Israeli Politics Have Become Harder to Defend in American Politics

Israeli Politics Have Become Harder to Defend in American Politics

The answer to the question of “why now” regarding the change in discourse about U.S. policy toward Israel is primarily due to larger political patterns that have come into focus this year.

 

Certain ideas about U.S. policy toward Israel have crept into mainstream discourse, where only a few years ago such ideas were rarely voiced. This development says more about U.S. politics than about issues currently generating headlines in Israel.

Well, at least one particular idea has fully entered the discourse: the $3.8 billion in annual, no-strings-attached aid that the United States gives Israel should end, or at least have conditions attached. Nicholas Kristof recently raised this topic in a New York Times column that cited other respected public intellectuals with unimpeachable records of friendship with Israel, including former U.S. ambassadors to Israel Daniel Kurtzer and Martin Indyk. Some others with similar standing and background, including Washington Post columnist Max Boot, are speaking in the same vein.

 

But why should this change in public discussion be happening now? The argument for phasing out U.S. aid to Israel is not only strong, but has been for a long time. Israel is a wealthy country, and that fact is not new. It is in the richest quintile or even decile of countries, depending on how one measures GDP per capita. No matter how much one might favor Israel remaining by far the most militarily capable country in its region, it can afford to pay for that capability itself. The billions in U.S. aid to Israel constitute a subsidy by American taxpayers to Israeli taxpayers. That subsidy is especially unjustifiable when American taxpayers’ political leaders are bemoaning budget deficits and proposing major cuts to government programs that support the health, welfare, and prosperity of Americans themselves.

Moreover, years of experience have demonstrated that the voluminous unconditional aid to Israel ($158 billion to date) has bought the United States almost no influence over Israeli policies, except perhaps for some token votes in the UN General Assembly on matters on which almost everyone else opposes the United States.

The precipitating event for the change in the discourse would appear to be the political turmoil in Israel surrounding the government’s effort to emasculate the judiciary. But that is a domestic Israeli issue, where the connections to matters of international consequence are only indirect. It is true that the Israeli Supreme Court, whose powers and composition are at stake, has been an impediment to some of the measures the government has attempted to take in subjugating Palestinians and advancing the de facto annexation of the West Bank. But the question of the court’s powers and composition is fundamentally a constitutional matter for the country involved—not something traditionally regarded as an appropriate topic for foreign intervention.

Habitual defenders of Israel in the United States have seized on this point. Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy criticizes President Joe Biden for urging the Netanyahu government to back away from its judicial overhaul plan, stating that the president “erred by elevating Israel’s domestic crisis into a political issue between our two countries.” Senator James Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, makes the same criticism of Biden for intervening in a domestic issue, saying “I don’t think that’s appropriate any more than they should be telling us how we should vote on the Supreme Court here.”

The context that makes these criticisms somewhat laughable is that Israel intervenes extensively and blatantly in U.S. domestic politics, an interference that is only partly disguised by a failure to enforce fully the Foreign Agents Registration Act. A dominant aspect of the U.S.-Israeli bilateral relationship is a political alliance, which became especially salient during Donald Trump’s presidency, between the Republican Party and the Israeli Right, which means the current Israeli government. Israel tells Americans how to vote on many things, including who should represent them in Congress, even when this undermines the democracy that supposedly is a value that the two countries share.

Setting aside that context, however, those who ask why the U.S. administration should have chosen an essentially domestic issue as one on which to lobby the Netanyahu government are raising a valid question.

Moreover, the proponents in Israel of the judicial overhaul have a valid point in arguing that they are the ones upholding democracy by placing ultimate power in elected representatives in the Knesset rather than in unelected judges. Without a written constitution, “reasonableness” is a remarkably ill-defined standard by which the Israeli Supreme Court has overruled some actions of the Knesset. American liberals who are chagrined about how the right-wing majority on the U.S. Supreme Court overrules the will of Congress and the president through such stratagems as the “major questions doctrine”—a standard that is as ill-defined as “reasonableness”—ought to have some sympathy for what the Israeli government is trying to do.

The answer to the question of “why now” regarding the change in discourse about U.S. policy toward Israel is not to be found primarily in the substance of the Israeli judicial overhaul issue. Instead, it has to do more with larger political patterns that have come into focus in Israel this year. One is the sheer intensity of political division in Israel—among Jewish Israelis—manifested in massive street protests that exceed what had been seen in earlier Israeli political history. With so many Jewish Israelis so strongly opposed to the Israeli government and what it is doing, American politicians and commentators can comfortably join in criticism of that government without damaging their “pro-Israel” credentials.

Another factor is the nature of the current Israeli coalition government, which took office at the turn of the year and is the most extreme government the country has ever had. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, desperate to keep the coalition together so that he stays in power and out of jail while facing corruption charges, has effectively ceded much control to the extremists. Many thoughtful American critics of the direction of that government have a genuine concern, which is fully compatible with their professed fondness for Israel, about the destructive future that the government is leading the country into.

But for many engaging in political discussion and debate in the United States, the situation is more one of optics and how they make certain positions politically safe or unsafe. The most extreme of the extremists in the Israeli government are easy to dislike. They include Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has praised, and formerly displayed a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, the mass murderer who killed 29 Muslim worshippers and wounded 125 more in Hebron in 1994. They include Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (who also is involved in the administration of the West Bank), who argues for segregation of maternity wards so that Jewish women will not have to be near Arabs, who Smotrich says “are my enemies and that’s why I don’t enjoy being next to them.” These major figures in the government are Jewish supremacist bigots out of central casting. The picture they present is sufficiently ugly for criticism of the Israeli government by Americans to be politically safer than it was before.

Despite the shift in the discourse, curtailment of U.S. aid to Israel does not appear to be in the cards. House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, leading a congressional trip to Israel, said that controversy over the judicial overhaul should not affect U.S. assistance. And even if the financial aid were to be curbed, that would leave all the other forms of U.S. backing of Israel, including vetoes in the UN Security Council and other diplomatic blank checks.

The fundamental political patterns shaping U.S. policies toward Israel are not new. They go back at least as far as when Harry Truman sided in 1948 with his political adviser Clark Clifford and against the strong advice of his security and foreign policy advisors regarding recognition of the self-declared state of Israel. That pattern has become even more marked in recent years and certainly has not gone away in 2023, notwithstanding the change in some of what is being said about U.S. aid. The pattern continues to suppress full and honest discussion of the divergence between U.S. interests and much of Israeli policies and behavior.

The protests over the judicial overhaul, massive though they are, have not extended to what is a far more defining issue for the direction in which Israel is headed, for instability in the Middle East, and for the effects on U.S. interests—the continued occupation and subjugation of the Palestinian population. It is reasonable to hope that the protests, and expressions of support for them outside Israel, will expand in that direction, but so far that defining issue has mostly been the unmentioned elephant in the room.

The judicial overhaul issue and associated protests have not changed the fundamentals of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. They have just made it a bit less politically hazardous to inch closer to speaking some long-suppressed truths about that relationship.

Paul R. Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was as a National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. Professor Pillar also served in the National Intelligence Council as one of the original members of its Analytic Group. He is also a contributing editor for this publication.