At the end of August 1993, I accompanied foreign minister Shimon Peres on a long flight to California to brief US secretary of state Warren Christopher on the secret agreement just signed in Oslo. Peres was quick to report to his American counterpart that he had carefully begun to enlist the American Jewish community leadership’s endorsement of the agreement. Christopher did not hide his satisfaction. The two, each from his own perspective, recognized the political weight of American Jewry and worried that it would be displeased with an agreement with the PLO.
This anecdote reveals the dynamics within the triangular relationship: Jerusalem-Washington-American Jewry, which has proven itself over the years as an invaluable asset for the strength of Israel and the Jewish people. Indeed, the 40% of the Jewish people who thrive in the US have more than once demonstrated their significant influence in a variety of fields.
Until Netanyahu’s tenure, Israeli governments worked to preserve the resilience of this triangular relationship, ensuring what was required: maintaining American bipartisan support for Israel and cultivating solidarity with all American Jewry. This approach expressed an understanding that the effectiveness of the unique ‘triangle’ requires solid relations on all three sides: Israel’s relations with the US, American Jewry’s relations with the administration and, of course, Israel’s relations with American Jews.
The Netanyahu-Trump era revealed a structural imbalance in the triangle: on the one hand, Jerusalem-Washington relations were excellent. But on the other hand, among the majority of American Jews (70%) who support the Democratic Party, an atmosphere of severe alienation prevailed vis-à-vis both the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government.
In today’s polarized American reality, the Israeli government’s task of maintaining bipartisan support and Jewish solidarity has become more complex. But instead of adroitly navigating the space between the political poles, Netanyahu preferred to plainly side with the Republicans and intensified the process of Israel becoming a party-dependent issue in the US.
And here we are now, at the beginning of a new era in which the change of government in Israel joins the change of administration in the US. Will there be a positive turn?
The impact of the leadership changes in the two countries should not be underestimated, but they should not obscure the looming geopolitical issues that challenge the triangular relationship. Despite the gravity of the Iran problem, the Palestinian issue has even deeper implications because it touches on the fundamental values deeply rooted in the special relationship between Israel and the US. It is no wonder that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an organization that works to deepen American support for Israel, emphasizes these shared values in its basic messaging: “America and Israel are sister democracies dedicated to the rule of law, human rights, and freedoms of speech and religion.” Alas, the continued occupation and control of the Palestinian people is inconsistent with these values and, in this regard, Israel’s new government carries no groundbreaking message.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett used to explain: “The Americans love the truth, and the truth is that no Palestinian state will be established.” As prime minister, Bennett can expect to find that while he ignores the Palestinian issue, Americans (including many Jews) will continue to love the truth but will stop loving Israel.
The recent Pew survey shows that only a third of US Jews believe the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Of the Jews who support the ruling Democratic Party, only 20% think so.
The Lapid-Bennett government is unlikely to change this worrying picture because its existence depends on maintaining the status quo on the Palestinian issue. Consequently, the desire to restore a healthy balance to the triangular relationship will eventually encounter an unbridgeable obstacle: the lack of a credible Israeli intention to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians.
The same obstacle will also prevent the success of Israel hasbara (PR) efforts in the US and the West in general. In 1993, Christopher and Peres feared that American Jewry would not support the Oslo Accords arguing that Israel had gone too far in making concessions to the Palestinians. Over the years this picture has completely reversed. Most American Jews believe that Israel is not at all interested in marching toward a settlement.
The Palestinian issue is not a matter of bad public relations that a shrewd argument could overcome. It is a living reality that threatens Israel’s identity and its future. The illusion that the solution to the problem exists in the realm of rhetoric did not begin with Netanyahu. When Menachem Begin outlined the ‘Foundations of Hasbara (PR) Abroad’ he wrote: “Do not mix into the language of the past the linguistic barbarity ‘Palestine’... Why can we not say: ‘Arabs of the Land of Israel’? And in saying this, we immediately create a different moral and political perspective.”
Compared to the Netanyahu era, the new government is indeed a refreshing breeze. But even this government will find that being nice and showing good manners do not create a “different moral and political perspective.” It would be useful to revisit the words of Shimon Peres: “Without a policy of a peace initiative, Israel cannot conduct an effective policy of hasbara… The problem is not just what we’re explaining, but to what extent are we believed.”
Israel’s hasbara problem is, of course, only a symptom of much more serious phenomena, among them: the threat to our relations with the US and its Jews. If we fail to convince the Jews, how can we persuade the gentiles?
The writer is a senior fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute, a former director-general of the Foreign Ministry and the author of Shimon Peres: An Insider’s Account of the Man and the Struggle for a New Middle East.