What’s missing from Israel’s election campaigns?
Israelis and American Jews both stuck in same debate about peace
Recent statements from President Donald Trump about American Jews “being disloyal” set off a firestorm of criticism from Jewish groups. It was clear that the president was criticizing liberal Jews for not prioritizing support for Israel rather than promoting anti-Semitism, as some on the left tried to assert. This latest rehashing of the debate about Trump — in which the majority of liberal Jews were given yet another opportunity to vent their distaste and rage about his presidency — shed little light about either Middle East policy or the realities of American Jewish politics. But it should have reminded us of something that ought to be of enormous interest to American Jews: the disconnect between American Jewish ideas about Israel and the views of the overwhelming majority of Israelis.
To the extent that the kerfuffle about Trump’s remarks was tethered to political reality, it should have generated an acknowledgment from both sides of the aisle that the majority of American Jews have never considered Israel to be a litmus-test issue determining their votes. The majority of Jews who consider themselves liberals and Democrats see it as one among many issues, of which those related to what they term social justice are the priority. That’s why Trump’s status as the most pro-Israel president yet — or, if you will, the American “king of Israel” — hasn’t done a thing to counteract his epic unpopularity among Jewish voters, who continue to reject him in numbers that dwarf those of other segments of the electorate.
But once we discard the foolish talk about this being a matter of loyalty, the fact remains that Trump’s approach to the Middle East remains far more in touch with the views of most Israelis — not to mention the political realities of the region — than his American Jewish critics seem willing to acknowledge.
The proof of that startling yet inarguable conclusion is to be found in the tenor of the current Israeli election campaign.
Trump is wrong to say that all American Jews who won’t vote for him don’t care about Israel. Whether you agree with them or not, many of his liberal critics, including mainstream Democrats who remain stalwart supporters of the U.S.-Israel alliance, really do worry about and support the Jewish state. But they also remain stuck in the same debate about the peace process and the need for a two-state solution that has dominated the conversation in this country with respect to Israel for four decades (Camp David Accords). Within this group, the debate about Israel remains focused not just on criticism of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his close friendship with Trump, but also centered on the idea that the Israeli government’s policies are the primary obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.
The core reason for disaffection with Israel is a product of demographic change in which assimilation has undermined a sense of Jewish peoplehood among many younger Jews. It’s also true that many American Jews have bought into the false notion that Israel is betraying Jewish values by not surrendering territory and creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem in the vain hope that this will magically produce peace as opposed to more bloodshed.
But what few in the United States have noticed is that while American Jews continue to talk as if it is 1993 or 2000, the Israeli public has moved on from the peace process as an election issue.
It’s true that Netanyahu’s ability to hold onto the office he’s held for more than a decade is very much in doubt when Israelis vote on Sept. 17. Yet what most American Jews also don’t seem to understand about the election is that his main competition isn’t offering an alternative policy on the peace process.
To the contrary, the Blue and White Party — led by former Israel Defense Forces’ Chief of Staff Benny Gantz — is doing its best to run to the right of Netanyahu on the Palestinians. Gantz and the other leaders of his party went to the border with Gaza earlier this month, pledging to be even tougher on Hamas than Netanyahu has been. They also promised never to relinquish the Jordan Valley in the West Bank and to maintain settlements there forever. Nor have they showed any appetite for trying to revive negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, which most Americans assume is exactly what Netanyahu’s opponents would do if he were defeated.
Indeed, how could Gantz or any possible alternative to the prime minister act differently if he or she were at all serious about trying to win? P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas hasn’t even condemned the latest terrorist attack that resulted in the murder of an Israeli teenager and the wounding of other members of her family. When the murderers are caught, they can still depend on salaries and pensions from the P.A. as a reward for their crimes.
A consensus that there is no partner for peace exists across a broad spectrum of Israeli society stretching from the center-left to the center-right. Even the remnants of the Labor Party that once championed peace are talking about other issues. While Netanyahu is trying to label all of his opponents as “leftists” who wish to sabotage the country’s security with concessions to the Palestinians, the voters may now be more interested about the religious-secular divide, political corruption and the economy than peace offers that the Palestinians have consistently rejected.
While Trump may not know much about American Jews, he does know that most Israeli Jews have drawn the only possible conclusion they can from almost 26 years centered around a “peace process” (Oslo Accords) that many in this country who claim to love Israel have steadfastly ignored: There is no partner who wants to talk peace. Those who took such great umbrage at Trump’s comments would do better to think about why they are so out of touch with Israeli public opinion, rather than continuing the pretense that they know what’s best for the Jewish state. pjc
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate, where this article first appeared.