Book Review: An exceptional relationship, tested?

Analyzing the role this country plays in contemporary American politics, Jonathan Rynhold recommends that Israel commit to a two-state solution to protect bipartisan support.

Americans participate in the Jerusalem March to show their support for Israel. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Americans participate in the Jerusalem March to show their support for Israel.
The US and Israel have had a special relationship since the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. Already deep-seated and pervasive, Americans’ support for Israel has grown since 9/11.
At the same time, however, Americans are increasingly divided over the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and the Jerusalem’s policies on a range of issues, including settlements.
In The Arab-Israeli Conflict in American Political Culture, Jonathan Rynhold, a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, draws on demographic data, polls and studies of the rhetoric and behavior of political elites to offer a highly informative analysis of the role Israel plays in contemporary American politics. He provides empirical support for the widely held view that Americans are far more sympathetic to the Jewish state – and its policies – than Europeans.
The author also demonstrates that America’s white Evangelical Protestants, Republicans and Orthodox Jews are consistently and overwhelming pro-Israel. A 2008 survey, for example, revealed that 73 percent of Evangelical traditionalists wanted the US government to support Israel over the Palestinians (while 40% of the general public held to this view).
He confirms that Democrats, post-colonialist leftists, mainline Protestants and secular Americans tend to be more critical of or hostile to Israel. In 2009, he indicates, 59% of Democrats (compared to 39% of Republicans) favored the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Rynhold acknowledges that changes in the Middle East, including the emergence of a credible Palestinian partner for peace, could significantly alter the dynamic in the US. That said, he emphasizes that the unique relationship, which is far more than a response to the activities of the “Jewish lobby,” is grounded “in the very foundations” of Americans’ own national identity and democratic values. “Incredibly resilient,” sympathy for Israel in the US, he predicts, is likely to continue to manifest itself in diplomatic, political and military support.
Although “identification” with Israel is difficult to define, and certainly varies with concrete issues and political contexts – “pro-Israel” is, after all, a contested term – it does indeed appear to be firmly embedded in American political culture.
And despite the harsh criticism directed at US President Barack Obama expressed by partisans of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the bipartisan consensus in support of guarantees of Israel’s security remains intact.
That said, there are legitimate grounds for concern about the future of the special relationship. These days, about three-quarters of Democratic and Independent voters want their government to lean toward neither side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And more than 80% of them think the US should either abstain or vote for a UN resolution endorsing the establishment of a Palestinian state.
On these issues, it is worth pointing out, Democratic politicians are at odds with their constituents.
A generation gap has also emerged in the US. Rynhold includes a poll in which a third of young men and women age 18-50 (compared with 50% of their elders) agree that protecting Israel should be a very important goal of American foreign policy. Young people (especially college students) are less likely than average Americans to sympathize with Israel.
More than 40% of young Jews favor economic sanctions and/or other punitive actions as a response to settlement-building, and a sizable percentage of America’s youth have concluded that Israel is an apartheid state.
Moreover, some influential young bloggers advocate bringing Hamas into peace negotiations – even though it does not recognize Israel’s right to exist. Others have joined movements urging divestment from Israel or boycotts of Israeli academics by American colleges and universities.
These views, which have gotten traction on some campuses, may – or may not – “soften” over time.
Young (non-Orthodox) American Jews, especially the considerable number who have married non-Jews, seem less committed to Israel than their parents and grandparents. A majority of the respondents to a 2005 poll said they were sometimes disturbed by Israel’s policies; almost half were sometimes ashamed. Only a third deem caring about Israel integral to their Jewish identity; less than half of the American Jews under 35 (compared to three-quarters of those over 65) told pollsters they would regard the destruction of Israel as a personal tragedy.
Moreover, as Rynhold admits, US demographics are changing in ways that may not be favorable to Israel. The percentage of voters in the American electorate who are white Evangelical Protestants is shrinking. The percentage of Hispanics, who more than other American voters want the US to remain neutral in the conflict and oppose settlement-building, is growing.
The lesson of these trends for the State of Israel, Rynhold suggests, is that “consensual support in America is more important than higher overall levels of support concentrated on one side of the political spectrum.”
At the moment, the Jewish state has benefited from American fears of terrorism, the Syrian civil war, the implosion of Iraq, Islamic State’s successes and the absence of Palestinian leaders who are committed to the peace process. To protect bipartisan support in the longer term, however, Rynhold recommends that Israel commit to a two-state solution that will ensure its security, even if it includes compromises on settlements.
“It is an illusion,” he warns, for an Israeli government to think it can retain bipartisan support “and keep the settler movement happy.”
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.