Israel Needs to Build Alliances With a Changing America

It's up to Netanyahu, the junior partner in U.S.-Israel relations, to repair relations with Obama, newly-elected president of the world’s most powerful country.

A bridge
A bridge (the George Washington, seen from Fort Lee, New Jersey). Bloomberg

Five lessons that Israel’s leaders should learn from the Obama victory.

One: Americans are resolutely centrist. Israel’s politics may be veering right, but America’s are not. Despite difficult economic conditions and high unemployment, America re-elected a centrist president who speaks the language of moderation, compromise, and social justice.

What this means is that those Israeli leaders who dream of a grand Israeli-American coalition of the right – Likud/Yisrael Beitenu and a hard-line Republican administration in America – are deluding themselves. Now and for the foreseeable future, Americans have no interest in choosing such hardliners to be their leaders.

Two: The hysterical, Obama-hating Jewish conservatives were wrong about everything. They said that Jews could be convinced to shift their votes to Republicans; they couldn’t. They said that Obama was an Israel-hating radical; he isn’t. They said that a Jewish alignment with the Republican Party was the only way to protect Jewish interests; it’s not.

Note to these conservatives: The Democratic Party has won four of the last six presidential elections, and has won the popular vote in five out of six. Jews absolutely need bipartisan support, but a strong case can be made that right now they should be focusing on building relationships on the Democratic side.

Three: Conservative, white Evangelicals are less important than they once were. Americans voters showed little interest in opposition to gay marriage and abortion—the social issues that largely define these Evangelicals. In fact, the voters approved of gay marriage in several states and punished candidates who expressed radical views on abortion. White Evangelical support of Israel is welcome and essential, but we need to take note of their declining influence and the increased clout of Hispanics, who were seen by practically everyone as the deciding voice in this election.

The cultivation of Hispanic leaders needs to be accelerated. Hispanics are generally friendly to Jewish concerns and supportive of Israel, and they can become more so. But they will not join Evangelicals in offering automatic approval for every Israeli policy. (For that matter, neither will most other Americans, who do not share the theological convictions of the Evangelicals.) And moving ahead in this realm will require both hard work on the part of American Jews and cooperation from the government of Israel, which must recognize that developing strong friendships with American minority groups is never easy or simple.

Four: Foreign policy remains far down on the priority list for American voters, despite claims to the contrary by neo-conservative leaders. Foreign policy was virtually absent from voter consciousness for most of the campaign. Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer have argued that it would have been a huge advantage for Romney if he had been more aggressive in raising the Libya/Benghazi issue, but there is no evidence to support this assertion (see, for example, Uri Friedman’s article in Foreign Policy magazine's blog Passport). The simple fact is that when it comes to foreign policy right now, Americans don’t much care.

The most important foreign policy question for Israelis is the threat of a nuclear Iran. President Obama has promised that he will not permit Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, and I believe that he intends to fulfill that promise. But given the focus of American voters on economic questions, neither American Jews nor the government of Israel should underestimate the pressures that the President will be under. Vigilance and careful follow-up will be required here, by all concerned.

Five: The good news is that President Obama sees a strong Israel as a vital American interest that cannot be compromised. This was a central message of the Obama campaign. But the bad news is that personal relationships matter as well, and it is hardly a secret to anyone that the Obama-Netanyahu relationship lacks the respect, openness and affection that previous presidents have had with Israel’s leaders. With an Iranian bomb looming, for this situation to continue is nothing less than a disaster for Israel.

And the key is for the Israel’s prime minister to take the initiative in repairing the relationship. This is not a question, as some commentators have suggested, of Obama and Netanyahu “learning to live with each other.” The election is over. The newly-elected president of the world’s most powerful country is the senior partner; Israel’s prime minister is the junior partner. Mr. Netanyahu needs to act accordingly and do what is necessary to build personal trust with the president of the Jewish state’s most important ally. And he needs to do so now.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.