Are The U.S. and Israel Really Headed For A Split?

July 3, 2014 § 5 Comments

Michael Cohen published an article in Foreign Policy a couple of days ago in which he argues that the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship will be marked by “less cooperation, more disagreements, and greater tension.” The piece is headlined “The Democrats Are Finally Turning Away From Israel” with the inflammatory subhead “And it’s high time they did,” but this does not reflect Cohen’s core arguments, and I am 100% confident that he had nothing to do with the title in any way (having been published in FP on numerous occasions, I can say from personal experience that the editors choose the title on their own and the first time the writer even knows about it is when it goes live on the website). What Cohen argues is that the relationship is being strained and slowly pulled apart by bad personal relationships between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel actively trying to prevent a deal between the U.S. and Iran by working Congressional channels, differing strategic priorities in the region, and a widening gap between the two countries’ worldviews.

In Cohen’s analysis, all of these factors mean that support for Israel in the U.S. will wane as the U.S. government finds it increasingly difficult to justify or explain bad Israeli behavior – particularly on the Palestinian front – and that the U.S. will no longer rush to defend Israel from pressure coming from Europe. Furthermore, Cohen foresees the politics of Israel changing in the U.S. as support for Israeli behavior among American Jews wanes and as Israel identifies more and more with Republicans, making support for Israel less politically important for Democrats.

Cohen astutely identifies a number of points of tension between the U.S. and Israel, and he is not exaggerating things such as the distrust between the elected leaders or the frustration among administration officials over Israel’s handling of settlements and peace negotiations. Nevertheless, I do not entirely agree with the analysis, and I think there are some angles that Cohen either misreads or leaves out, particularly on the strategic front.

First, while Obama and Bibi have long been and likely always will be at odds, this duo only has two more years to go, and that means that the relationship can be reset in a heartbeat. The low point of the George H.W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir pairing was followed by the apex brought about by Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin, so I am reluctant to predict any longterm trends based on the two men currently in office. If Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden end up winning the White House in 2016, their track records and both public and private comments indicate that the relationship with Israel will improve irrespective of what happens with settlements and the peace process, and that goes double for any Republican not named Rand Paul. That is not to say that U.S. frustration with Israeli settlement policy is a mirage or only resides in the minds of Obama White House officials, since it absolutely permeates a much deeper group of politicians and foreign policy bureaucrats who rightly worry about the consequences of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. Rather, it is a problem that must be considered in light of a larger strategic context (more on that below), which makes it important but not necessarily an ultimate driver of U.S. policy toward Israel.

Second, while it is absolutely true that support for Israeli policies among younger American Jews seems to be on the decline, the jury is out as to whether that support will increase as younger American Jews get older, and more saliently there is a question as to whether support for Israeli policies directly overlaps with support for Israel more generally. Furthermore, none of this may matter anyway if support for Israel among the general public remains strong, or if within the Democratic Party there is a gap between grassroots progressives and elite policymakers and opinion leaders. On the question of support among the general public, favorable views of Israel are at historical highs with a clear 55% majority of Democrats still holding favorable views, and historically Americans tend to sympathize with Israel versus the Palestinians at even higher than normal levels when Israelis are the victims of terrorism and violence, as was tragically the case this week. I am also not convinced from conversations with progressive politicians and thought leaders that they are on the verge of abandoning Israel wholesale, and there is a strong recognition among Democratic elites that Israel is not and should not be entirely defined by its settlement project, as deeply problematic as that project is.

Most importantly though, in his focus on divergent strategic goals, Cohen glosses over a newly strengthened recognition that Israel’s strategic value as an ally is going up. It’s clear that Israel and the U.S. differ on their respective threat perceptions of Iran, whether Iran should be contained, and whether Iran can be contained, but in seeking to contain the fallout coming from the rest of the region as it implodes, Israel is pretty much the only reliable ally left standing. Despite an American desire to pivot to Asia, the Middle East cannot be ignored just because the U.S. finds it thorny, as the recent crisis in Iraq demonstrates all too well. The U.S. is going to be involved to a greater extent than it desires, and as I heard from multiple Israeli foreign policy and security professionals and experts when I was there last month, the Israeli government is well aware that the country is an island of stability amid the chaos. Iraq is a mess, Syria is in the middle of a civil war, Egypt is teetering dangerously on the brink of becoming a failed state, Saudi Arabia is dealing with massive uncertainty amidst a succession crisis, Jordan has been in constant crisis management mode since 2011 and now has to worry about being overrun by ISIS, Turkey is dealing with all sorts of internal problems and has proven itself to be a notoriously unreliable and myopic ally with its disastrous flirtations with jihadi groups in Syria…the list goes on and on. Israelis are of the view that the U.S. almost needs them more than they need the U.S., and while this is overconfident hyperbole, it is based on a foundation of truth. U.S.-Israeli coordination is now more vital than ever, and this is a variable that is not going to change for the remainder of this decade given the Middle East’s unraveling. When I wrote two years ago that Israel was going to benefit from the Arab Spring as a result of its neighbors being too busy with their own domestic unrest to worry about making trouble for Israel, I didn’t anticipate the positive externality of Israel becoming an even more crucial American ally, but that dynamic has arrived.

I share Cohen’s concerns about Israeli policies, and anecdotally there seems to be softening support for Israel among younger Democrats. Ultimately, however, I think the political tension in the relationship is fleeting, and the genuine and widespread disappointment at Israeli settlement building is a long term problem that needs to be addressed but that for next few years will be outweighed by larger strategic concerns. Surveying the state of things, I am not nearly so confident as Cohen that the U.S.-Israel relationship is destined to be remade.



Hagel And The Israel Lobby

December 27, 2012 § 11 Comments

I really didn’t want to write about Chuck Hagel since I don’t think there is much to say that hasn’t already been said (although for the record, I have no problem with him as defense secretary based on what he has said about Israel, and in over an hour with him last September at the Atlantic Council he didn’t say one thing about Israel that raised a red flag), but reading James Besser’s op-ed in today’s New York Times compels me to weigh in. Besser’s thesis is that mainstream American Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee are either silent on Hagel or complicit in trying to torpedo his nomination because they are afraid of extremist voices on the pro-Israel right such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, and that this radical fringe is setting the pro-Israel agenda and pushing more mainstream voices to adopt extreme positions. He says American Jewish leaders “increasingly tremble in the face of a small minority of zealots, whose vision of Israel’s future diverges from that of the majority of American Jews and clashes with core American values of freedom and democracy,” and he compares them to the leaders of the Republican Party in warning that a movement driven by extremists is bound to fail since it will run afoul of public opinion. Besser is basically arguing that the institutional pro-Israel movement is headed toward irrelevance because it is adopting positions that do not line up with the bulk of American Jewry, and he uses the Hagel nomination as his hook to make that argument.

I agree with Besser that more extremist voices such as the ECI are driving the conversation on Hagel, and that this is not a good trend, although I am not as confident as he is that American Jewish leaders don’t themselves hold the same convictions and are rather being prodded along into taking positions with which they don’t agree. That aside though, there are two major problems with his argument, one specific to the Hagel issue and one general one. First, Besser is assuming that opposition to Hagel is going to provoke some sort of popular backlash because the anti-Hagel position is so extreme, but this seems to me to be a stretch. To begin with, while there is lots of support for Hagel within the foreign policy community, opposition to Hagel is emanating from too many quarters to make the anti-Hagel position the equivalent of denying evolution. I also don’t think this fight is really registering much among the general public, as Hagel’s name recognition is pretty low and this is the kind of Beltway fight to which most people pay little or no attention. As far as I can tell from a quick search, Hagel’s name recognition is actually so low that nobody has even bothered to do any polling on his potential nomination. The idea that opposing Hagel is so extreme and will provoke such outrage that it will cause the pro-Israel community to go into a death spiral is pretty far-fetched at best.

The bigger issue though is with Besser’s argument that it is the views of American Jews that empower pro-Israel groups and will ultimately determine their success or failure. This betrays a lack of understanding of what makes AIPAC and other similar groups successful, which is not that Jews support them, but that the majority of the overall population supports them. Aaron David Miller pointed this out earlier this week and Walter Russell Mead does it all the time as well, but when the former Washington correspondent for The Jewish Week still doesn’t get how things work, it bears some repeating. American public opinion has been favorable toward Israel since its founding,  and support for Israel is relatively constant within a set range. This works to create pressure on politicians to espouse a pro-Israel view. In the years spanning the George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush administrations, Israel’s favorability ratings as measured by Gallup ranged from 45 percent to 71 percent, and in only in four out of twenty-one instances did less than 50 percent of the public indicate holding a very favorable or mostly favorable view of Israel. When asked to rate countries as close allies, Israel consistently ranks behind only the Anglosphere countries of Great Britain, Canada, and Australia, with those describing Israel as a close ally ranging from 26 percent to 47 percent from 1982 through 2008.

Furthermore, when looking at the preferences of the issue public – citizens who have strong feelings on the issue of the U.S. relationship with Israel and Israeli behavior generally – people in this category are even more supportive of Israel and Israeli policies than the general public by more than twice as much. A pluralist model of politics predicts a correlation between the views of citizens who have a strongly held view on an issue and public policy, since ignoring strong or intense preferences will erode democratic legitimacy over time, so it makes sense that politicians respond to the pro-Israel wishes of the most vocal subset of citizens. Support for Israel among the U.S. populace is both broad and deep, which means that the pro-Israel sympathies of the general public are reinforced by the more intense feelings of support expressed by a vocal minority of both Jewish and non-Jewish voters. When taking into account the importance that Jewish and Christian voters assign to Israel, combined with the public’s affinity and support for Israel in general, the pluralist model that equates strong public opinion with corresponding policy explains why AIPAC and other groups are successful.

None of this means that this situation is static. Support for Israel is driven by a sense of shared values, and so if that perception erodes, Israel is going to be in trouble. One of the reasons I pound away at Israel’s myopia in hanging on to the West Bank – aside from the fact that I find it morally questionable, to say the least –  is because I am pretty sure that it is going to spell doom for Israel long term as it relates to U.S. support. However, focusing on the opinion of just American Jews is going to tell you very little about whether mainstream American Jewish organizations are going to remain strong or not. American Jews are probably the most liberal group of Americans that exist, so if the rest of the country ever catches up to them, then the ADL and the AJC are going to have something to worry about. Putting up a fight over Chuck Hagel though is just not going to be the issue that relegates mainstream Jewish organizations to obsolescence.

Guest Post: Which Side Is It That Is Actually Politicizing Israel?

June 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Following my post last week about the GOP turning Israel into a partisan issue, my friend Gabe Scheinmann emailed me to register his disagreement with what I had written. Gabe and I met when we were at Harvard and we both ended up as PhD students in the Government Department at Georgetown, and he is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. Gabe is a rising star in conservative foreign policy circles, and I always take his unfailingly intelligent and informed views on security policy very seriously. Gabe has a different take on who is responsible for politicizing Israel as an issue in U.S. elections, and I asked if he would be willing to write a guest post laying out his rebuttal to my argument and he graciously agreed. Here is Gabe on the differences between the Republicans and Democrats on Israel and which side is more responsible for playing politics.

Making “Israel” into a partisan issue football is bad for Israel and bad for America. A true alliance does not bloom and wither based on the party in power, but instead represents long-term interests. By politicizing such an alliance, both political parties, and both countries for that matter, are jeopardizing the crucial trust and commitments needed for a fruitful relationship. Moreover, the current parties’ dispositions on Israel have not always been the same. Prior to the Nixon Administration, it was the Democratic Party that was a great friend of Israel, from immediate political recognition from Truman to the beginning of a military relationship under JFK. In contrast, the greatest crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations to this day occurred during a Republican Administration, when an irate Eisenhower browbeat Israel over its invasion of the Sinai and Suez Canal in 1956. Three decades from now, the parties’ identities may yet again change and it would be a disservice to the U.S, Israel, and the alliance if the parties were to develop diametrically opposed views on the subject.

That said, I think the real culprit is that for the first time in a long time, real differences have emerged between the two parties regarding their policies towards Israel. The Democratic Party’s lurch leftwards on foreign policy—partly a result of Vietnam, partly due to demographics—has also shaken its once solid support for Israel. The Democratic Congressional leadership remains very pro-Israel, way more so than the current president. But if you look at poll after poll of Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, what you find on Israel is very troubling. Whether it’s the J Street crowd (whose leadership is way more right-wing than its supporters, and that’s saying something), or the African-American community, or the environmentalist community, or the gay community, you’ll find some terrible sentiments on Israel. The ritual condemnation of Israel by supposed “human rights” organizations, all left-leaning, are manifestations of this. And while the Democratic leadership is indeed pro-Israel, the ranks of the Democratic party are not. The “Gaza-54” letter, asking Obama to pressure Israel to ease the Gaza blockade in 2010, was signed exclusively by 54 Democratic Congressmen, Rep Jim Moran (D-VA) blamed the Iraq War on AIPAC—earning the rebuke of Rep. Steny Hoyer—and, most recently, the New York Democratic Party establishment has come out against Charles Barron, the former Black Panther running for Congress, for his anti-Israel and anti-Semitic positions, even though he has been endorsed by the retiring Congressman whose seat he’s running for.

Moreover, President Obama himself has politicized Israel policy to a degree unseen in decades. The Obama Campaign put out a glossy, epic-music-leitmotif video on its “exemplary” record on Israel, the White House (note: not the campaign) has a webpage exclusively devoted to the president’s Israel record, longer than the entirety of its foreign policy page, and the president himself declared that he “has done more in terms of security for the state of Israel than any previous administration” and knows more about Judaism than any other American president. The list goes on. Obama has spoken at AIPAC two years in row, a first for a president. The recent spate of national security leaks—authorized or not—have served to make the president look tougher to his electorate, while compromising real national security, such as the disclosure of the joint U.S.-Israeli cyberwarfare campaign against Iran’s nuclear program, which has a direct quote from VP Biden blaming Israel.  In addition, Biden has recently reemphasized the president’s campaign speech of last October, also expounding that “I believe that no president since Harry Truman has done more for Israel’s physical security than Barack Obama”, even managing a small dig at the Bush Administration for supposedly not putting enough pressure on Iran.

Moreover, the President’s Israel policy seems dictated not by U.S. national security, but by his own reelection campaign, as his policies on the peace process and Iran have morphed as the November approaches.

Take the Peres ceremony. To be clear, if the GOP leadership was indeed invited, they should have gone. (However, Kampeas’ blog postings on the subject are far from definitive as to who was actually invited and who was out of town, so I’m not sure there’s solid evidence that the GOP absence was out of spite for Obama’s Israel record.) Notice the glowing and unprecedented reception the White House gave Peres compared to its shabby treatment of Netanyahu, Israel’s actual leader. Notice Obama quoting extensively from Peres’ 1993 Nobel peace prize speech, or the very act of giving Peres the medal, or more importantly, singling him out for a separate ceremony than the rest of the recipients the previous week. For example, when Obama gave Bush 41 the same medal two years ago, not only was it not a black tie event, nor at night, nor a reception, but he was one of fifteen recipients! This was an entire political operation by the president, from the decision to award the medal, to the manner in which it was presented, to the themes hit upon. (Notice how Peres brought up Iran, while Obama didn’t.) Obama’s message to Bibi was “See how I’ll treat you if you believe in what I believe”. It was a no-so-subtle dig.

To conclude, I believe that the core of the Democratic party has moved far leftward on foreign policy and, as a result, it is losing its reliable pro-Israel bent. This has begun to trickle up the ranks of its leadership, but for the moment its Congressional leadership is still solidly pro-Israel, more so than the president himself. So, what should the GOP or, for that matter, pro-Israel Democrats do? In order to keep Israel bipartisan, should they compromise? How should the Republican Party respond when the White House attempts to impose a settlement freeze on Israel, or equates the Holocaust with Palestinian suffering, or denies the existence of Bush era assurances to Israel, or attempts to refund UNESCO in contravention of U.S. law, or opposes the counting of Palestinian “refugees”?

In the past 5 years, substantive differences have emerged between the two parties on Israel, largely a result of a shift in the Democratic party. The emergence of groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel is a consequence, not a cause, of this shift and is merely trying to highlight these differences while ultimately letting voters decide. If the differences between the two parties, or Obama and Romney, were invented, then that would be a different story. However, they are not and therefore ought to be debated.

Turning Israel Into A Partisan Issue Does Israel No Favors

June 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

It is no secret that in the last few years the GOP has been trying to claim the pro-Israel mantle exclusively for itself. This has manifested itself in a number of ways, ranging from the creation of groups whose sole purpose appears to be bashing President Obama over the head on Israel to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor promising Bibi Netanyahu during a one-on-one meeting that the House Republican majority would “serve as a check on the Administration and what has been, up until this point, one party rule in Washington” and that “the Republican majority understands the special relationship between Israel and the United States,” with the unspoken implication being that the Democrats do not. Mitt Romney has accused Obama of “throwing Israel under the bus” and prominent conservative pundits have repeatedly taken Obama to task for alleged mistreatment of Netanyahu. The upshot of all this is a concerted message emanating from the GOP that only the Republicans can be trusted to safeguard Israel’s interests and that the Democrats, and Obama in particular, cannot.

The culmination of this strategy came on Wednesday, when Israeli President Shimon Peres was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a curious move from an American president who allegedly has no fond feelings for Israel. Many luminaries were in attendance, including Madeleine Albright, Elie Wiesel, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Notice anything strange about this list? Ron Kampeas did, which is that it includes only one Republican and nobody from the Republican congressional leadership. It is not because the Republicans weren’t welcome, as Kampeas confirmed from all sides that the leadership delegations from both parties were invited to Peres’s ceremony, but because they chose not to attend. Process that for a second – the president of Israel, who also happens to be one of the country’s founding fathers and a true Israeli legend and statesman in every sense, was honored by the president and only one (involuntarily) retiring Republican senator accepted the White House’s invitation to come. Eric Cantor, who is the highest ranking Jewish member of Congress in the history of the country and who cannot abide what he views as the White House’s various insults and backstabbing of Netanyahu and Israel, apparently thinks that coming to the equivalent of a state dinner for the Israeli president is not an important enough use of his time. Just imagine the torrent of criticism and vitriol that would be raining down on Obama and the Democrats right now if the situation were reversed. I dare say someone would be forming another Emergency Committee.

It seems pretty clear to me that the reason none of the Republican leadership was present on Wednesday is because they do not want to grant Obama a “victory” on Israel or lend credence to the notion that perhaps he is not as anti-Israel as Republicans have repeatedly insisted. It is a shame that one party is desperately trying to turn Israel into a partisan issue that can be used to its own political advantage, but more importantly it is a very dangerous development for Israel’s long term strength and support in the U.S. For decades, Israel has enjoyed nearly universal bipartisan support within American politics, and Republican efforts to paint Democrats as anti-Israel run the risk of turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy and making Israel a political football no different than taxes, abortion, or government spending. I fail to see how making Israel a partisan issue benefits Israel at all rather than solely benefitting the Republican Party, which is misguided behavior coming from a party that professes to be looking out for Israel’s interests. The Republicans are so intent on being perceived as more pro-Israel than the other side that they are actually hurting Israel in the process. The GOP needs to take a step back for a moment and recognize that it is doing Israel no favors by constantly – and ludicrously – insisting that the Democrats can’t be trusted when it comes to Israel’s security, and stop using Israel to score political points. Whether the GOP spurning of the Peres medal ceremony was a dig at Obama or a nod of support to Bibi in the Netanyahu-Peres divide, it was an insulting and outrageous misstep. If you claim to be Israel’s best friend, then you damn well better show up when its president receives the highest honor that the White House can give.

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