The Year of Living Dangerously? |

In 2014, American Jewish Leaders Might Lose Control of the Israel Debate

Washington’s failure to clinch two-state deal would shift Palestinian focus to international groups and college campuses where organized Jewry holds little sway.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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U.S. President Barack Obama and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: Reuters
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

In the spirit of the season, let me hazard a prediction: 2014 will be the year that America’s Israel debate begins to pass the organized American Jewish community by.

The first reason is the end of the American-dominated peace process. Despite John Kerry’s best efforts, the most likely scenario is that 2014 will be the year he fails. Even if Kerry manages to convince Israeli and Palestinian leaders to accept a “framework agreement,” which lays out guidelines for a final deal, it’s unlikely he can get it implemented. At the end of the day, Benjamin Netanyahu still leads a party dominated by people opposed to a Palestinian state. Indeed, the man he’s just appointed as his top foreign policy advisor publicly opposes a Palestinian state. For Netanyahu to embrace a territorially viable Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem would mean losing his political base, something that throughout his political career he has adamantly refused to do. In Dennis Ross’ memoir, he recalls Netanyahu explaining that a leader can never abandon “his tribe” of core supporters.


For almost four years, nothing the Obama administration has done has changed that. And now, with violence against Israel increasing and Obama having signed an Iran deal that Netanyahu hates, John Kerry has less leverage and Netanyahu has more excuses. Yet the more Kerry caves to Netanyahu - for instance, by backing a 10-year Israeli presence in the Jordan Valley even though the Clinton Parameters called for Israel to leave within three - the weaker he makes Mahmoud Abbas, a man who may be too weak to sign a conflict-ending deal already.

Kerry himself has said that if “we do not succeed now, we may not get another chance.” He’s right. If he fails, the United States won’t take another shot until it inaugurates a new president in 2017, and maybe not then. In the meantime, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle will move outside Washington as Palestinians take their case to international organizations, college campuses, religious and labor groups and European consumers. And for the organized American Jewish community, that’s a disaster because universities, international organizations and liberal religious groups are exactly the places the American Jewish establishment is weak.

It’s sadly ironic. The organized American Jewish community has spent decades building influence in Washington. But it’s succeeded too well. By making it too politically painful for Obama to push Netanyahu toward a two-state deal, the American Jewish establishment (along with its Christian right allies) is making Washington irrelevant. For two decades, the core premise of the American-dominated peace process has been that since only America enjoys leverage over Israel, the rest of the world should leave the Israel-Palestinian conflict in America’s hands.

But across the world, fewer and fewer people believe Washington will effectively use its leverage, and if the Kerry mission fails, Washington will no longer even try. The Palestinians are ready with a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign that shifts the struggle to arenas where the American Jewish establishment lacks influence. In the Russell Senate Office Building, Howard Kohr and Malcolm Hoenlein’s opinions carry weight. In German supermarkets and the Modern Language Association, not so much.

But the decline of the American-led peace process is only one reason 2014 may spell the decline of organized American Jewish influence. The other is Iran. For two decades, AIPAC and its allies have successfully pushed a harder and harder American line against Iran’s nuclear program. In Congress, where a bipartisan group of senators has just introduced new sanctions legislation over White House objections, that hard-line agenda remains popular. But in the country at large, it risks alienating the Americans who will dominate politics in the decades to come.

It’s no secret that young Americans are less unwaveringly “pro-Israel” than their elders. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll, while a majority of Americans over 65 say they sympathize primarily with Israel, among Americans under 30 it drops to just over one-in-three, with a plurality of respondents saying they sympathize with both sides.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t a pivotal issue in American politics. But Iran is, and the generational divide is just as strong. The Iraq War was a far more disillusioning experience for young Americans than for their elders, and you can see Iraq’s legacy in the polling on Iran, where according to a 2012 Pew poll, Americans under 30 were thirty points more likely than Americans over 65 to prioritize “avoid[ing] military conflict” with Tehran over “tak[ing] a firm stand” against its nuclear program. When I asked the indispensable folks at Pew to break down the age gaps within the parties, they found that young Republicans were almost as anti-war as old Democrats. Which helps explain why, in the 2012 Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary, Republicans under 30 favored anti-interventionist Ron Paul over his nearest challenger by a margin of almost two to one.

These are long-term trends. The American Jewish establishment won’t become irrelevant anytime soon. But 2014 may be the year when the downward trajectory of its power becomes clear. Wiser American Jewish leaders, aware of the BDS movement’s efforts to move the Israeli-Palestinian conflict outside of Washington, might have pushed Netanyahu to embrace the core tenets of a two-state agreement, and thus given skeptics more reason to believe Washington can still deliver. Wiser American Jewish leaders, aware of the war-fatigue among America’s young, might have avoided pushing sanctions that, as my colleague Chemi Shalev has argued, risk convincing many Americans that the American Jewish establishment is sabotaging a diplomatic deal.

The wisest leaders foresee change, and adapt to it, while there is still time. For the leaders of Jewish America, 2014 may be the year it becomes too late.



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