For years souvenir shops in Israel sold a T-shirt emblazoned with jet fighters and the slogan, “Don’t worry America — Israel has your back!”
It was a cute piece of post-1967 triumphalism and a gentle parody of the true relationship between the two countries. Since 1962, American military aid to Israel has amounted to nearly $100 billion. The U.S. aid package exceeds $3 billion annually, and while much of that money flows back to America in the form of arms purchases, it’s vital to maintaining what AIPAC calls Israel’s “qualitative military edge.” It’s only part of America’s irreplaceable financial, diplomatic, and military support for its tiny ally.
Over the past several months, however, some supporters seem to be taking the T-shirt literally. They are treating Israel as the senior partner in the bilateral relationship and, as part of that, President Obama as a bit player in the Benjamin Netanyahu show.
That spirit was heard the day after the Israeli election. Many of his supporters in the Diaspora saw Netanyahu’s surprising victory as an opportunity to mock his critics, deride Obama, and suggest that Israeli voters had somehow defeated its enemies abroad.
A friend forwarded me an e-mail that simply read “F.U.” (although in less polite terms) followed by the names Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Tom Friedman, Jeffrey Goldberg, and The New York Times editorial board.
In a press release, the ZOA essentially described the Israeli vote as a referendum on Obama: “Understandably,” it wrote, “Israelis felt that, if they couldn’t depend on Obama’s help on vital security issues, they had to go with the strongest and most experienced candidate on security, and that was Benjamin Netanyahu.”
That’s not to say that the relationship between Netanyahu and the White House is not in the dumps, or that Obama wasn’t hoping for a different outcome. But it is a little strange for American Jews to celebrate more bad blood between Israel and its most important ally. Obama isn’t going anywhere during the next two years. And despite the impression Netanyahu and John Boehner gave during the Israeli leader’s speech to Congress, the Republican Congress is not in control of America’s foreign policy.
Netanyahu has been encouraging this sort of partisanship, culminating in The Speech. It is not clear how alienating a lame duck White House and good number of strong Democratic congressional allies makes Israel more secure. And it puts American Jews in a very peculiar position. Bipartisanship has long been AIPAC’s stock in trade. Jewish leaders want Israel to be seen as a reflection of American values, and not as a pet cause of one party or another.
Much of this is practical: You never know who will win the next election. It is also a reflection of American-Jewish values. Most American Jews tend to vote left of center. But surveys show that Republicans and conservatives are becoming more reliable supporters of Israel than Democrats and progressives. Committed pro-Israel Democrats do not want to have to choose between their domestic politics and their love of Israel. They are willing to fight hard to counter the apathy and the hostility on the Left. That’s already a tall order, with Israel in control of the lives of millions of Arab non-citizens, with no end in sight to what most of the world considers an illegal occupation, and with a well-organized BDS movement exploiting a malleable activist base. It becomes a lot harder when Israel and its supporters project a face of triumphalism and suggest that Israel can do without the broad-based American support it has enjoyed since its founding.
Nor did Netanyahu’s last-minute campaign tactics present Israel in the best light. By repudiating his own support for a Palestinian state, and warning Israeli voters that Arab citizens “are going en masse to the polls,” Netanyahu gave ammunition to those who blame Israel for the failure of peace negotiations and who want to tar Israel as a racist or “apartheid” state. True, Netanyahu walked back his statement on a Palestinian state a few days after the election, and apologized to Arab leaders in Israel for his other remarks. But that’s just a start for what he’ll need to do to win back an angry White House and a hostile media.
So if you are a supporter of the Right in Israel, enjoy the moment. Victory is sweet. And if you are on the Left, my condolences. Perhaps Israeli voters fell for Netanyahu’s politics of fear — or perhaps your camp could not convince Israeli voters that your ideas or vision are any better.
But after the victory parties and lamentations are over, there is work to be done. American Jews need to remind our fellow Americans about the vitality of Israeli democracy, the record participation of Arab Israeli voters, and the security threats Israel faces in an explosive region. And we’ll need Israel’s help — in extending an olive branch to the White House, in mending fences with Democrats, in putting forth a narrative that insists Israel is eager to make peace.
Perhaps it makes you feel good to say “F.U.” to your political enemies. But Netanyahu doesn’t need enablers as much as Israel needs allies.