Letter to the Israeli Voter: If You Reelect Netanyahu, You Risk Losing the U.S.

The United States is becoming a different country; one that is increasingly intolerant of Bibi's policies.

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Workers hang a giant campaign poster showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, March 8, 2015.Credit: AFP

People sometimes ask me whom I would vote for, were I an Israeli. The honest answer is that I don’t know because, were I an Israeli, I would be a different person. As an Israeli, I would likely have experienced things that I have not experienced living in Boston, Washington and New York: years of military service, family killed in war, the anxiety of knowing that, not far away, live millions of people who wish my country did not exist. I would like to believe that, despite these hardships, I’d still consider it morally abhorrent and strategically suicidal to hold millions of Palestinians for almost half a century without basic rights. I’d like to believe I’d still be on the left. But do I know for sure? No. I don’t.

So if you, dear Israeli reader, are planning to vote next week for Benjamin Netanyahu because you believe, given your experience, that he offers Israel the better path, there’s not much I can say. I disagree, obviously. But if I’d lived your life, maybe I’d see things your way.

There is, however, one issue in this election into which my life experience gives me some insight: Israel’s relationship with America. If you are, in any way, factoring Israel’s relationship with the United States into your vote, then please know this: By reelecting Bibi, you put that relationship at risk.

To understand why, it’s crucial to understand that the United States is becoming, in important ways, a different country. Benjamin Netanyahu does not like Barack Obama; you may not either. But Obama is not an aberration; he is not a passing phase. He is the face of 21st century America. He will leave office in two years, but the coalition that elected him – minorities and Millennials – will grow in strength. In all likelihood, it will shape American politics for decades to come.

Obama is president because, twice now, he won overwhelming majorities among racial and ethnic minorities. In 2012, he won 71 percent of the Latino vote, 73 percent of the Asian vote and 93 percent of the African-American vote. And he is president because, twice now, he won an overwhelming majority among those younger voters who entered adulthood around the turn of the 21st century. In 2012, these “Millennials” backed Obama at a rate of 67 percent. 

It is a virtual certainty that, in the years to come, both minorities and Millennials will rise as a share of the American electorate. It is a virtual certainty because Latinos and Asians are America’s fastest growing ethnic groups, and because Millennials are still reaching voting age. In 2012, according to the political demographer Ruy Teixeira, minorities and Millennials together comprised 43 percent of America’s eligible voters. (Obviously, some Americans fall into both categories). By 2020, if current trends continue, that share will rise to above 50 percent. By 2050, it will be almost 65 percent.

Minorities and Millennials are not anti-Israel. Like other Americans, they mostly take Israel’s right to exist for granted. But they are more critical of Israeli policy. As non-white populations with a history of second-class citizenship, African Americans, Latinos and Asians identify more strongly with Palestinians than do white Americans.

Millennials are more critical because they are less religious. Many white, evangelical Christians see Israel through a Biblical prism. For white, secular Americans, by contrast, the prism is more often international law or human rights. And Millennials are more secular than their parents and grandparents. In 2012, only 7 percent of Americans over the age of 75 expressed no religious affiliation. Among Americans between the ages of 18-24, by contrast, 32 percent did. As the generation most shaped by the Iraq War, Millennials are also more dovish than their elders. They are more critical of Israel’s wars because they are more critical of America’s.

The result is a striking racial and generational divide. Last summer, when Gallup asked Americans whether Israel’s war in Gaza was justified, Americans over the age of 65 said yes by a margin of 24 points. Americans under the age of 30, by contrast, said no by a margin of 26 points. White Americans answered yes by 15 points; non-white Americans answered no by 24 points. This divide even translates to views of Netanyahu himself. According to a survey by the University of Maryland’s Shibley Telhami, Americans over the age of 45 view Bibi favorably while those under 45 view him negatively. And according to CNN, non-white Americans reacted more negatively to Bibi’s recent speech to Congress than did whites. 

Could these trends change? Sure. But it’s unlikely. For minorities, being more critical of Israel is linked to a broader set of attitudes – being more dovish on foreign policy in general, favoring Democratic candidates, consuming liberal media – that have been stable for decades now. Hispanics have voted Democratic in every presidential election since at least 1960, usually by wide margins. Among African Americans, the pattern is even more entrenched.

For their part, Millennials will likely remain comparatively secular, even as they get older. That’s because they are already far more secular than were previous generations at their age. There is also considerable evidence, dating from the scholar Karl Mannheim, that people’s political opinions are disproportionately shaped by events they experience while young. Which suggests that the Iraq War’s dovish impact on Millennials may endure.

None of this means reelecting Bibi will change Israel’s relationship with the United States overnight. It won’t. But by entrenching Israeli control over the West Bank, and moving Israel ever closer to what Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert and now Meir Dagan have called an apartheid state, Bibi is putting Israel on an ideological collision course with the people who will likely dominate American politics in the years to come. He’s alienating the young and non-white voters who backed Obama not merely because he’s treated Obama with disrespect but, more fundamentally, because he flouts the values that led them to support Obama in the first place.

Over the past six years, and especially the past six weeks, Bibi has placed himself on the wrong side of the tectonic shifts that will shape American politics for decades to come. Reelect him if you want. But understand that in so doing, you’re placing Israel on the wrong side of those shifts too.  

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