below that 74% number, but I doubt it’s down in a significant way given the current numbers viewing Iran as hostile. The point here is that AIPAC does not need to do much lobbying of Congress to get it to support increased sanctions, because this is a policy that is overwhelmingly popular. The idea that Congress would be marching in lockstep with the White House’s foreign policy preferences on this issue were it not for the covert whisperings of Howard Kohr and Abe Foxman is simply nonsense and intellectual laziness. When AIPAC’s preferences align with public opinion, it is successful; when its preferences go against public opinion, it’s not. It is really that simple, and if you want a lot more on this, go read my (unfortunately paywalled) peer-reviewed article in Security Studies on this very subject, complete with case studies and everything (link is here).
The irony of this is that Walt and Mearsheimer’s book and the loud insistence of Israel lobby truthers that AIPAC controls U.S. policy in the Middle East has, more than anything else, enhanced the power of pro-Israel groups by convincing a growing number of people that the mistaken perception is actually true. This in turn leads to government officials believing the hype, and thus you get the ADL and AJC invited to a private briefing at the White House out of a belief that these groups have far more power than they actually do. The bottom line is that Congress in this instance is going to do what public opinion tells it to do, and the Israel lobby’s preference that Iran sanctions be increased is not what is driving policy here in any real way.