The GOP Sweep Is No Victory for Netanyahu

If they hope to safeguard the security of their country, Israel’s leaders will now be required to demonstrate a sophistication in their relations with the United States that has not been much in evidence of late.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Sheldon Adelson, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sheldon Adelson, left, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Tess Scheflan
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

Now that the Senate, like the House of Representatives, will have a Republican majority, right-wing supporters of Israel, both in Israel and America, are rejoicing.

Their thinking goes like this: Mr. Netanyahu has a natural affinity for Republicans and conservatives. After years of tension with the Obama administration, the prime minister can now expect his Republican friends in Congress to push back against Obama’s policies. With the president humiliated at the polls and Republicans in charge on the Hill, we will finally see right-wingers taking on Obama’s broken and pusillanimous foreign policy and – with a wink, perhaps, from Netanyahu himself – mobilizing Republicans in support of Israel’s hardline government on matters of peace, settlement and Iran.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it’s wrong. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu will be more vulnerable, not less. And Israel’s leaders, if they hope to safeguard the security of their country, will now be required to demonstrate a sophistication in their relations with the United States that has not been much in evidence of late.

Before the gloating anti-Obama partisans plan out their revenge scenarios, they should take note of the following:

1. When it comes to foreign policy, Congress has a role, but it is best not to exaggerate. That role is limited and most of the time, the president gets his way on foreign affairs. The president probably has the authority to conclude a deal on the Iranian nuclear threat without congressional approval, and he definitely will make the call on which Palestinian resolutions will be vetoed at the United Nations. To be sure, the Republican election victory will be important on domestic matters, but on the international scene it will have little impact on a president determined to leave a foreign policy legacy and constitutionally empowered to make most decisions in this arena.

2. The Republicans offer no coherent alternative to Obama’s foreign policy on Israel and the Middle East. The president is cautious on foreign affairs, sometimes maddeningly so, but the Republicans are mostly confused. During the election they had little to say on the subject other than anti-Obama sound bites, and on the vital issue of Iran, they were almost entirely silent.

3. Change on the Republican side is mostly in the direction of less engagement with the world. Republicans are well aware that white Evangelicals, hardline supporters of Israel and a key Republican constituency, are shrinking in numbers. And Rand Paul, once considered a fringe candidate for president, is now an eminently respectable one. An interesting man with interesting ideas – on privacy issues, I am a supporter – he might arrive at the Republican convention with 25 percent of the delegates, giving him a significant say in shaping the party’s message. And while Paul is not an isolationist but, in his words, a proponent of “conservative realism,” the thrust of his platform is that foreign entanglements of any sort are to be avoided whenever possible. In a recent speech on foreign policy reviewing all the major challenges that America faces, he did not mention Israel once.

4. If the right-wingers end up being correct and the Republican Congress launches major attacks on Obama’s Israel policy, the result will be to generate resentment in Democratic ranks. And if Netanyahu is seen as abetting such tactics and as an agent of the Republican right wing, and the Democrats then win the 2016 election, Israel could pay the price.

None of this means Israel’s supporters should passively accept every aspect of administration policy on Israel. On Iran’s nuclear threat, by far the most critical issue, the president wants a deal, and it is too early to tell if he will stand firm on getting a good one. A premature agreement on bad terms will be a disaster. Far better, as Secretary of State John Kerry has said, to have no deal at all.

But the best way to get a good deal is not to unleash an anti-Obama hatefest, not to incite the Republican Congress against the president at a viciously partisan time. Rather, the thing to do is what pro-Israel advocacy has always done in America: Create consensus on essential matters, such as the dangers of an Iranian bomb. Promote Israel as a bipartisan American concern. Build broad, pro-Israel coalitions drawing on both Republican and Democratic leaders. And avoid gratuitous attacks on the president that inflame and alienate Israel’s supporters in the opposing party.

Will American Jews be wise enough to do this? Will Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government be wise enough to cooperate? Hard to say. Bashing Obama is an overwhelming temptation for Jewish right-wingers in America, even if it is harmful to Israel’s interests. And it is an ever greater temptation for right-wing leaders in Israel, who see an anti-Obama stance as helpful in the Israeli elections likely to come next year.

But now is a time for restraint. And it is also a time for Israel’s government to do some priority-setting. An Iran deal is absolutely essential to Israel’s security, while settlement expansion and building in Jerusalem are not. If Israel wants America to be a friend on Iran, it will have to be a friend to America, and this means making reasonable accommodations to America’s desire to lower the temperature on Israeli-Palestinian issues.

The Republican victory does not mean Israel’s position just got easier. In fact, it just got harder. We’ll soon see if American Jews and Israel’s leaders are up to the challenge.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer and lecturer living in Westfield, New Jersey.

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