Commentary Magazine


Can Israel Survive This Presidency?

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boarded a plane home in late May, the cheers of an adoring United States Congress were still echoing in his ears. The speech he delivered before a wildly applauding assembly of the House and Senate capped a week in which Netanyahu successfully evaded the diplomatic trap set for him by the Obama administration, and from which he emerged more certain of Congressional support for Israel no matter what new policy might yet emanate from the White House or State Department.

President Obama made a conscious decision to blindside Netanyahu with a shift in policy in a major address on the day before the Israeli premier’s arrival in Washington. But as he had done twice before during his presidency, Obama underestimated Netanyahu and the level of support that Israel could muster in Congress. Even the leaders of the president’s own party in the House and Senate deserted Obama and spoke up specifically and harshly against his proposal for using Israel’s 1967 borders as a starting point for final negotiations on the creation of a Palestinian state.

Still, some friends of Israel had reason to wonder whether Netanyahu’s triumph was a Pyrrhic victory. He may have outwitted Obama and won the week, but at what cost? With a hostile president in the Oval Office, how could his nation continue to resist the ongoing Arab military and propaganda war against it? Wouldn’t this personal setback at Netanyahu’s hands further embitter a president who seems, at best, ambivalent about Israel and ideologically predisposed to sympathize with the foes of the Jewish state? What if Obama chose to punish Israel because of Netanyahu’s impertinence? The Palestinian effort to go to the United Nations for an endorsement of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines in September can be derailed only by an American veto. And while Obama has specifically criticized the Palestinian plan, he has not committed himself to a course of action at the UN to prevent it.

Indeed, Netanyahu’s detractors—both at home and here in the United States—were quick to describe his triumph as a temporary reprieve that would only delay the inevitable day when Israel would have to bend to an American diktat or face the consequences. And while the dynamics of a reelection bid may prevent Obama from moving as freely as he would like when it comes to Israel, it’s a good bet that he will be president for another four years after November 2012. Then, perhaps, Israel will reap the whirlwind.

Such fears, while understandable, are off base. No matter how difficult relations between the Obama administration and Israel’s government may become in the coming months and perhaps years, the Jewish state can still be reasonably confident that the alliance will hold. That confidence is, and should be, rooted in the bipartisan, wall-to-wall pro-Israel coalition in Congress that was on display during Netanyahu’s speech, interrupted by 59 standing ovations.

The extent of Congressional support for Israel, which is based on a desire to please not only Jews but also the vast constituency of Israel’s non-Jewish sympathizers, is so great that no president can hope to weaken it. This is the firebreak that sets clear limits on just how far any administration can stray from the pro-Israel consensus that has become a political fact of modern American life. This is now clearer than ever, owing to the efforts made by Barack Obama to change the dynamic between the United States and Israel—efforts that continue to fail.

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From his first days in office, Obama made it clear that he wanted to restart the peace process by forcing Israel to make a unilateral concession to the Palestinians: a full freeze on all “settlement” construction, including within the city limits of Jerusalem. This was an important, and alarming, change in approach from previous presidencies. The United States has never recognized Israeli sovereignty in any part of the city, but Obama departed from the understanding of his predecessors when he treated Jewish neighborhoods built inside the city since 1967 as no different from the most remote West Bank settlement where radicals pitch tents and park trailers.

Then, in the spring of 2010, Obama exploded over a supposed insult delivered to Vice President Joe Biden—the announcement of a housing start in an existing Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem during a Biden visit. The president had his secretary of state scold Netanyahu for 45 minutes on the phone and then treated Netanyahu with unprecedented coldness during a White House visit. These highly personal displays of temper rattled Israel’s supporters in the United States, but they were a side issue. The real point was how openly angry Obama was at the construction of new apartments in Jerusalem.

This is why Obama’s declaration in May that the 1967 borders (which had split Jerusalem between Israel and Jordan) should be the starting point for talks was so significant. It meant that Obama and his administration were operating from the premise that Israel had no basic claim to a unified Jerusalem. This had not been the case with previous administrations and was certainly not true of the Bush administration, which in 2004 specifically acknowledged that any peace would have to take into account the demographic changes on disputed lands since 1967.

The president amended his remarks almost immediately by stating that future borders would have to be agreed to by the parties and that this would entail potential swaps of land. But in saying what he said in the first place, Obama established that he and his administration would not be supportive of the Jewish state’s claim to Jerusalem. That is why the speech changed the rules of the game.

Even more important, Obama made no parallel demand of the Palestinians in his speech, such as the discarding of their “right of return.” In the end, Israel was being told to give up its only bargaining chip—territory—while the Palestinians were told, in effect, that they needed to concede nothing. In an extraordinary joint appearance with Obama the day after the president’s speech, Netanyahu starkly refused. But the question for Israel, going forward, was how long it could evade more demands of this sort from the president of its most important ally.

It is true that Israel is dependent in every way on its friendship with the United States—emotionally, logistically, economically, and spiritually. For the many who believe that Israel needs to have better policies imposed on it from the outside, this dependence has provoked extreme impatience: Why doesn’t the United States simply dictate terms to a nation that receives $3 billion annually in aid? In the end, they say, Israel cannot say “no” to the United States.

But that is not true. Israel has been saying “no” for virtually its entire history to almost every American president and secretary of state. In the first 20 years of its existence, that “no” came in the form of refusals to open its borders to Palestinian refugees or to make compromises on those now sacred 1967 lines, which, prior to the Six Day War, were thought by many to have left the Jews in control of more land than they deserved—even if they left Israel with no strategic depth and a divided capital.

Since 1967, Israel has continued to say “no,” even when leaders preferred by liberals in the United States and by the State Department have been in charge. Throughout the last 44 years, every Israeli government has sought to strengthen its hold on a united Jerusalem and has built or maintained Jewish communities in the territories beyond the “green line” that separated Israel from Jordan. Every government has maintained its nuclear deterrent over American objections. And every government has reserved for itself the right to strike back at Arab terror bases from which suicide bombings, missiles, and shooting attacks have been launched. Israel’s leaders have done all these things despite consistent disapproval on all these fronts from friendly administrations—those of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush—as well as less reliable allies, such as Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and, now, Barack Obama.

Thus, to assume that Israel, if put under enough pressure, cannot stand its ground on issues of national security is to ignore the history and political realities of both countries. Some Israeli leaders have suffered politically at home as a result of disputes with American presidents; the hostility between Netanyahu and Bill Clinton played a role in ending Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister in 1999. But the widely shared perception in Israel that Obama is no friend to the Jewish state eliminates that factor this time around.

The main reason Israel can say “no” is that most Americans support Israel’s right to defend itself and expect their government to back that right. The evidence was on display during Netanyahu’s speech, when members of Congress from both parties and every region of the country rose to applaud his defiance of their own president. That kind of support on Capitol Hill reflects the basic sentiments of the overwhelming majority of Americans, who have consistently shown that they like Israel and don’t care for its foes. The two countries are united by shared democratic values. More than that, support for Zionism is bred deep in America’s political and religious culture, formed long before the creation of the state in 1948.

But those inclined to look for sinister explanations for simple facts have taken to arguing that the Jewish state is supported by Congress not because of common values but out of fear—specifically, fear of the potentially destructive power of the so-called Israel Lobby, especially the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

This is a misunderstanding—and in many cases a deliberate and viciously anti-Semitic misunderstanding—of the role of AIPAC. It is undeniably an extraordinarily effective organization, but it has succeeded only because it is, in effect, pushing on an open door. Still, converting the basic Zionist sentiment of the American people into wide-ranging support for the Jewish state was not the work of a day or year but was rather a decades-long process during which pro-Israel forces suffered severe setbacks.

AIPAC was created in 1953 to give American officials one pro-Israel voice to listen to rather than several. But it struggled for a long time to make that voice heard effectively. It was not until the 1970s that AIPAC would have any real impact on Washington, when it opposed the Ford administration’s “reassessment” of American policy toward Israel. Part of the problem was that AIPAC and the pro-Israel movement in general were obsessed with trying to persuade the executive branch to listen to the pro-Israel majority in the country instead of the Arabist siren song of the State Department.

The folly of this strategy was illustrated in the first year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. AIPAC suffered a stunning setback when the Reagan administration succeeded in forcing through Congress the sale of AWACS radar planes to Saudi Arabia despite the objections of both Israel and its American supporters.

It was only at this point that AIPAC realized that it had been working the wrong end of Pennsylvania Avenue for 30 years. American pro-Israel conviction was then and is now based in the sentiment of the voting public, and the legislative branch is far more responsive to such sentiment than the executive branch. AIPAC began to focus its efforts on Congress—and in so doing, it found a wellspring of support many American Jews barely even knew existed.

Previously, AIPAC had largely ignored Republicans and conservatives, partly due to the deep connection between the Jewish vote and the Democratic Party, and partly because a significant sector of the GOP in Congress had long been indifferent if not outright hostile to Israel. But the ideological and demographic composition of the GOP began to shift dramatically in the 1970s and 80s. Those changes, combined with effective outreach by AIPAC to local politicians across the country, converted the Republican Party into a source of fervent support for Israel. The Republican base was unambiguous about its conviction that America should stand with its fellow democracy in a sea of hostile anti-American tyrannies. And for the evangelical Christians who now made up a significant portion of the base, support for the Jewish state was literally a matter of divine writ.

The transformation of Congressional attitudes in the three decades since AIPAC’s shift in focus has had astonishing results. Consider the change in the way Congress votes on aid for Israel. These were once difficult annual battles, ugly and contentious; today, aid for Israel is opposed by only a handful of pro-Palestinian politicians and those who dislike foreign aid of any kind (such as, prominently, the libertarian isolationist Ron Paul).

It is true that Jewish campaign donations helped pave the way for this conversion. But to claim, as AIPAC-bashers do, that this extraordinary alteration in Congressional perspective is merely a function of Jewish money is to ignore some basic rules of political life. Were Israel not intrinsically popular, no amount of campaign cash would have convinced hundreds of representatives and senators to line up to back it on nearly every aspect of the relationship. So to those who ask how Israel can possibly continue to say “no” to the president, the answer is simple: it can because Congress, which holds the power of the purse, says it can.

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The Obama administration’s relation to Israel is a layered one. As even this far-from-friendly president has proved, the strategic alliance between Israel and the United States has transcended party, and even policy, differences. Obama’s Department of Defense has maintained and even strengthened the level of security cooperation between the two nations. Democrats have even sought to give Obama credit for funding the Iron Dome missile-defense system Israel is currently deploying along its border with Gaza. In fact, the project began under George W. Bush, but Obama placed no obstacles in the path of Iron Dome, which he might have done, and he has not stinted on any related security project undertaken by the two countries.

This is a tribute to the value of the strategic alliance between Israel and the United States more than a sign of Obama’s dedication to Israel’s security. Over the course of the last few decades, cooperation between the two militaries has gradually increased and become one of the givens of American defense policy. The permanence and strength of this relationship is the work of several administrations dating back to Ronald Reagan’s and has been encouraged and funded by every Congress since. For any president to seek to curtail or end it—even one with a bone to pick with Israel—would require the expenditure of scarce political capital and would likely be derailed by an angry Congress in any case.

Would the president find himself with a freer hand were he to win reelection? Perhaps. He could certainly implement policy changes at the State and Defense Departments that would create new distance and friction between the countries, especially on matters that do not involve Congressional oversight. But even if Obama were to devote his second term to imposing an unwanted deal on Israel, with the hope that a Palestinian state would be his historic legacy, his lame-duck status would not strengthen his ability to mobilize support in Congress and the country. With 2016 in play, Democrats would not be likely to follow him down so self-destructive a path, aside from those on the extreme left.

There is one final reason why a U.S.-Israel blowup is highly unlikely even if Obama and Netanyahu continue to be at each other’s throats. No matter what Obama may want Israel to do in order to achieve peace, in the end any such agreement will require the Palestinians to accept the diplomatic advantages and generous terms Obama has been giving them. But as the president ought to have learned by now, there is no reason to believe the Palestinians will ever do so.

Every statement by Obama that has put pressure on Israel—whether on a settlement freeze, the status of Jerusalem, or the 1967 lines—was intended to entice the Palestinians to restart peace talks and finally accept the independent state that has been on the table for more than a decade. But just as they turned down Israeli offers of a state—in virtually all of the West Bank, Gaza, and a share of Jerusalem—in 2000, 2001, and 2008, the Palestinians have also failed to take advantage of Obama’s gestures. To the contrary, they have interpreted each such statement as more incentive to avoid peace talks altogether. Having brushed off Obama’s entreaties, the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority signed a unity pact with its Hamas rivals this spring. And with the PA about to go to the United Nations to try and get that body to endorse a Palestinian state within the 1967 lines without recognizing Israel or accepting peace, Obama will find himself with no course of action other than to veto a resolution he basically supports.

Obama is certainly aware that Netanyahu received a warmer reception from Congress than has not only any foreign leader in decades but almost any American president. And there is a lesson in this for him. He might be inclined to dismiss the speech’s reception as a mere show for pro-Israel donors, but that would be foolish. And, while he is many things, Obama is not a fool. In fact, the genuine warmth shown Netanyahu—who is not as personally popular in the United States as many of his predecessors—indicated that Congress does not think of him as the charming English-speaking ruler of a friendly foreign country. Rather, it views him as the leader of a valued and admired wartime ally. Indeed, that is what Israel is, and Americans know it.

To be sure, Israel should look to avoid unnecessary conflicts with Obama, as it would with any American president, because the potential cost of any such argument is worrisome even if Israel emerges, as it did in Netanyahu’s latest triumph, the winner. When possible, Israel’s leaders must try to find points of agreement with Obama, as Netanyahu tried do in his speech to Congress. And they must wait out his presidency, whether for the next 17 months or the next 65 months, and hope for a friendlier Oval Office occupant next time.

Meanwhile, the echo of those cheers for Netanyahu will continue to be heard and understood as a warning to any American leader who thinks he can isolate or punish Israel for its unwillingness to accept concessions that its freely elected government deems inadvisable. As Barack Obama has already learned, the American people and its Congress consider Israel a friend engaged in a common struggle, not a dependent whose own interests can be ignored with impunity. The bonds between the United States and Israel are too fundamental, and the full flowering of the relationship between the two over the past 30 years is far too deeply rooted, for one problematic president to destroy that which has been so carefully and brilliantly cultivated.

About the Author

Jonathan S. Tobin is the senior online editor of COMMENTARY.




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