Analysis

Israel's Irreconcilable Differences With U.S. Jews and the Democratic Party May Soon Lead to Final Divorce

Netanyahu is accelerating the pace of his country’s estrangement from everyone but ethnocentric and anti-democratic nationalists and xenophobes

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets supporters at the party's election headquarters In Tel Aviv, March 18, 2015.
AP

These are some of the events concerning Israel that have recently made headlines in the U.S. and the West: Paul Manafort reveals an Israeli accomplice to his Ukrainian dirty tricks; the prime minister’s spokesperson stands accused of serial sexual harassment, a charge downplayed and ignored by the Israeli ambassador to Washington; the universally-opposed impending evacuation of Bedouin outpost Khan al-Ahmar in the West Bank; humanitarian crisis in Gaza and massive bloodshed on its fence; wild cheers for Donald Trump’s harsh measures against the Palestinians; the nation-state law and anti-democratic legislation; political filtering of critics at the airport; and a prime minister mired in corruption charges who James Comey’s his police chief for taking his job too seriously.

And so on and so forth, for the list is long. Israelis may still believe they are a chosen and embattled people, a light unto start-up nations, a paragon of morality and virtue and the most unfairly maligned country on the face of the earth, but Israel is having an increasingly hard time convincing anyone who is not a right-wing ideologue or Evangelical believer of these supposedly self-evident truths. For all the rest, in varying degrees, Israel’s stature has steadily deteriorated from good to bad to worse.

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Historically, we are nearing the end of a 70-year, 180-degree polar reversal of Israel’s positioning on the ideological spectrum. Forty years of Likud revisionism may have obfuscated who did what during the fight for Israel’s independence, but Israel, by and large, is a creature of the left. Its founders and builders were fervently committed Zionist socialists. Moreover, its legal creation under international law would not have been possible without Josef Stalin’s brief and abrupt support for the partition of Palestine at the critical juncture of the November 29, 1947 UN vote. It would also not have been possible without the Czech military supplies Moscow allowed, without the near-unanimous endorsement of Communist, socialist and social-democracy movements throughout the world, without the sympathy of American leftist intellectuals who galvanized U.S. public opinion and without the big Jewish donors of the Democratic Party, along with the masses of Jewish Democratic voters traumatized by the Holocaust, who cajoled Harry Truman to support the establishment of the Jewish state and to pressure other countries to do so as well.

All of that is now long-gone water under the bridge, for reasons that have been detailed extensively by historians. The Soviets gave up on their dream of a Jewish socialist avant-garde in Palestine, the U.S. abandoned its plans for a pan-Arab pro-Western alliance and armed the Jewish state instead, Holocaust memories receded, the Six Day War came along, the Palestinian issue emerged, Jewish settlements flourished, the occupation became permanent and entrenched and Israel slowly but surely drifted away from its leftist roots and embraced a xenophobic religious and nationalist right instead.

In recent years, the pace of the shift from one end of the spectrum to the other has accelerated, reaching demon speed in the wake of Benjamin Netanyahu’s unexpected victory in the February 2015 “Arabs coming to vote in droves” elections. For reasons that may include the right-wing bent of his coalition, the surprise triumph of Trump, a heightened sense of victimhood, an urge for vindictiveness and a feeling that he is finally free to act on his core beliefs - Netanyahu has pushed Israel further and harder to the right, thus alienating, by definition, increasingly large sections left and center.

The critical stations on Netanyahu’s highway to leftwing hell are well-known, from clashes with liberal Barack Obama to infatuation with his populist successor; from courting Eastern European authoritarians, despite their anti-Semitic stench, to rebuffing their liberal Western European counterparts because of their sympathy for Palestinians; from aversion to any and all diplomatic processes to deliberate degradation of potential PLO partner Mahmoud Abbas; from the warm embrace of Evangelical Christians to open disdain for liberal American Jews; from ongoing incitement against minorities and constant dissing of dissenters to support for a soldier-turned-killer like Hebron shooter Elor Azaria; from backing, or at least succumbing to, the anti-liberal, anti-democratic theocratic impulses of his coalition partners to uncannily Trump-like efforts to escape the long arm of the law; from distancing Israel from the liberal Weltanschauung of modern Jewry to adopting the chauvinistic norms and vocabulary of their worst oppressors and enemies.

For most of his political career, Netanyahu tried to position himself as a committed security hawk with a liberal bent and a willingness, under optimal circumstances, to consider compromise. He exulted in his dialogue with critical Western leaders, cultivated ties with liberal media types and opinion-makers, assuaged the fears and quelled the apprehensions of American Jews and projected an image of a tough but nonetheless open-minded prime minister. Somewhere around 2015, Netanyahu decided to shed his disguise, to stop pretending and to reappear on the world stage as the spiteful right-wing reactionary that his critics always claimed was the one true Bibi.

In the process and as a result, Israel has changed its tune. Government propagandists continue to extol the country’s extraordinary achievements, its scientific prowess and its high-tech wizardry. They still go through the motions of portraying Israel as a villa in a jungle, a haven of liberty and freedom in an ocean of zealotry and bigotry. Nonetheless, the traditional, open-minded accentuation of its positive qualities is no longer the main thrust of Israel’s PR efforts. It now takes a back seat to holier-than-thou self-righteousness, constant vendetta against detractors, a clear-cut effort to delegitimize any and all criticism and a blatant campaign to equate it with latent or open anti-Semitism.

Netanyahu’s Israel rejects well-meaning liberal supporters who object to Israeli policies for all the right reasons and cuddles erstwhile allies who support it for all the wrong ones, including a supposedly shared hostility towards foreigners, immigrants and Muslims, as well as so-called universalist, cosmopolitan Jews who look like George Soros or work to improve civil society like the New Israel Fund.

If one can judge a country by the company it keeps, Israel leaves no room for doubt: It is consciously and willingly reneging on the Western liberal values to which it committed itself at creation and plunging head-first into the fetid waters of the anti-democratic cesspool its founders and liberal supporters so clearly abhorred.

What’s more, Netanyahu and his cohorts don’t seem to care any more. They play to their populist galleries at home and are oblivious to the damage their actions create abroad. They are now prisoners of their concocted piousness. Israel and its supporters abroad, most significantly in the American Jewish right, have practically given up on convincing, persuading or at least keeping an open ear to legitimate objections. Instead they rely on character assassination, undeclared boycotts, secret enemies’ lists, the demonization of BDS and the weaponization of anti-Semitism. As far as the left is concerned, Israel has adopted a sure-fire formula to lose friends as well as the ability to influence them to reconsider.

The process of jettisoning inexorably moves from fringe to the center. First, in the wake of the Six Day War, the occupation of Palestinians and Jerusalem’s increasingly tight relations with Washington, Israel lost the radical left. Then, from the First Lebanon War through the intifada, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the rise of Netanyahu himself, Israel’s behavior began to sow doubts among moderates as well, losing sympathy among centrist and left-of-center parties throughout the world. Now, it seems, Netanyahu and his allies are going for broke, by distancing Israel from American Jews and by ignoring the sentiments of the Democratic Party, for which U.S. Jews overwhelmingly vote. The principle of U.S. bipartisan support, long considered a lynchpin and vital component of Israel’s national security, has fallen prey to an ever-rising tide of self-centered arrogance, imperiousness, resentfulness and total lack of self-awareness. 

Which is why, three years after Netanyahu’s abrupt turn to the right, Israel is fast approaching a tipping point, from which there may be no return. It stands on the edge of a precipice as it speedily and voluntarily removes the last barriers that prevent its fall. It is following in the footsteps of South Africa before the imposition of universal sanctions, as it tightened apartheid in response to global criticism - which also emanated mainly from the left.

The gap between Israel’s self-absorption and willful blindness and the basic tenets of enlightened liberals will soon become unbridgeable. They already amount to “irreconcilable differences” that, in many countries, constitute valid grounds for turning a trial separation into a no-fault divorce.  Which is all fine and dandy, perhaps, as long as Trump stays in power, Evangelicals remain committed, Republicans offer blind support, Sheldon Adelson keeps his checkbook open, right-wingers are ascendant throughout Europe and widespread fear and loathing of emigrating Muslims translate into default support for the country whose leader openly boasts of serving as the forward Western outpost that keeps them at bay.

Otherwise, Israel will ultimately and inevitably pay a steep price for its foolhardy neglect of the liberal world. The first accounting may come as early as November 6, if the U.S. Congress falls into the hands of a reinvigorated Democratic Party, depleted of its pro-Israeli stalwarts, increasingly beholden to its liberal, left-wing flank, eager to flex its muscles and to start exacting its revenge. It’s what the genuinely Israel-hating part of the liberal-leftist world, once miniscule and insignificant, has been waiting for all along.