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What Happened to Bipartisan U.S. Support for Israel?

Point-Counter-Point 3: Yossi Klein Halevi debates Prof. Steven M. Cohen over the potential loss of US political bipartisan support for Israel

In this Point-Counter-Point a new Hartman Institute partnership effort with The Jewish Week of New York, Yossi Klein Halevi debates his friend and teacher, Prof. Steven M. Cohen over the potential loss of US political bipartisan support for Israel.
Dear Steven,
This election increasingly looks like a watershed in American-Israeli relations. The two essential pillars of American support for Israel have been bipartisanship and the perception of a strong pro-Israel Jewish vote. Both are now open to question.
It’s hard to recall another election in which Israel has been so bitterly debated. The booing elicited by the recall vote on Jerusalem at the Democratic Convention – and remember that the issue wasn’t “united Jerusalem” but simply affirming Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – along with the Republican ad campaign in Florida featuring Netanyahu on Iran, are only two of the more blatant symptoms of the threat to continued bipartisanship. We seem caught in a dangerous cycle: a growing erosion of pro-Israel sympathy within the Democratic Party that is being exacerbated by Republicans.
As for American Jewish clout on Israel: Who would have believed that, at the height of an election campaign, an American president would not have time to meet with the prime minister of Israel while, at least initially, agreeing to meet with the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt (canceled only after Morsi failed to vigorously condemn the attack on the American Embasssy)?
The fact that Obama can insult the prime minister of Israel without worrying about losing Jewish votes – among leading Jewish Democrats, only Ed Koch seems to have been upset enough about this to publicly question his support for Obama – exposes the illusion of an effective pro-Israel electorate.
There’s more than enough blame to go around here. It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between Obama’s contempt for the prime minister of Israel and his atittude toward Israel generally. The President’s refusal to set a red line for Iran – again, during an election campaign – is especially worrying. In recent months, his administration has conveyed the impression of greater resolve in stopping an Israeli attack on Iran than on stopping an Iranian bomb.
Netanyahu of course has made his share of mistakes. There was no justification, for example, for the Israeli government to leak word of Obama’s refusal to meet with Netanyahu. In so doing, Netanyahu placed pique before the national interest, which is preserving the vigor of the American-Israeli relationship.
So, Steven: Are we at a turning point? And if so, what can be done to control the damage?
Dear Yossi,
Your question presumes that, over the years, Israel has played a major role in American Jews’ electoral behavior. As Prof. Samuel Abrams and I demonstrated in our Workmen’s Circle survey of American Jews this spring, Israel-related attitudes play almost no role in predicting the presidential preference of most Jewish voters. Once we know a voter’s position on economic justice (taxes, health care, poverty, etc.) and social diversity (racism, sexism, gay rights, etc.), his or her position on Israel is statistically irrelevant. That’s where we are now, and that’s where we’ve been for a long time.
As history has demonstrated, American Jews’ focus on Israel sharpens during times of conflict: 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, 1988-9, and 2002-4. Both donations to Israel-oriented charities, and the interest they reflect, rose in those periods. However, one can argue that in inflation-adjusted terms, the surges have been progressively less pronounced with the passage of time.
In any event, even Israel-engaged Jews decide which party and candidate to support based in large part upon their partisan loyalties and political identities. As a general rule, Jews on the right see the left as more hostile to Jewish interests, and Jews on the left see the right as more hostile.
As an Obama supporter and a pro-Israel Jew (and Israeli), I see the President’s policies as well-intentioned, albeit ineffective. And I’m the first to admit that my politics color my perception. I would want “POTUS” to invest heavily in Israel’s military qualitative edge and work to restrain our misguided expansion of settlements in the West Bank. I regard both policy lines as “pro-Israel,” as do many liberal Democrats. I’m sure that conservative Republicans have a different take on these matters.
You rightly and insightfully point to the breakdown of the bipartisan consensus in support of Israel. But how are we to understand the causes of this breakdown? American policy has always envisaged our withdrawal to the 1967 borders, with adjustment, and making provision for the national aspirations of the Palestinian people. In fact, had each of us been born a few years earlier, our parents would have brought us to dance in the streets on November 29, 1947, when the UN voted for partition. As recently as 2008 an Israeli prime minister (a former Herutnik), Ehud Olmert, engaged in intense negotiations to bring about a Palestinian state.
Now, some years later, we are led by a prime minister who pays only lip service (at best) to the moral and security necessity of bringing about a Palestinian state, and whose government promotes ever-more expansion of Jewish settlements on land envisaged as the Palestinian homeland. At the same time, the Republican Party, and its presidential nominee, have all but dismissed the notion of a two-state solution, and some conservative influential voices have come out for a one-state “solution.” So, Yossi my dear friend, who has fractured the consensus that once embraced not only Democrats and Republicans, but Americans and Israelis as well?
Sitting in our home in Jerusalem as I write you, I feel no lack of love for our homeland and our people. However, cognizant of the policies that have brought us to the point where Partition may be geographically impossible, is it no wonder that liberal Democrats – be they voters or presidents – find Israeli policies and leadership counterproductive and mystifying, to say the least?
Dear Steven,
So much to unpack here.
First, the myth of a pro-Israel Jewish vote: I understand that American Jews vote as Americans, not only as Jews (or perhaps, they often vote based in part on their perception of Jewish values). That’s precisely why I haven’t voted in an American election since moving to Israel 30 years ago. Having voluntarily forfeited my place in American society, I feel I’ve forfeited the right to help determine its future.
Still, as you imply, at times of crisis large numbers of American Jews have taken Israel’s fate with them into the polling booth as one of the factors that determine their vote. That consideration, though, seems to be woefully absent today – which is no less a time of crisis than the crucial years you cited. Yet precisely now, during one of the most dangerous times in Israel’s history, many American Jews seem untroubled by the prospect of the weakening of their pro-Israel clout.
The reason for that alienation, you suggest, is the ongoing occupation  – and especially Netanyahu’s continued settlement building and “lip service,” as you put it, to a two-state solution.
I don’t buy it, Steven. Netanyahu’s government is actually building less in the West Bank than Olmert’s government did. And Netanyahu’s government was the first ever to impose a 10-month building freeze across the settlements (including those in the settlement blocs near the 1967 borders). In fact, Netanyahu is the first Likud prime minister to accept a two-state solution, thereby transforming the nature of Israeli political discourse.
As recently as 15 years ago, not even the Labor Party explicitly endorsed a Palestinian state. Today, even Avigdor Leiberman’s nationalist party, Yisrael Beitenu, accepts the principle of a two-state solution. Thanks to Netanyahu’s “lip service” – and I grant you, it may well be that – there is no longer a serious ideological debate over a two-state solution in the mainstream Israeli political system. Instead, the debate over a Palestinian state among the major parties is almost entirely an argument over security issues. That is an historic achievement.
The difference between Netanyahu and Olmert is that the latter made serious – but futile – efforts to reach agreement with the Palestinian national movement. The reason those efforts were futile had nothing to do with settlements, but with the refusal of Palestinian leaders, even the most moderate among them, to abandon the demand for refugee return to the state of Israel, a non-starter for any mainstream Israeli party.
Perhaps the real reason Netanyahu is reviled is because he doesn’t pretend that a deal is possible. There is something to be said for honesty and clarity.
I wish that Netanyahu would take the settlements issue off the table and reimpose a freeze. But that will not bring the Palestinian leaders any closer to the necessary concessions. From our many conversations over the years, Steven, I know that you agree with me on that.
So I come back to the question: Why is bipartisan support for Israel in danger? And why is the myth of a vigorous pro-Israel Jewish vote coming undone precisely now?
Dear Yossi,
I certainly agree with you that American Jews ought to rise to Israel’s defense in times of threat. And I also agree with the unspoken assumption in your letter that we are living through “one of the most dangerous times in Israel’s history.” Still, I can’t understand how you arrive at the conclusion that “many American Jews seem untroubled by the prospect of the weakening of their pro-Israel clout.”
None of the survey data point in that direction. Insofar as Jews are more distant from Israel, the largest single factor in that distancing is intermarriage. Jews who are the children of intermarried parents and Jews who are married to non-Jews do, in fact, score remarkably low on measures of attachment to Israel. While the intermarried score lower than the in-married on all measures of Jewish engagement, the gaps are especially pronounced with respect to Israel attachment measures. To take one example from the UJA-Federation’s Jewish Community Study of New York : 2011 that I wrote with Jack Ukeles and Ron Miller, we report that, “Of the in-married, 33% have sent their children (age 5-17) to Israel; among the intermarried, that figure falls to under 4%." Think about what that gap says about the parents; and think about what it means for the next generation as it matures.
But, aside from intermarriage, I see no major threats to American Jewish attachment to Israel. Travel remain high; Birthright and Masa are doing well; aliyah rates in the last few years surpass those for most years following the unusual 1967-73 period; AIPAC and J Street seem to be enjoying significant support, both in terms of activists and donors. Major swaths of the American Jewish population are rather heavily invested in Israel. Here I include: Orthodox Jews, Russian-speaking Jews, Israeli expatriates, Persian Jews, engaged Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, children of Holocaust survivors, and the thousands of Jews who have spent significant time in Israel.
In the Workmen’s Circle survey this spring, Sam Abrams and I did find that younger Jews were more skeptical of the commitment to peace on the part of Israeli leaders. But they were just as attached to Israel as their elders, if not more so, probably owing to the impact of travel to Israel, or what we termed, "The Birthright Bump."
So, I don’t think there’s much evidence of American Jews accepting, let alone advancing, a weakening of "their pro-Israel clout." Rather, as opposed to 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973 (but not 1982), Israel does not exactly speak with one clear voice, leaving American Jews to interpret for themselves how to define "pro-Israel," and how best to exercise their clout.
On the Palestinian question, I’ll grant you that the prime minister’s actions constitute an improvement over those of previous Israeli governments. But 2012 is not 1972, or even 1991. Within Israel, Netanyahu is not exactly seen as an advocate of Palestinian statehood, the 1967 boundaries with land swaps, and the withdrawal of settlements. And so, when liberal American Jews hear liberal Israelis critique the Netanyahu government, they naturally identify with their Israeli counterparts.
In short, where you see diminished enthusiasm for exercising clout, I see increased complexity – and a good bit of confusion.
And, for these reasons and more, I suspect our mutually enlightening conversation to continue – both online and off.
Dear Steven,
My intention in our exchange isn’t to question American Jewish attachment to Israel. You have been my teacher over the years in helping me appreciate the extraordinary and undiminished love affair of American Jews to Israel.
But I am concerned about an erosion of American Jewish political clout on Israel, along with an erosion of bipartisan support for Israel, which are of course intimately linked. Precisely because these are subtle processes, I wanted to raise the issue and hopefully begin a debate within the American Jewish community about how to manage this.
I’m encouraged by your analysis of a growing maturation in the American Jewish relationship to Israel. I fervently hope you are right. I want to see Orthodox American Jews acknowledge the tragedy – the Jewish tragedy – of occupation. And I want to see liberal American Jews acknowledge that the peace camp was wrong when it imagined a transformed Fatah ready to live in peace with a Jewish, democratic state in the 1967 borders.
In my darker moments, I fear that the opposite of a maturing process is happening among American Jews – that geographical distance is reinforcing a one-dimensional understanding of Israel. I fear that right-wing American Jews are becoming ever more entrenched in the fantasy of greater Israel. And that left-wing American Jews are exchanging the simplistic Leon Uris narrative of their parents’generation, in which Israel could do no wrong, for a new, no less simplistic anti-Leon Uris narrative, in which Israel can do no right.
When I visit American Jewish communities, I often feel as if I’m in a time warp. Among the Orthodox it’s still the 1970s and 80s, the time of greater Israel. It’s as if the first intifada of the late 1980s, which convinced a majority of Israelis that the occupation was a disaster for Israel, had never happened. And among liberal Jews it’s still the 1990s, the time of Peace Now. It’s as if the second intifada of the early 2000s, which convinced a majority of Israelis that the Palestinian national movement never intended to truly make peace, never happened. The Orthodox are in first intifada denial, the liberals in second intifada denial.
Those impressions, admittedly, are not based on data, but only on personal impressions. And if they are simplistic, then I’ll happily begin the new year with an apology to the American Jewish community.
At the end of this holiday season, which is called z’man simchateinu, the time of our joy, I will choose to end our exchange by celebrating with you the continued vitality of the American Jewish-Israeli relationship.
I too look forward to our next round.
Chag sameach,
Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at HUC-JIR and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner.

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