Center Field: The sliming of Israel, AIPAC and Obama

The American-Israel friendship will survive this president and this prime minster.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington,
(photo credit: REUTERS)
America-Israel relations have turned bizarre. In 2013, Barack Obama offended Benjamin Netanyahu by not addressing the Knesset; in 2015, Netanyahu offended Obama by addressing the US Congress. This latest Netanyahu-Barack brouhaha isn’t really about protocols and partisanship. It’s about poisonous personal chemistry between America’s president and Israel’s prime minister, expressed now in their clash over Iran. Still, worrywarts take heart: the enduring American-Israel friendship will outlast these two temporary leaders.
Two centuries ago the British statesman Lord Palmerston quipped that “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” This truism is only half true. Democracies can be friends.
America and Israel enjoy a genuine America-Canada type friendship rooted in common interests, reinforced by shared values, expressed in military exchanges, diplomatic interdependence, robust trade, cultural affinities, and millions of visitors, tourists, businesspeople, politicians and migrants, living threads binding the two countries.
Nevertheless, friends are not clones. Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, the two countries have clashed periodically over occasionally competing interests, without rupturing relations. Still, a hysteria bug seems programmed into US-Israel relations. Like a married couple who escalate from quibbling about clearing the table to flinging china at each other’s heads within minutes, there’s an unhealthy mix of insecurity and melodrama that leads people in both countries to view every brouhaha as a looming breakup.
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This panicky tendency stems from the military threats against Israel and the systematic delegitimization campaign against the Jewish state. Israelis are hypersensitive about their relationship with America because they have been abandoned by so many – and threatened by so many others. Israel’s constant need to be vigilant invites the occasional tendency to panic.
At the same time, the delegitimizing of Israel distorts the debate. As harsh critics escalate from criticizing an Israeli action to concluding that Israel should cease to exist, hypersensitive defenders end up seeing minor assaults as major threats. Taken together, too many interactions about Israel tend to be too incendiary.
We see that volatility in the sliming of Israel, of Zionism, of AIPAC. Israel’s actions attract disproportionate criticism, with delegitimizers exaggerating Israeli missteps as alleged proof that Israel should die. Zionism, the Jewish national movement, should be popular with progressives because it seeks to improve the current state. Instead, Zionism has been targeted and become politically incorrect.
Similarly, AIPAC, the pro-Israel organization celebrating America’s bipartisan, mutually beneficial relationship with Israel, is repeatedly demonized. Despite being a home to tens of thousands of Democrats because most Jews vote Democratic, AIPAC is frequently tagged as right wing. Despite being a small piece of a complex, longstanding, organic, healthy US-Israel relationship, it is caricatured as the big bad Jewish lobby bullying a reluctant America into supporting Israel.
These caricatures’ anti-Semitic origins inflame matters.
However, none of this suggests that Israel should be above criticism when it errs.
That volatility also leads to the sliming of Obama.
Barack Obama is not anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, anti-American, or anti-Christian – although that’s a pretty low bar for a president. He’s just wrong. He has spoken eloquently about Israel’s right to exist and need to defend itself against its enemies. Nevertheless, Obama seems to find the country – especially under its current prime minister – annoying. Why can’t critics respect his reasonable ability to come to an incorrect conclusion without demonizing him or questioning his motives? Obama’s foreign policy frequently brings to mind Henry Kissinger’s quip about Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy being as graceless as that of a bad dancer – when he should step down hard, he leaps up; when he should leap, he comes down with a thud. All too frequently when Obama should confront enemies, he temporizes; when he should support allies, he comes down hard on them. Why does democratic Israel enrage Obama more than theocratic, terrorist, anti-American, anti-Obama, anti-Western and anti-Israel Iran? And when did the Left go softer than the Right on nuclear proliferation? Obama accepts the politically correct critique of American foreign policy as often destructive. He wants to reorient America’s Europe- and Israel-centered policies toward the Third World. He also sincerely abhors Israel’s settlement policy and sincerely – but naively – believes a Palestinian state, established as hastily as possible, despite previous debacles, would solve the problems in Israel and the Middle East.
Unfortunately, his approach, which is worth debating intelligently, civilly, resonates with more marginal extremists, many of whom have made hostility to Israel their defining obsession. Anti-Zionism has become the equivalent of the secret handshake for getting entry into the Totalitarian Left’s identity politics, the-West-can-do-no-right, third-worlders-can-do-no-wrong club. Still, just because some of Obama’s policies may please them, it is unfair to burden him with their prejudices.
Unfortunately, in this combustible situation, Israel’s incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has played chief arsonist, aided by his pyromaniac ambassador to the US Ron Dermer. Rather than understanding the sensitivities in Obama’s Washington, misreading the current, ugly, polarized Republican-Democratic dynamics on Capitol Hill, Netanyahu stumbled into a major partisan mess.
Netanyahu’s howler has spotlighted those who want to make the bipartisan US relationship with Israel highly partisan, and backfired, getting some Democrats who were doubting the president’s Iran policy back into the president’s camp, out of blind party loyalty. Too many Blame Israel Firsters have had too much fun with Bibi’s Blunder. For such incompetence, Dermer should be fired and Netanyahu should lose re-election. Weeks ago, Netanyahu should have found a way out – instead both he and the administration repeatedly upped the ante, intensified the rhetoric, and triggered that US-Israel hysteria tic.
The American-Israel friendship will survive this president and this prime minster. As 16,000 Jews and non- Jews affirmed this week at AIPAC’s policy conference in Washington, Israel and the US are genuine friends; the US and Iran remain mortal enemies.
The author is a professor of history at McGill University.
His eleventh book, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, will be published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press this fall.