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Why the Upcoming Election Will Determine the Fate of U.S. Bipartisan Support for Israel

It’s perfectly legitimate if the prime minister’s political inclinations sit squarely with the Republicans. It’s not legitimate to make Israel a wedge issue in American politics

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Alon Pinkas
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking against the Iran nuclear deal in Congress six years ago.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking against the Iran nuclear deal in Congress six years ago.Credit: AFP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

The leaders of several parties running in the March 23 election have promised that if they reach a position of influence in a future government, they will “restore bipartisan support” for Israel in the United States. This includes Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar, Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman and others.

While the U.S.-Israel relationship isn’t a major theme in the campaign, there is a sense among Israelis that bipartisan support for Israel in the United States has eroded gradually but steadily in the last decade, especially during the years of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bromance with former President Donald Trump.

There’s a reason why the only politician who hasn’t bothered to state that he will “restore bipartisanship” is the one who is directly responsible for its perceived diminishing – Netanyahu himself.

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Ever since Thomas Jefferson proclaimed that “We are all republicans, we are all federalists,” Americans have preached, advocated and yearned for the elusive idea of bipartisanship. Parties have changed names, positions, constituencies and geographic bases of power, but the stable two-party system has always entertained the notion that bipartisanship adds power, gravitas and legitimacy to a policy. Rarely, with the exclusion of wartime resolutions, have major policy issues enjoyed continuous bipartisan support.

One of those rare, almost extinct policy species has been Israel, at least since the 1970s. While in the United States bipartisanship simply means an agreement between Democrats and Republicans on something, from an Israeli perspective the term is defined slightly differently: Israel should never become a wedge issue in American politics.

Israel doesn’t necessarily expect equal support from American politicians of different affiliations, or equally potent underlying sentiments for that support, certainly given that the partisan divide in America reflects two divergently different electorates whose fault lines are cultural, socioeconomic and ethnic.

A liberal from the Upper West side of Manhattan and a conservative from the Upper Midwest have a different impetus for supporting Israel, and that’s fine.

Force multiplier

For decades, Israel nurtured both – via their representatives in Congress.

Israel’s mission statement with regard to American politics was to do its utmost to avoid becoming a partisan and divisive issue, even when forces in both parties were trying to portray and designate it as such. Through great efforts, reconciling the support of a tea party evangelical Christian from Tulsa, Oklahoma, with that of a liberal, pro-choice, anti-gun Democrat from Presidio Heights, San Francisco, was a feat Israel accomplished for many years.

Not becoming a wedge issue means, first and foremost, not crudely and ostentatiously meddling in U.S. politics. But it also means not overexerting legitimate political leverage when power is divided in Washington. In addition, it means always refraining from any discernible alignment with one party. Hundreds of Israeli diplomats, defense officials and politicians, as well as dedicated American Jews, have cultivated and strengthened this construct for decades.

Relations with the United States are a central pillar of Israel’s national security. Only those versed in the structure, nuts and bolts of American defense assistance and diplomatic cover for Israel truly appreciate the extent and depth of this relationship and its critical nature for Israel. That’s why bipartisan support proved to be an indispensable force multiplier in the relationship.

There have been many disagreements, occasional confrontations and some rare open rifts. The 1975 American “reassessment” of relations, the 1991 “loan-guarantee crisis” and the 2000 proposed Israeli sale of Phalcon AWACS to China all come to mind.

There have also been cool and at times hostile relationships between American presidents and Israeli prime ministers: Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin, George H.W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir.

But the sources of these disagreements and strained personal relationships were never a partisan thing. It was substantive or personal, never political. Not one crisis developed because of a political preference Israel had to one party over the other.

Unfortunate collusion

Enter Benjamin Netanyahu, the Republican senator from the Upper Middle East.

Netanyahu’s politics are perfectly legitimate. That his political inclinations sit squarely with the Republican Party since the mid-’90s is legitimate. That he feels more comfortable with Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Fox News than he ever did with Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, Jerry Nadler and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is legitimate. That he feels more affinity with evangelical Christians, 80 percent of whom vote Republican, than with centrist and liberal Jews, 75 percent of whom vote Democratic, is also arguably legitimate.

What is patently not legitimate is that he has made this into a de facto policy. To borrow from “Star Trek,” he breached the Israeli Prime Directive, the “non-interference directive” in American politics. He deliberately forged an alliance with half of America at the expense of the other half.

He deliberately colluded with Gingrich and Jerry Falwell against President Clinton in 1998. In 2012, he deliberately explained that Mitt Romney would be a better president than Barack Obama. He deliberately built an alliance with the tea party against Obama, and then deliberately went behind Obama’s and Vice President Joe Biden’s backs in 2015 and spoke to Congress against the Iran nuclear deal, a presidential policy.

In doing so, he deliberately alienated himself from many Democratic voter groups, from many Democrats in Congress and from many American Jews who feel a growing discomfort being caught in the middle.

But the worst thing that his pattern of behavior precipitated was legitimizing the use of Israel as a wedge issue. Trumpist Republicans marveled at the opportunity to proclaim to be “better friends” of Israel, supposedly more supportive than Democrats. That is, of course, profoundly false. Some Democrats exploited Netanyahu’s flagrant pro-Republican proclivities and felt vindicated in their criticism of Israel. Making Israel a political football is inexcusable, and that’s exactly what Netanyahu did.

Is bipartisanship irreparably broken? No. It’s been dented and cracked, but the fundamental support for Israel among American voters and elected officials remains broadly bipartisan and is led by opinion leaders in both parties who share a genuine support for Israel.

Can it be restored to previous levels? Perhaps, taking into account both changes in policies and changes in American society and politics.

One thing is certain, however: Such a restoration is very unlikely to happen if, two weeks from today, Netanyahu remains prime minister.

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