The U.S.-Israeli bond is a flexible and wide bridge. Many lanes permit a variety of exchanges in both directions. At the most general are shared cultural and moral concerns; more narrowly there are security and economic issues. But while Israelis have embraced American pop culture and like to build economic and cultural connections, American history and politics are lost on most, especially American political trends. This can be damaging.
It is ironic and sad that most Israelis still do not fully appreciate the American side of the Zionist enterprise, going back to the days of Louis Brandeis, Henrietta Szold, Stephen Wise, and Golda Myerson, to Colonel David Daniel “Mickey” Marcus and Eddie Jacobson, I.L Kenen, the United Jewish Appeal, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and the Soviet Jewry movement, all of whose contributions are still visible in Israel today.
The same pertains to Israeli leaders. Even before Naftali Bennett became Israeli prime minister, now Foreign Affairs Minister Yair Lapid has been arguing that Benjamin Netanyahu destroyed bipartisan U.S. support for Israel. In June during a meeting in Italy, Lapid told Secretary of State Antony Blinken that during the Netanyahu years, “…mistakes were made.”
With the attempt to remove support for the Iron Dome missile defense system from the U.S. Congress’ budget bill, even more Israeli officials, speaking to Axios, anonymously blamed the development on Netanyahu. No evidence in support of this allegation was offered. Apparently, there is a straight line from Netanyahu’s divisive speech to the U.S. Congress in 2015 to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and the “Squad” opposing funding for the Iron Dome system, which was then approved by a vote of 420-9.
Still, Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai has called for a “long-term fix” in Israel’s ties with the Democratic Party, stating, “Long-term developments in the US are changing the Democratic Party and strengthening the progressive and anti-Israel axis” Shai went on to slam Netanyahu over his opposition to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
The Bennett administration believes that everything Netanyahu did was wrong and is happy to use Netanyahu as a fig leaf for centrist Democrats opposing the progressives. But it is naïve to argue that Netanyahu is what eroded U.S. bipartisan support for Israel.
What Lapid and many others have apparently not understood is the shift in American politics that has seen the rise of the far Left, which has taken control in numerous cities from San Francisco to Portland to Minneapolis, and which is represented in the Congress by the Squad and dozens of other ideologically aligned representatives.
The Democratic National Committee’s late decision to back Joe Biden was an attempt by the mainstream Democratic establishment to undercut the strong progressive wing of the party led by Senators Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) while retaining control. This was quickly squandered over a number of issues, not least of all Israel, giving the Squad the upper hand in a closely divided Congress. Only the senior leadership, led by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), remains familiar in the old terms of an “unshakeable commitment to Israel,” even though they have lost the spotlight to the progressives and to figures around Biden who continually move his policies to the left. With the mid-terms now thirteen months away, disastrous poll numbers for the party and for Biden himself, and economic forecasts being revised downwards, pressure is increasing from the Left.
In spite of all the problems—an open southern border, lowering economic forecasts, and plummeting popularity—pressure on Israel remains a key progressive policy. In part, this reflects the influence of the progressive’s true godfather, Barack Obama.
“Tough love” was the message that Barack Obama has been selling around since his talk in Jerusalem in 2013. In his speech during Jewish American Heritage Month at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington in 2016 he stated:
It’s precisely because, yes, I have high expectations for Israel the same way I have high expectations for the United States of America -- that I feel a responsibility to speak out honestly about what I think will lead to long-term security and to the preservation of a true democracy in the Jewish homeland.
These messages have carried over into the Biden administration but have now evolved thanks to the progressives and their campus-influenced worldview. Israel (like the United States) was born from sin and the world would be better off without it. Pending that, the U.S.-Israel relationship should be dramatically downgraded. Netanyahu’s courtship of Republicans and Donald Trump was unhelpful, but it was Obama who set the U.S.-Israeli relationship on a downward trajectory.
The Democratic generation gap is palpable; old-timers like Schumer and Nancy are genuinely pro-Israel, while the young guard—exemplified by Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI)—is not. Indeed, they may exemplify the new Democratic Party more than anything, where far-left identity politics meets demographic shifts, socialist economics, and obsessive hatred of Israel. Tlaib and Omar also espouse a conspiratorial mindset and a willingness to consort with Islamists who support Hamas and Hezbollah.
But the debate over Israel also reveals something about America itself. The very fact that there is a debate—with progressive Democrats at the firing, older Democrats perplexed, and Republicans are competing to see who can go further in defending Israel—reflects the oversized place that Israel has in American political and cultural life. This is not the result of nefarious “Jewish power” but is genuinely rooted in the American experience. It might not be healthy.
Former Israeli ambassador to the United States, American-born Michael Oren, was right when he wrote about the Obama years,
After a half decade of tensions, we must begin the process of repair. The greatest single quality in a leader, I have long observed, is clear-sightedness. The foreign relations field is dense with fog, and the ability to see through it is essential. American and Israeli leaders must discern their confluent interests and work to realize them. They must restore those three “no’s” – no surprises, no daylight, no public altercations – in their relations. They must revisit the meaning of ally.
The United States and Israel need a reality check on the alliance and a better understanding of the politics and culture in both Jerusalem and Washington. The fact is that the Israeli political arena leans much more to the Right whereas the loudest voices in U.S. politics currently lean Left means extra efforts are necessary to explain positions to one another.
Asaf Romirowsky is executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), and a senior non-resident fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA).