There’s nothing like the post of foreign minister to make one truly grasp the catchphrase, “what you see from here you don’t see from there.” The slogans that helped rally Israeli voters do not impress actors in the international arena. They work to advance interests that in many cases do not coincide with ours, and even when their sympathy for Israel is sincere and deep-rooted, they are not ready to put up with policies they regard as racist or as infringing on the rights of minorities.
One of the central truths that Foreign Minister Eli Cohen will encounter upon embarking on his new post is the depth of our dependence on the US. The term “dependence” isn’t easy to digest, and Israeli hasbara (public diplomacy) has taken pains to emphasize the element of reciprocity in our relations with the US. But PR is one thing and reality is another: Washington can do fine without us, but we’d have a very hard time without it.
In the course of his daily routine, Cohen will find himself repeatedly knocking on America’s door. Its help is needed in all the strategic challenges facing Israel: the Iranian nuclear threat, ensuring the IDF’s qualitative military edge, the conflict with the Palestinians, the complex relationships with China and Russia, our standing in international institutions, and much more.
Israel-US relations hinge on shared values and US Jews
History shows that American responsiveness to Israel’s needs does not stem solely from a cold calculation of interests. The “special relationship” is, at its heart, based on shared values and the help of a highly influential US Jewish community. The composition and expected policies of Israel’s new government threaten to undermine these two infrastructural components.
There will be more and more question marks around Israel’s commitment to the basic principles of freedom, democracy and human rights. At the same time, the distancing of American Jews from Israel can be expected to worsen. Many in this thriving community now sense that the path chosen by Israel is not their path.
Along with this difficult feeling, many Jews who vote for the Democrats (70% of American Jewry) have concluded that Benjamin Netanyahu has “given up” on them. His conspicuous alignment with the Republican party has contributed to this, as have rumors that the Prime Minister’s Office regards Evangelical Christians as more loyal to Israel than they are.
These trends threaten the resilience of the strategic Jerusalem-Washington-US Jewry triangle. In order for the triangle to maintain its vitality, the Israeli government must take care not only to stay on good terms with the US administration and the two dominant American political parties; it must also maintain good relations with American Jewry. Blatant violation of this maxim under Netanyahu caused cracks to appear in the strategic triangle and in the traditional bipartisan support for Israel.
THE PRIMARY threat to our relations with large swaths of American Jewry concerns Israel’s conduct on the Palestinian issue: ongoing control over another people who lack political rights. The damage inflicted by the occupation, which continually gnaws at the validity of the ethos of shared values, will now be magnified by anti-liberal government conduct in domestic affairs.
There should be no illusions regarding Cohen’s ability (or desire) to remedy these deep-rooted ills; it is, therefore, expected that in the first year allocated to him, before Israel Katz takes over the position, he will make do with damage control. Hence, he will have to examine every possible way to prevent a drift in American support in the face of the major tests that await us just around the corner.
The actor capable of aiding in this regard is American Jewry, but for that purpose, an in-depth dialogue would have to be conducted with the Democratic Jewish public which has been neglected in recent years. This public will not embrace the positions of Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich; it would, however, appreciate the willingness of any Israeli government to listen attentively to their anguished concerns.
Cohen must shoulder the leadership of this dialogue and therefore prepare quickly to acquire a reliable picture of the situation and draw up a plan of action.
Along with the ministry experts, Cohen must consult with people who are deeply familiar with the nuances of the American scene and the Jewish community. A meeting with Nadav Tamir, executive director of J Street Israel, would be an important test of the seriousness of Cohen’s efforts. J Street supporters, largely voters of the Democratic Party, have great influence in the Biden administration, in Congress, and in public opinion.
Preserving their attachment to Israel is essential. Tamir, formerly a brilliant diplomat, is a well-versed expert on the complex dynamics of the Washington-Jerusalem-American Jewry triangle.
Consultation with him would demonstrate that Cohen does not shy away from building bridges to Jews who are deeply disappointed with Israel’s current path and, in particular, to the younger generation of Jews whose attachment to Israel is fading away. Tackling this momentous challenge obliges Cohen to leave the comfort zone of the streetlight and search for the Jewish coin where it was actually lost.
The writer, a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry, is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI). His new novel, Toronto Junction, was recently published by 2sfarim Publishing.