Opinion

Will AIPAC Boo Netanyahu?

Netanyahu still thinks he'll get a rousing reception at AIPAC, even after his deal with the Kahanist devils. He's probably right. But the applause hides deep concern that he’s boosted the Democratic drift away from Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the AIPAC conference in March 2018
חיים צח / לע"מ

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu probably knew that brokering a deal with a party led by Kahanists would cause trouble with American supporters of Israel. Netanyahu prides himself on his understanding of the United States.

But the attraction of boosting his chances of forming the next government, by consolidating the right-wing bloc, caused him to dismiss the potential long-term impact on American backing for the Jewish state.

And if he did spare a thought for those concerns, while bribing Habayit Hayehudi to merge with Otzma Yehudit, it’s likely that he thought the damage would be minimal, and of short duration.

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Netanyahu has made a career of running hard to his right while campaigning, but governing in a manner that many right-wingers consider incorrigibly centrist.

If his decision leads to the election of Otzma leader Michael Ben Ari to the Knesset, Netanyahu will ignore him, as he has done with embarrassing members of his own party. And if Netanyahu forms the next government, he will similarly ignore Habayit Hayehudi MKs and others on the right who will sit in the Cabinet. That will be especially true when he maneuvers around the Trump administration’s peace plan, rather than reject it, because it will involve some sort of two-state solution.

Netanyahu is used to American Jewish criticism about the peace process and religious pluralism, so he is probably anticipating that this episode won’t be any different. He is counting on the overwhelming majority of those who show up at the annual AIPAC policy conference next month give him the same rousing welcome he’s received in the past.

He’s probably right about the conference. His deal with the devil won’t stop scores of Republican and Democratic members of the House and Senate from showing up at AIPAC and pledging to continue the tradition of bipartisan support for Israel.

Even those who were appalled by the move won’t treat this incident as a reason to change their minds about the main issues dividing the Jewish world. AIPAC won’t suddenly adopt J Street’s liberal Zionist critiques of Netanyahu's government, let alone the pro-BDS stands of anti-Zionists like Jewish Voice for Peace.

But Netanyahu is wrong to think this will all be forgotten in a couple of months.

While Netanyahu’s lamentable legitimization of Kahane’s spiritual children won’t destroy American support or shatter AIPAC’s ability to mobilize Congress, it comes at a bad time for friends of Israel.

With the Democratic Party increasingly divided between traditional backers of Israel and an increasingly vocal left wing that has little sympathy for Israel, Netanyahu has added greatly to the burden groups like AIPAC must already shoulder.

As much as supporters of the government speak of the relationship with the U.S. being rooted in shared values of democracy, sometimes even a sharp observer like Netanyahu tends to treat it as more a matter of evangelical theology and geostrategic politics.

The Americans who condemned the Otzma deal - both those who are actually comfortable with Netanyahu and those, like the leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism, who are not -  understand that actions which give ammunition to those who smear Israel as an apartheid state chip away at the foundation of the alliance.

They also grasp the fact that for the 90 percent of American Jewry who are not Orthodox, actions like this bolster the toxic notion that Israeli and American Jews are now unrelated tribes.

A supporter of Israeli soldier Elor Azaria, convicted of manslaughter, wears a shirt depicting Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defense League and the Kach party.
Oded Balilty/AP

Most importantly, it puts AIPAC in a much more difficult spot than Netanyahu seems to appreciate.

While the Israeli left and some American liberals have written off the lobby as a branch of the Republican Party whose loyalty is primarily to the Likud, that isn’t true. The lobby works hard to foster support among Democrats. Despite the enormous publicity generated by the two new pro-BDS members of the House - Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar - most Democratic officeholders remain firmly in Israel’s camp.

Troubling poll numbers consistently show Republicans as lockstep backers of Israel while Democratic levels of support remain far lower. Yet Israel still commands the affection of a plurality of Democrats.

But by lending credence to claims that Israel is racist, even if that is an unfair characterization of the Netanyahu government, as well as of Israel as a whole, the prime minister just gave a leg up to people like Tlaib and Omar, and the noisy - if so far, powerless - members of the intersectional Democratic base.

AIPAC wasn’t critical of the Otzma deal because it was bamboozled by left-wing spin, is "pro-Islamist" or more comfortable with welcoming the "spies and inciters" from the left, as the tone-deaf talk from Netanyahu’s camp asserted.

AIPAC had to speak out because it understands that in a Democratic Party is clearly more sympathetic to Senator Bernie Sanders’s deeply critical attitude toward Israel than it was when he challenged Hillary Clinton on the issue in 2016.

Protesters hold signs outside the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C., U.S. March 21, 2016
Bloomberg

It also knows that in a party that is unwilling to punish Tlaib and Omar for tweeting out anti-Semitism, even if the latter was publicly rebuked by the leadership, Otzma is an issue that can help critics of the Jewish state gain ground in 2020.

That doesn’t mean Israel’s supporters in the U.S. are, as some on the left foolishly believe, doomed to fail in a nation where support for Zionism runs deep. But it does ensure that Israel’s critics will be louder and get more of a hearing than they would have gotten otherwise.

It may be a bit hypocritical for those who want to throw all the settlers out of their homes or have no qualms about the presence of Islamists or Communists in the Knesset to be horrified by Netanyahu’s acceptance of advocates of "transferring" Arabs.

But those who deny that Otzma and its racist leaders will become part of the BDS catechism, or think it's a good strategy to blame the controversy on weak and squeamish liberal Jews, are underestimating the problems this will cause both AIPAC and those trying to rally the non-Orthodox community behind the cause of Israel.

But the irony is that while some in his party or among his allies may actually believe this doesn’t matter, a savvy student of America like Netanyahu should have known better.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin