This Is No Time for Liberals to Give Up on Israel

Tonight most American Jews will sit down with family and friends for the Passover Seder. Whether they tell the story of redemption from slavery according to the Hebrew traditional text, a radical rewriting, or not at all, they'll eventually get to a sumptuous holiday meal and to conversation, often including politics.

Judging from the reaction of some of my close friends and respected colleagues to the Israeli election, one subject that liberal Jews—that is, most American Jews—won't want on the menu is Israel. The re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu has spoiled the taste beyond redemption. The manner of his victory—a lurch rightward, an unholy alliance with the GOP, a last-minute scare video about "droves" of Arab voters "advancing" on the polling places—has made talk of Israel even more bitter to the tongue. The tension in American Jewry between being liberal and being Zionist has been growing for years. But the election on March 17, 2015, may have been a breaking point.

Believe me, I understand. I live in Israel, I live politics, and I couldn't bear reading domestic news for a week after waking up to the results. For anyone on the left in Israel, the days since the election have been a mix of mourning, doubts, anger, unsuccessful denial, and—in the best case—shaking all that off to get ready to fight again.

And in that last mood, I ask American Jewish liberals to consider that this is the wrong moment to exile Israel from your minds and sympathies. Netanyahu's actions have finally created the opening in American politics to divorce support for Israel's basic security from support for Israeli policies. The opportunity has to be seized now, literally today, and Jewish liberals in the United States have a historic responsibility to grab it.

First, let me take another look at the Israeli election, seen with greater calm than on the morning after. The disaster of Netanyahu returning to the prime minister's office is real. But it has distracted attention from important nuances. For instance, the ultra-Orthodox bloc lost more than a quarter of its parliamentary strength, defying conventional wisdom of its ineluctable rise. The right-wing party known as Israel Is Our Home won just six seats—down from the 15 it won the last time it ran on its own. Moldovan-born Avigdor Lieberman built that party on a base of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, most of whom arrived in the 1990s. The immigrants and their children have integrated into wider society, and are no longer Lieberman's captive right-wing constituency. 

Ironically, the immigrant experience that does matter dates to Israel's early years, when the then-ruling socialist, secular, European-born establishment looked upon Jews arriving from the Muslim world as backward and treated them with contempt. Ever since, the left has struggled to get votes from them, their children, and their grandchildren. The left's charisma-challenged candidate in this election, Isaac Herzog, totally missed his Sister Souljah opening. At a mass rally of anti-Netanyahu forces, one speaker included in his list of the evil groups "who rule over us" a derisive reference to Jews from Muslim countries as "amulet-kissers." The speech was national news; Herzog's bland press release dissociating himself ended up at the bottom of news stories.

Another oft-overlooked facet of Netanyahu's victory: The combined strength of the right and ultra-Orthodox parties actually slid from a bare majority of 61 seats in the 120-member parliament to a plurality of 57. Netanyahu's expected coalition will be entirely dependent for its continued existence on the new centrist Kulanu ("All of Us") party, moderately hawkish on foreign policy, populist on economics. The coalition could last out a four-year term—but could easily collapse over writing a budget or coping with a diplomatic crisis.

More blatantly, Netanyahu burned his bridges with the White House and many congressional Democrats with his speech to Congress, his disavowal of a two-state solution, and his racist Election Day appeal. The Obama administration's reassessment of casting automatic vetoes to shield Israel from Security Council resolutions is much too late in coming, but we can thank Netanyahu for bringing it. Nancy Pelosi's statement, issued after Netanyahu's address to Congress, blasting it as an "insult to the intelligence of the United States," was unimaginable beforehand, even though such insults started long before March 2015. Likewise for Dianne Feinstein's on-air criticism of Netanyahu's "arrogance" in claiming to speak for all Jews.

When I first read Pelosi's statement, I dismissed her prefatory paragraph about America's "unshakeable commitment to Israel's security" as unavoidable lip service before she let go at Netanyahu. In retrospect, I was too cynical. Pelosi was speaking straight. Allow me to rephrase her words: Please take the idea that the GOP now stands for Israel and put it in the trash can. The Republicans stand for support of Netanyahu. Democrats support Israel, but they can and should oppose Israeli policies that are bad for America and bad for Israel. It's now possible in Washington to argue about Israel.

For Democrats to embrace that stance, though, they need political cover. They need to hear from voters, and especially Jewish voters, that they will maintain and gain support. When an organization such as the American Jewish Congress gathers signatures on a letter congratulating Netanyahu for his victory, Democratic politicians need to hear that it's not speaking for their voters.

They need to hear that repeating the fib of "undivided Jerusalem," as Hillary Clinton did last time she ran, is not a vote magnet. Quite bluntly, they need to know that if they criticize Netanyahu and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) stops sending donors in their direction, those checks will be replaced by other donors who support a two-state solution and a truly democratic Israel.

There is no time to waste. The Iran negotiations produced an interim agreement yesterday—which means that the political battle in Congress over supporting or blocking a full accord begins now. If, as reported, France plans to submits a new resolution to the Security Council by mid-April, setting out a binding framework for a two-state solution, the White House has a very tight schedule for reassessing its veto policy.

Until the current crisis, American acquiescence has enabled the Israeli right to continue pursuing self-destructive policies. The attitude that no one in Washington should criticize Israel is something that has developed over time. It's hard to remember now, but the Johnson administration co-wrote Security Council Resolution 242, which set withdrawal from occupied territory as a requirement for peace. The Ford administration's ambassador to the United Nations, William Scranton, said in a speech to the Security Council that Israeli settlements were illegal.

The fear of public disagreement with an Israeli government isn't just the product of lobbying by groups that claim to represent American Jews. The theocrats' takeover of the Republican Party is at least as significant. But the lobbying has played an important role, and Jewish liberals bear responsibility for letting those organizations speak to politicians in their name.

I understand: There are so many other issues that matter to liberals, and that are so much less painful to talk about. But avoiding the Israel issue has done damage. It has allowed Netanyahu to act as if there is no price for intransigence. Right now, there's a chance to change that, and to help create the Israel you'd like to see. It's no time to sigh and change the subject.


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