Is the U.S.-Israel relationship in danger?

Despite appearances, former senior national security official Elliott Abrams warns that Democrats — and American Jews — are moving away from Israel.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS speaks at the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem. (photo credit: BRUNO CHARBIT)
ELLIOTT ABRAMS speaks at the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: BRUNO CHARBIT)
US President Donald Trump has steadfastly backed Israel at the UN, moved the embassy to Jerusalem and withdrawn from the Iranian nuclear deal.
As a result, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has praised him effusively.
But this, according to Netanyahu critics on the Left both in Israel and the US, is a mistake. They argue that Trump will not be there forever – in fact, he could be turned out of office in just over two years’ time – and that Netanyahu’s embrace of a deeply divisive Republican president will hurt Israel if a Democratic president comes next in line.
But Elliott Abrams, who held senior positions in the White House’s National Security Council under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, thinks otherwise.
“You have a party in the United States that is wildly pro-Israel,” Abrams said of the Republican Party. “It would be the sin of ingratitude not to show appreciation. And it is not just Trump, it is the Republicans.”
Abrams, in the country to deliver the keynote address last Tuesday night at the B’nai B’rith World Center-Jerusalem Award for Journalism Recognizing Excellence in Diaspora Reportage, said that his message to Netanyahu would not be to “step back from Trump.”
Rather, he said during an interview in the lobby of the King David Hotel, his message is to Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Zionist Union head Avi Gabbay, and opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog: “You should embrace the Democratic Party; that is your job. The Republicans do not need to be told to be pro-Israel; the Democrats do. Why don’t you do that?”
Abrams, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, said that there are pro-Israel stalwarts in the Democratic Party, people like California’s Nancy Pelosi, Maryland’s Steny Hoyer, and New York’s Chuck Schumer.
The problem, he said, is that they are all in their sixties and seventies, and there is not an equally ardent pro-Israel cadre among the marquee Democratic names in their thirties and forties.
Turning again to Lapid, Gabbay and Herzog, Abrams said that they all have relationships with Schumer and Pelosi. “But do they have a relationship with the next generation? I don’t know the answer to that. But these are the people who have to go talk to [up-and-coming Democratic leaders] Kamala Harris and Gavin Newsom. That is their job. Their job is not to yell at Netanyahu for being close to the Republicans; their job is to get close to the Democrats.”
That, however, is no easy chore. Poll after poll shows that grassroots support for Israel in the Republican Party outpaces that in the Democratic Party, even though Jews still vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. Abrams said that the polls – both Pew and Gallup – show about a 30-point difference between the parties’ general memberships when it comes to Israel, with the Republicans far more supportive.
ABRAMS CHARACTERIZED this trend as a “problem,” and one for which there is no “magic wand.”
He said that there are two types of Democrats moving away from Israel: Jews and non-Jews.
Regarding the non-Jews, Abrams pointed out that Israel has been governed by a right-of-center government for the last 17 years.
“It is no great shock that such a government will get along better with a Republican rather than Democratic administration,” he said.
“Why is this a problem?” he asked. “Because there is a message sent by Bush and Trump that Israel is terrific. The message sent by [president Barack] Obama was not that Israel is terrific. It was about the need to create daylight; it was that we have a lot of criticism, and that if you are on the Left in the United States, don’t be so enthusiastic about Israel.”
Abrams said that some believe that the situation would improve if there were a left-of center government in Israel. But he has his doubts, and points out that Lapid, Gabbay, Herzog and their supporters were largely supportive of recent IDF action on the Gaza border and in Syria.
“I think that Americans on the Left would be surprised by the defense policies of those parties [Yesh Atid and Zionist Union],” he said. “They are not going to change much [from current defense policies].
So the notion that if there were a center-left government here, the American Left would immediately become pro-Israel, just does not seem to be correct.”
The Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, which has a decidedly left-wing outlook, is now a significant part of the Democratic Party, Abrams said. “The Left around the world attacks Israel, so why is it shocking that the Left in the United States is part of that?” The challenge, Abrams maintained, is to reach those constituencies that are part of the Democratic Party but are not squarely on the Left, such as Hispanics, Koreans and Indian Americans.
“You are not going to turn the Left pro-Israel,” he maintained.
“But you may be able turn people in the party who are not really on the Left, and who are swing communities.”
He said Israel may have an open door to the Hispanic and Korean communities because they include large numbers of Evangelical Christians, and there are many in the Indian community who are small businessmen and professionals with traditional values, with whom Israel’s arguments may resonate more loudly.
Abrams said that among both Jewish and non-Jewish Democrats, it is unlikely that any one policy change by the government – such as a settlement freeze – would fundamentally change attitudes. If the Netanyahu government would make such a move, and a week later face riots on the Gaza border and use lethal force, “no one would talk about the settlement freeze,” he argued.
THERE IS, however, another layer to the story among Jews inside the Democratic Party moving away from Israel. With them, Abrams said, Israel’s policies toward non-Orthodox streams of Judaism could have an impact in either accelerating or slowing down the erosion of their support.
“To the extent we are talking about Jews, it would help if Israel were more respectful of non-Orthodox parts of the Jewish community,” he said, referring primarily to the conversion issue and the issue of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. “This is an old argument, but it does alienate some groups in the Diaspora.”
Asked to identify where he fears this alienation could play out, Abrams said that people might become generally less enthusiastic about Israel, stop traveling here, and stop being pro-Israel activists in their own communities.
Abrams, however, rejected the claim, often made by critics of the government, that Israel’s policies are distancing young Jews from Israel.
“The larger problem is the percentage of the Jewish community that is leaving the Jewish community entirely, and that has nothing to do with Israeli policies,” Abrams said.
This trend has to do with America life, with assimilation and intermarriage, and not one Israeli policy or another. Children of Jewish parents who intermarry, whose spouses do not convert, and who do not raise their children as Jews – their children will leave the Jewish community completely, Abrams said.
“In fact, they already have. The couple has left the Jewish community, and their children will do the same, and this has nothing to do with settlements and occupied territory  – it is an American phenomenon.”
Abrams said that the bigger questions Israelis must ask themselves, however, is what obligations the country now has, since it’s what the US was for the last century, and Europe for a few centuries prior – namely, the center of world Jewish life.
“What responsibilities does that bring?” he asked.
On security matters, he maintained, Israel’s primary obligation is to its own survival.
“But on questions of religion, where you are dealing with Jews across the world, I think Israel has to ask itself what is its relationship – as the center of the Jewish world – going to be to the Diaspora and non-Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora?” Abrams said that he would like to see an Israeli campaign to raise the number of non-Orthodox students in non-Orthodox Jewish schools in the Diaspora, and to do more to promote Hebrew study around the world.
“What if you had places in a variety of locations in the Diaspora where the Israeli government paid people to learn Hebrew?” he said.
“It is an idea.”
If, in the past – when Israel was smaller and much weaker – the question often posed was what is the Diaspora’s relationship and responsibility toward Israel, Abrams now asks the question from the other side.
“Now what is needed,” he said, “is for Israelis to start thinking about their relationship to the Diaspora in the coming decades.”
Symbolic victories – and losses – are important
Elliott Abrams met The Jerusalem Post a day before the Argentinean national team and star Lionel Messi sent much of the country into the doldrums because of their decision not to play an exhibition game here Saturday night.
Nevertheless, what Abrams said about the upcoming visit of Prince William and the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem resonates loudly in the context of the Argentinean team’s decision.
Prince William’s visit and the US Embassy move are “symbolic victories that send a message of Israel’s “acceptance and permanence,” Abrams said.
“You can live without symbolic victories,” he explained. “But given that there is a global movement against you, these symbolic victories contribute to the cause. Yes, you lived 70 years without the American Embassy in Jerusalem, and without a British Royal, but you are under attack here by Iran, a number of terrorist groups, and by the Left around the world; so you need political victories, symbolic victories, and friends.
“So when these victories come, when you win a song contest, it is better than losing because you are Israeli. And when the royal family comes, it is a big deal. It is better than the royal family refusing to set foot here officially.”
Prince William’s visit and the embassy move help to “normalize” Israel, Abrams argued.
“There is a still an effort to say that Israel is a criminal enterprise, that its creation was an offense, that it is not permanent and not acceptable. And all of these symbolic moves say, ‘No, we reject all of that.’” Abrams cited his mentor George Shultz, a former US secretary of state, as saying in 2003 that the US Embassy needed to move to Jerusalem because “as long as it is in Tel Aviv, it seems as if we are just camping out.”
Asked what Shultz meant, Abrams replied: “It looks as if you are temporary, your presence is temporary, your role in Jerusalem is temporary, so our embassy has to be temporary. So now we are saying, ‘No.’ There are daily attacks on this country’s legitimacy; these victories are not meaningless.”
Unfortunately, then, neither are the losses.