In the American media, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s oft-confirmed insistence on speaking before Congress on March 3, just before the Israeli elections, is usually characterized as “ill-advised” or as a “mistake.” Perhaps he overreached or didn’t foresee the response, people say. Or he doesn’t realize how his speech will polarize American Jews and make Israel into what it hasn’t been till now, a partisan political issue.
Those who write this are wrong; many of them probably realize themselves that this wasn’t a “miscalculation.” But it’s time to call a spade a spade and not shy away from the fact that Netanyahu’s move, abetted by the still somewhat new Israeli Ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, is part of a larger strategy that coordinates politics and policies in Israel and the U.S. Bibi and Dermer, a former Republican political operative before he made aliyah, knew exactly what they were doing. There is every reason to believe they welcome the controversy. And, as Gershom Gorenberg points out, the more criticism he receives, the more he solidifies his base in Israel. But it is also just as true that he simultaneously reshapes American discourse on Israel to serve his political and policy ends, and upends some important aspects of American Jewish life.
People have been asking me: “Doesn’t Bibi realize that he is endangering the bipartisan consensus that has supported Israel since 1948?” Of course he does and, unlike some others on the Israeli far right, Netanyahu wants and needs American support. But he has clearly made the momentous decision that he (standing, he asserts, for the State of Israel and the whole Jewish people) will accept it only on his own terms. Israeli governments and the American Jewish establishment have in the past tried – and often succeeded – in marginalizing dissenting Jewish supporters of Israel, stretching back at least to the peace organization “Breira” in the 1970’s. But, partly in response to the success of J-Street in mobilizing latent anti-occupation sentiment among American Jews (and others), Netanyahu, the far right in Israel, and their supporters in the U.S. are now deliberately splitting Israel’s Jewish supporters and disdaining as anti-Israel those who do not toe the war-with-Iran and pro-settlement line. And so far the chips seem to have largely fallen as he hoped they would.
How far Netanyahu wants to take this is unknowable. But, unless one posits that Dermer and Netanyahu, both past masters of American politics with a number of successes to their records, suddenly lost their edge, there is no other plausible interpretation.
Most moderately conservative Jews who share Netanyahu’s suspicion of any deal with Iran that Obama might make, such as Abe Foxman, Dov Zakheim, and Michael Oren to name just a few, have denominated this as a “mistake.” From their perspective, it certainly is. They believe in the traditional strong, bipartisan relationship between Israel and the US, and recognize the dangers of destabilizing it. They also recognize the dangers of Israel moving too far to the right, which perhaps described Netanyahu as well at one time, but clearly no longer. Bibi’s current election campaign has been based on fear and demonization of his main opponents, Yitzhak Herzog and Tzipi Livni.
However, Netanyahu’s most significant efforts have been devoted to attracting the perhaps 30% of Israeli voters who identify with the Israeli hard right, especially those who tend to favor Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party. His only drawing cards with them relate to his “security” credentials. And these voters are intensely suspicious of liberal Americans in general and Obama in particular. They did not believe the claims emanating from both governments until last spring that American-Israeli ties were better than ever (though, to be fair, neither did anyone else). They much prefer Bibi standing up to Obama, whatever the consequences, including an Israeli attack on Iran. That is the only “safety” they believe in.
But the truly devilish aspect of the Boehner-Dermer deal was the American part. Bibi – who originated the Israeli strategy of wooing American evangelical Christians into Israel’s corner in the early 1990s – much prefers to be supported by 60 million conservative, religious Christians anticipating Armageddon than to rest on the changeable views of the 70% of American Jews who supported Obama, and who are the most reliable and generous liberal constituency in the country. Sure he wants their support, but only on his terms. Liberals, especially those who have the temerity to be liberal on Israel, need not apply.
We see the results of these perceptions everywhere in the American Jewish community today (and, in different form, in Israel). Accusations of supporting BDS (never mind if the allegation is true) are accepted as reasons for disinviting speakers, or even musicians, to Jewish institutions. Campus Hillel has already split. The DCJCC fired Theater J’s Executive Director of 18 years for alleged “insubordination,” but everyone knows it was because of the edgy, questioning plays on Israel that comprised 20% of Theater J’s repertoire. Surveys show large numbers of American rabbis are fearful of losing their jobs if they criticize Israel. The list could stretch on and on.
It is not, as some have claimed, that the Jewish establishment is funded for the most part by extreme right-wingers, although some are; Sheldon Adelson and his ilk are not shy about throwing their money around to promote their views. But rather, as with McCarthyism in the 1950s, it is the atmosphere of fear that has been engendered. People who themselves may be politically liberal (on everything but Israel) are afraid of accusations that they are letting the enemy in. They want to believe that anyone who says Israel must do more for peace or is oppressing Palestinians is libeling “the only democracy in the Middle East.” They cling to their memories of 1950s kibbutz life and an endangered Israel and avert their eyes from what Bibi is saying and doing in their name. That, we can call “Bibi-ism.”
The hard Israeli right is covetous and frightened. It is covetous of the West Bank, and it is frightened of the consequences of holding on to it. It wants hard-edged supporters guarding Israel’s back, like Lindsay Graham and John McCain, not liberal Democrats who care about human rights, even for Arabs. And, for the moment it is working. The number of Democratic Members of Congress who are skipping Bibi’s speech is (so far) only in the high twenties, a bit more than10% of the total of Democratic lawmakers. Only a handful of these are Jewish – and all are being stigmatized as anti-Israel. Perhaps these numbers will grow by the time Bibi arrives in Congress.
Innumerable articles are decrying the split. “Doesn’t Bibi realize what he’s doing?” It’s time to realize that he does know exactly what he’s doing. He is forcing American Jews to choose his way or else get their Jewish identity from those organizations – and there are a number – which are refusing to bow to Bibi-ism.
Perhaps in the long run, we will see that this is a miscalculation. Perhaps I am underestimating American Jews, and I will be deeply thankful to be proved wrong. If Bibi does lose the coming election, that will be a major victory, but by no means the end of any of these related wars: the Arab-Israel conflict, the fight for equal rights for Israeli Palestinians, the struggle for an open, inclusive, and non-fearful American Jewish community, among others. But I fear that this war, like others started recently that seem to continue forever, will also go on for a long time, and it will end up ultimately fracturing the American Jewish “community.” Bibi-ism.