Democrats Also Bear Responsibility for Fraying Ties with Israel

Recent articles and blog posts have come out lately regarding declining sympathy for Israel among Democratic voters in the United States of America. Right-wing reactionaries are often quick to point the finger at former president Barack Obama for his abstention from a UN vote in late 2016 condemning Israeli settlements. His anti-settlement position, combined with the Iran nuclear deal, is seen as tantamount to his anti-Jewish and anti-Israel biases. For leftists, it is the Likud government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu which is to blame. He stubbornly sticks to the status quo with the Palestinians, openly challenged Obama’s Middle East views in Congress and the United Nations, and continued building Jewish communities in Judea & Samaria (the West Bank). In reality, both people—and many more—share the blame for deterioration of ties between Israel and its supporters and left-wing politicians and voters in America. However, Diaspora Jewry and liberal Israelis are too quick to blame Jerusalem, and Jerusalem alone, for this decline in relations.

Benjamin Netanyahu is not seen as a model politician, for many reasons. From his corruption scandals to the cruel and hardly-necessary choice to expel thousands of African migrants, Bibi is moving Israel’s politics away from its social-democratic origins towards American Republican-influenced politics. His speeches both perpetuate and encourage division and fear, rather than inspiring a new generation to take bold risks in the face of unprecedented challenges. His reckless policy of abandoning plans for a mixed-gender prayer space at the Western Wall has alienated much of Western Jewry.  The Likud Party’s embrace of far-right religious nationalists has left women feeling disrespected.  Its continued construction of isolated settlements deep in parts of Judea & Samaria that everyone knows will be surrendered to the Arabs makes little to no sense. Income inequality has dissuaded masses of Diaspora Jews from making aliyah, sent many Israelis abroad,  and had thousands of olim return to their home countries. Instead of telling Israelis that, because of the regional difficulties, their country will rise up to the challenge and ultimately thrive, he runs his re-election campaigns on the language of fear and conflict management.

This all being said, part of the reason Netanyahu has been able to get away with this is because of the apathetic attitude towards Israeli suffering and security concerns demonstrated by leftists not just in America, but around the globe. The Democratic Party has consistently spoken of “justice” and “even-handedness” for the Palestinians, and criticized the construction of Jewish communities in disputed areas. And yet, the sad fact is that housing for Jews in the core of our ancestral homeland is compared to the murder of innocent Israeli civilians in “harmfulness” to the peace process. Much attention is paid to Arab refugees (and their descendants) from Mandatory Palestine. Emphasis is placed on their “right of return,” “recognition of their plight,” and “compensation by Israel.” This would be fine and dandy in our eyes if the relatively equal numbers of Jewish refugees (and their descendants) from Arab lands and Iran were also treated as an equal concern. While NGOs and organizations bring much attention to the plight of Gazans, Lebanese, and West Bank Arabs, the trauma of residents from Sderot, Metula, or Haifa remain in the shadows. And as liberal academics castigate the "the Israel lobby" and sideline concerns about anti-Semitism, there is far less spotlight on the role of the Arab oil lobby.

Netanyahu’s politics thrive on Israeli unilateralism. Rather than the unilateralism we know—in which a superpower can act alone to advance its interests—this version portrays an Israel that is alone in the world with no true allies that understand it or support it. As such, it is "damned if we do, damned if we don't," and Israel mostly ignores international criticism when it comes to Palestinians. The Democratic Party’s current policy—de facto or open—is to ignore any kind of Jewish suffering that isn’t perpetrated by fascist, ultra-conservative, and European forces. Their portrayal of Jews as a “colonial” and “privileged” group has pushed peace away, by surrendering unquestioningly to Arab demands and stereotypes; alienated Israel and its supporters by denying our historic right to be sovereign in the Promised Land; and confused American Jews, who have overwhelmingly voted for Democrats and share common values of justice and equality with the party. While Netanyahu has certainly embraced policies that Democrats largely disagree with, their reaction to these policies has only solidified and even advanced his government’s rightward drift. It has entrenched support for him in Israel, particularly after Obama’s ill-conceived approach to Syria, Iran, the Palestinians, and the parting UN vote his administration “gifted” Israel. The fact that John Kerry and his former boss continue to state, more or less, that they know what’s best for Israel and Israelis is arrogant, paternalistic, against their own stated values, and ultimately imperialist. The fact that Obama’s supporters on MidEast policy, as well as other Democrats, fail to recognize and improve upon his mistakes in the region paints a dire picture in Israel and among its supporters of the reliability or value of support from Democrats.

President Donald Trump is a buffoon, but unfortunately his Middle East policies are legitimizing him among some circles. His anti-Iran politics endeared him to Arab and Israeli leaders alike. His slashing of aid to Palestinians, support for a regional outside-in approach to Arab-Israeli peace, and announcement that America’s embassy is moving from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem solidified support from an initially wary Israel. There has been no massive uptick in violence, as “experts” claimed for decades there would be, after the Jerusalem recognition. Under his presidency, under-the-table ties between Arab states and Israel—something that left-wing peacemakers wanted to see and achieve for decades—have tremendously increased. And while Obama and Kerry once stated that the nuclear deal with Iran could not be changed, and was good as is, it seems that Trump is possibly about to get his way in regards to increased multilateral sanctions on Iran’s missile program---another move that would placate the growing Arab-Israeli axis and prove the Democrats wrong on Middle East “common sense.” None of this is to say that Trump is doing it because he’s an expert on the issues, or out of the goodness of his heart. The president is likely trying to distract from the ongoing Russia investigation, score points with once-skeptical hawkish and evangelical voters, and even gain support from Jewish supporters of Israel who have found themselves disappointed with the Democratic Party. There is a significant chance of his new approach being at least somewhat successful, which partially undermines the ability of the opposition to paint him as morally bankrupt, stupid, and unsuccessful in the upcoming 2020 election.

So what can be done to repair this rift between Israel and American Democrats? There must be a multi-pronged campaign by both sides to warm ties, but it also depends on political domestic developments in each country. Both Trump and Netanyahu are under investigation for corruption scandals. If both are indicted, that will most likely end their rule, with the possibility in Israel for new elections that could see a more moderate party take the Knesset. In the US, a more traditional and balanced Republican could replace Trump. But even before it gets to that point—and certainly if it never does—interim steps need to be taken. First, Israel’s domestic politics need to begin considering some of the policies supported by Diaspora Jews. Ending harsh practices towards migrants and taking steps towards increased opportunities and integration among/for Arab-Israelis and marginalized Jewish communities, like the Ethiopians and Soviets, would be welcome steps in the right direction. So, too, would ending the ultra-Orthodox monopoly/advantage on issues relating to marriage, the Western Wall, the portrayal of women, and gay rights. Limiting settlement construction mostly to the settlement blocs and removing sparsely-populated and useless (no specific religious/historic sites) ones could send a signal of peace to the Palestinians and both political parties in America. Taking steps to improve the increasing cost of living could bring olim and sabras who have since left the country back home, as well as attract more Diaspora Jews. And shifting hasbara away from simplistic campaigns regarding “the Bible said so,” “democracy,” and “Silicon Wadi” is another necessity. In the past and in the right setting, these arguments worked. But now, as BDS tries to capitalize on the split regarding Israel in the US, an intensive educational campaign must be waged among youth to defend Zionism as a revolutionary, indigenous rights and liberation project. With DNA testing and archaeological digs more common and legitimate than ever, it’s time to use this as a way to defend our right to the land, rather than relying on Biblical text that much of the young population doesn’t take as seriously as their elders. Democrats, for their part, need to stop and listen before making rash judgments. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with listening to and trying to understand the Palestinian narrative, or defending their rights. There is something wrong with failing to even hear out the other side’s suffering, struggle, and narrative, and applying racist double-standards to Israelis and/or Jews. In 2020, if the Democrats want to beat Trump at his game regarding Middle East support, they need to learn from his successes as well as his predecessors’ failures. Like Netanyahu, too many Democrats have supported politics of the status quo, whether that was on Jerusalem, Afghanistan, or neoliberal globalization. This has weakened and divided the party such that it has little more to show than a few local election victories. The Democrats should emphasize in the election that when it comes to Israel, they support a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the absorption of Palestinian refugees into their host countries. For too long, the soft racism of low expectations has allowed the conflict to fester rather than end. As The West Wing’s Toby said, the Arabs are "always taken out for an ice cream" rather than genuinely pressured to make concessions for peace—as Israel has done and likely will continue to do. Already the Arab World is beginning to unshackle the Palestinian handcuffs for beneficial ties with Israel. And with no massive violence over the Jerusalem issue from late 2017, there is no reason to backtrack in a way that could harm our alliance and credibility with the Israelis. Instead of bemoaning a “strategic loss for Israel” or encouraging Israel’s Jewish supporters (and the country itself) to abandon bipartisan support and leftist allies in favor of conservatives, emphasis should be placed on increasing dialogue between the two factions and meeting halfway. Time to get to work.