Who's to Blame for Liberal Disenchantment With Israel - Netanyahu or Obama?

Lieberman as defense minister garners headlines that can only accelerate the dramatic pro-Palestinian surge seen in Pew's recent poll.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington October 1, 2014.
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington October 1, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Benjamin Netanyahu just formed the most right wing government in Israel’s history, Vice News reported on Wednesday, following the sealing of a coalition deal that will make Avigdor Lieberman defense minister. Israel is moving dangerously far to the right, Business Insider noted. For those who care about Israel, this is a dark hour, Tom Friedman wrote.

These ominous assessments cannot be dismissed as anti-Israeli propaganda. After all, it was the ultra-hawkish Moshe Ya'alon, outgoing defense minister and former IDF chief of staff, who said last week that “racist and extremist elements” are taking over Israel and its ruling party. And it was Ehud Barak, former prime minister, defense minister, IDF chief of staff and Israel’s most decorated soldier, who said on Friday “fascist elements are taking root in the Israeli cabinet.”

Against such a backdrop, the growing disenchantment of young American liberals with Israel, highlighted once more this month by a new Pew Research poll, seems almost self-explanatory. For Millennials, the Holocaust, the establishment of Israel and even the Six-Day War are ancient history; they are far more acquainted with Israel’s military superiority, half a century of Palestinian disenfranchisement and the growing intransigence and intolerance of Israeli politics and society. If it were any other country in the world, the disaffection of young American liberals would be regarded as completely natural, if not surprisingly low.

But Noah Pollak of the Emergency Committee for Israel has a different culprit in mind. “[Barack] Obama’s hostility to Israel bears fruit: liberal Dems now sympathize more with Palestinians,” he tweeted this week. Two years ago, when Pew published similar though less dramatic results, Jennifer Rubin came to the same conclusion: It’s all President Obama’s fault. He’s set a “negative example” for the Democratic base, she wrote.

Other right wing columnists haven’t focused on Obama, however. Writing in the Jewish Press, Jeff Dunetz pinned the blame on the misguided loyalty of American Jews to the Democratic Party. “Since Progressives are not pro-Israel and the Jews keep voting for them anyway, why should Democrats support Israel?” In Commentary, Jonathan Tobin ascribes the shift to anti-Israeli propaganda. “Many on the left have swallowed Palestinian lies about Israel being at fault for the lack of peace or regard its acts of self-defense against terrorism as “disproportionate,” as [Bernie] Sanders does,” he wrote.

This has also been the overarching theme of Israeli efforts to counter BDS and growing anti-Israeli hostility on campuses, indeed the leitmotif of Israel’s view of any and all hostility in the world. It’s all part of a sinister anti-Semitic plot, possibly masterminded by Hamas, Iran and other Jew-haters. They are poisoning the minds of naive and impressionable American youths and leading them down a path of evil. And if that is the case, there’s no need to acknowledge the influence - or the very existence, in fact - of occupation, racism, “seeds of fascism,” popular support for extrajudicial killings, endless efforts to curtail democracy and the cries of frustration and anguish that all of these spark in Israel and are broadcast from there, through social media, to the rest of the world. All of these don’t matter, because primordial antipathy to Jews rules the world.

The same reaction awaits the deliberations and recommendations of the Democratic Party’s platform committee. Bernie Sanders’ appointees to the committee are already being branded as fanatic Israel bashers and potential Holocaust deniers. The fact that their positions may be a reflection of the sentiments of most of Sanders’ voters will be ignored at first and then acknowledged, but only as proof of the Obama-led descent to the depths of irrational hatred of Jews.

Nonetheless, explaining away the latest Pew poll findings may require extra effort this time, because contrary to first appearances, they are quite extraordinary. The new poll didn’t simply chronicle a steadily growing partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans, left and right or conservatives and liberals on Israel: for the first time in history it showed that a significant group in American politics, liberal Democrats, actually sympathize with the Palestinians more than they do with Israel. Not only that, the change hasn’t been incremental and gradual, as you might expect, but sudden and steep: In July 2014, liberal Democrats still sympathized more with Israel than with Palestinians by a margin of 39-21, which was actually a positive change for Israel from December 2012, when it the ratio was 33-22. Pew recorded similar numbers from 2006 onwards, until the spike this year.

Some critics have pointed to the gap between the word “support” and the word “sympathize,” which is used in these Pew polls. You can sympathize with the wretched and the downtrodden, even if you think it’s all their fault and actually agree with their oppressors. But that does not clarify why the sudden surge in “sympathy” for the Palestinians.

So what does? How is it that support for Israel among liberal Democrats stayed modest but steady and sometimes increased for the first six years of Obama’s term in office, and then suddenly changed course dramatically? If you claim that Obama is at fault, or the gradual evolution of leftist views, what can explain the sudden acceleration of previously steady trends? After all, Obama spent far more time sympathizing with the Palestinians in his first term in office than in his second. So what changed between 2014 and 2016?

In Pollak’s view, not much. In a reverse paraphrase of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s famous maxim, Pollak contends that Israeli actions don’t matter, only Obama’s words. Responding to my query about the influence of the Gaza war and Netanyahu’s speech in Congress, he wrote in an email: “The president is enormously popular and admired among liberals, and more than any other person he sets the agenda and guides the sentiment of the left. He repeatedly condemned Israel for excessive force and killing civilians [in Gaza]. He called opponents of the Iran deal warmongers, accused Israel of meddling in domestic politics, suggested that Netanyahu is a racist, and hurled epithets - always on background in the press - against the PM. After seven years of portraying Israel as a problem for the US, and two years of intense condemnation, it's no surprise the polling numbers changed. It's not because of Israel - it's because of how Obama talks to the left about Israel.”

Reality, in Pollak’s view, doesn’t even nibble. In the conflict in Gaza in the summer of 2014, and notwithstanding its own perceptions, Israel was viewed as having used overwhelming force against a largely innocent civilian population. Whatever the explanations and excuses offered by Israeli representatives and supporters abroad, the pictures of neighborhoods demolished and turned to rubble were infinitely more powerful than any words could explain. Multiplied and amplified a million times over on social media, they left a devastating impression, especially among younger liberals who are inclined to “sympathize” more with the Palestinians from the outset.

In the Iran deal, more than anything else, Netanyahu’s speech to Congress soured relations with liberal Democrats no less than with the White House. Netanyahu’s brazen challenge to protocol and what was perceived as his personal insult to Obama was received with a mix of shock and scorn by liberal Democratic figures including most members of the Congressional Black Caucus and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The harsh attacks on Netanyahu, the stony silence that emanated from liberal Democrats who attended his March 15, 2015 speech and the unprecedented decision of Vice President Biden along with eight US Senators and 50 Members of the House to boycott the event marked a dramatic, watershed departure from previous disagreements. Many of the liberal lawmakers may have gotten over it –they’re politicians, after all - but among their voters, the resentment lingers on.

One of the eight senators who stayed away from Netanyahu’s speech was Bernie Sanders. Since then, the Vermont senator has gone on to become a presidential contender who is wildly popular among young Democratic liberals. It is possible that Sanders’ willingness to stray from the norm, to criticize Israel and Netanyahu publicly, to call for an evenhanded U.S. approach and to express unabashed sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians gave an extra push to pent up liberal frustrations that had been simmering beneath the surface all along.

Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister is bound to pour more fuel on the fire, even if one assumes, as I do, that his actions will belie his harsh and often racist words. Nonetheless, the next time someone blames anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, leftist agitprop, liberal naiveté or that all purpose whipping boy Barack Obama for the growing alienation between Israel and liberals, in America and around the world, you might want to refer them simply to this week’s headlines.

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