Last week the Israelis handed the Obama administration an important advantage in the continuing struggle between the US and Israel over policy towards the Palestinians. By announcing a decision to move forward with 1600 housing units in East Jerusalem, the Israelis embarrassed the administration in a way that created problems for Prime Minister Netanyahu and gave Washington an opportunity to push back. But by going public with a set of tough demands without securing its domestic support, the Obama administration may lose the advantage it gained.
With Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu scheduled to address AIPAC’s annual meeting next weekend in Washington, the stage is set for high drama. The greatest danger at this point is that one or both sides may misjudge the state of American public opinion. Israel’s political support in the United States is ultimately based much less in the highly visible network of organizations like AIPAC than it is in the strong support for Israel well beyond the Beltway. I’ve been writing a series of posts over the last week about this; it is the gentile supporters of Israel, not American Jews, who ultimately define the boundaries of American foreign policy on this issue, and the Obama administration’s ability to put pressure on its most important Middle Eastern ally ultimately depends on the reaction of American gentile supporters of Israel to administration policy. The administration may be in danger of overestimating its support in a drawn out debate.
The politics of American support for Israel can be hard to read. For the last generation, Israel has been losing popularity and support among some groups of Americans. The shift in sentiment is particularly notable among Democrats, among some of the more liberal mainline churches, among African-Americans and among people with graduate and professional degrees.
Despite these losses, overall public support for Israel in the United States has been rising, not falling, for most of the last generation. 9/11, which galvanized many American liberals to think harder than ever about the desirability of distancing the United States from Israel, immeasurably deepened the determination of a large number of their fellow citizens to stand by Israel no matter what. Just as Israel was seen as America’s most reliable and important Middle Eastern ally during the Cold War by these people, it now looked like a country whose survival depended on the defeat of America’s enemies in the war on terror. That today Israel is engaged in a confrontation with Iran, a country which poll after poll shows that Americans think of as their most dangerous adversary, only deepens this bond.
During most of the twentieth century, politically active American gentile supporters of Zionism were most visible on the left. Solidarity with Jews, the desire to offer Jews a refuge while keeping them out of the United States, a generalized concern for the rights and security of minority groups, and the traditional liberal sympathy towards Jews based on common attitudes toward historic forms of illiberal European oppression were all factors.
Liberal Zionism peaked in many ways during the Truman administration. The Communist Party, which still enjoyed some moral prestige and organizational strength in parts of the left, obediently fell in line with Stalin’s support for the Zionist objectives in Palestine. African-Americans, whose sympathy for European Jews had grown during the imposition of Nazi discrimination similar to Jim Crow laws in the United States, forged an alliance with American Jews based on common support for the growing civil rights movement. The UN’s endorsement of the Partition of Palestine in 1947, accepted by Palestinian Jews and rejected by the Arabs, led many supporters of the UN to support the Jewish position on Partition so that the UN’s first high profile international decision would not fall flat.
During the era of liberal Zionism, the State of Israel–weak and poor, secular and socialist–was seen as a client rather than a strategic asset or ally. While many conservative Protestants in the United States supported the return of the Jews to the Holy Land on both humanitarian and religious grounds (and perhaps in some cases also in gratitude that those destitute Jews were not coming to the United States), conservative political activism at this time was much more focused on the domestic and international fight against communism. Socialist Israel, whose independence had been supported by Stalin at the UN, was not seen as part of this fight.
Since 1967, liberal gentile Zionism has been on the wane both in the United States and in Europe. Israeli politics have moved to the right. Moreover the aggressive rise of religious parties, the settlement movement, and the drift in Israel away from the ‘European’ norms of the state’s early years to a more ‘eastern’ culture and political system (as Jews of Middle Eastern and ex-Soviet origin have gained demographic and political power) make Israel less attractive to the western left. Additionally, as Israel’s regional position shifted from embattled refuge to occupying power, it seemed equally less necessary and less moral among liberals to support the Jewish state. In the years since 1967 the western left has also reflected more deeply on the shortcomings of past western treatment of other parts of the world, including the Middle East. The Arab argument that Israel was a colonial imposition like French Algeria or white South Africa gained plausibility with many people.
As a result, in both Europe and the United States, liberal gentile Zionism has been slowly fading away. In the United States, this process not only moved more slowly than in Europe, it was countered by something else which, until recently, was almost unknown in the old world: rising populist support for the Jewish state on the right. I think we will see more of this in the future in Europe, where pro-Israel sentiment is likely to appeal to movements and people who fear and resent the impact in Europe of immigration from the Middle East. For now, though, this is mostly an American phenomenon.
In America, the strong upsurge in Jacksonian Zionism begins with the same event and same changes that contributed to the decline of liberal Zionism. Israel’s victory in the Six Day War electrified populist nationalists in the United States. At that time Israel’s enemies were seen as ours; the Soviet Union was supporting those who attacked Israel. At a time when the United States was bogged down in Vietnam and containment of communism seemed to be failing in Asia, Israel’s victory looked like a decisive defeat for Soviet expansionary dreams in the Middle East with its vital oil resources. More, Israel’s conquest of the holy sites helped trigger a massive and continuing religious revival in the United States. For hundreds of years American Protestant theology had been developing Biblical interpretations which gave a special role to Israel in the ‘end times'; the conquest of the Temple Mount was one of the vital steps that had to take place. Finally, even if Israel looked less European and western to liberals, it looked much more western to American Jacksonians than its neighbors. Warts and all, Israel was democratic, not Muslim, anti-Soviet and pro-American. It was everything an ally should be, and strong too. For Jacksonian America, Israel was one of the few signs of light in a dark world and it has kept this status to the present day.
Many of the arguments and perceptions that have weakened support for Israel on the left cut no ice with the populist right. The argument that just war theory forbids the ‘disproportionate’ use of force has absolutely no weight in much of American opinion. When somebody attacks you, especially in an underhanded terrorist way, you have a natural right to defend yourself using every weapon and every tactic that comes to hand. This is the way most Americans think about war; American public opinion on the whole does not regret the use of nuclear weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Two-thirds of American respondents tell Pew pollsters that they favor the use of “torture” under some circumstances. Such people are not necessarily indifferent to Palestinian rights, and they may not feel that every Israeli action is well judged, but they strongly believe that as long as Palestinians engage in terrorism, Israel has an unlimited and absolute right of self defense. It can and should do anything and everything it can to stop the attacks and many Americans consider international laws against such practices as pious hopes with no binding legal or even moral force. If the terrorists shield themselves behind civilians, that only shows how evil they are — and is an extra reason why you have both the right and the duty to eliminate them no matter what it takes.
This view may be right or it may be wrong, but its cultural hold on a substantial section of the American people is a fact. It is one of the strongest and most persistent elements in the national character. It is unlikely to change anytime soon.
For many Jacksonians, Israel is a litmus test. If you are pro-Israel, you are pro-American exceptionalism, pro-western values and pro-defense. The more clearly you support Israel, the more you look like a reliable American patriot who will do what it takes to defend the country from religious violence and the more you seem to share the values of tens of millions of gentile Americans.
This may be the ultimate reason why so many American politicians instinctively shy away from taking any positions that can even remotely be seen as anti-Israel. Being pro-Israel is a sign of being pro-American to a very large sector of American public opinion. Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of that divide; the minute you start to look soft on this, you start to look soft and unreliable on everything. Even when substantial numbers of Americans disapprove of some particular Israeli action, many politicians will rationally conclude that being seen as ‘too eager’ to attack Israel is a bad career move. In most of the United States, it is almost always politically more beneficial to support Israel or at most to remain silent when Israeli behavior is particularly controversial. To get the reputation of being an ‘anti-Israel’ politician is to cripple your ability to attract gentile Jacksonian voters.
The Obama administration must now make some tough choices. Israel’s open show of disrespect during Biden’s visit made the US administration look weak. That is something Jacksonians do not want to see in an American president. They admire tough leaders and despise weak ones. On the other hand, Jacksonians don’t want a long and bitter fight with a country they support as America’s most important ally in the most dangerous region in the world. They are also likely to draw unfavorable comparisons between what they will see as President Obama’s soft policy toward Iran and his tough stand against Israel.
President Obama needs to do two things now in this dispute. He must stand tall, and he must settle quick. He cannot afford a humiliating climb down in the face of Israeli pressure, but it is unlikely that either Congress or Jacksonian America will back him in a long and divisive struggle. Israel on the other hand cannot welcome a bitter controversy that will polarize American public opinion and damage Israel’s image, perhaps irreparably, among the liberal constituencies who were once its strongest source of support.
But whatever happens in the Washington policy wars, one thing should be clear. This is not a battle between ‘the Jews’ and the rest of the United States over our policy in the Middle East. It is a battle between opposing conceptions of America’s interests in the Middle East, and gentiles and Jews can be found on both sides.