For the first time, American Jews are getting the feeling that they might have to choose between Israel, and their loyalty to the country in which they were born and have become successful to a degree almost unprecedented in the history of the Jewish people.
In remarks that shook American Jewish leaders with their bluntness, National Security Advisor Susan Rice said on Tuesday that Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress on March 3 was “destructive of the fabric of the relationship” between the United States and Israel. Rice was speaking to Charlie Rose on his PBS news magazine show Tuesday evening; her interlocutor was so taken aback by her comment that he repeated it back to her in a tone of astonishment, pausing between each word.
Rice responded by pointing out that until Netanyahu accepted Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address Congress, the relationship between Israel and the United States had “…always been bipartisan and we have been fortunate that the politics have not been injected into this relationship.” Speaking emphatically, she said:
“What has happened over the last several weeks by virtue of the invitation that was issued by the speaker and the acceptance of it by Prime Minister Netanyahu two weeks before his elections is that on both sides there have been injected some degree of partisanship.
“It is not only unfortunate but it is also destructive of the fabric of the relationship. It has always been bipartisan and we want to keep it that way. When it becomes injected with politics that’s a problem. We want the relationship to be strong regardless of which party may be in charge in each country.”
Rice made her remarks on the same day that Netanyahu rejected an invitation from Democratic senators for a closed-door session, presumably so that he could express his concerns about the Obama administration’s Iran policy, rather than deliver a divisive address to Congress.
John Boehner, the Republican House Speaker, invited Netanyahu to address Congress regarding U.S. policy toward Iran. Boehner supports a bill that calls for new sanctions against Iran, while the Obama administration is deeply involved in the delicate multilateral talks with Iran that are known as P5+1, which face a crucial deadline at the end of March. Last year the U.S. and its European negotiating partners lifted some sanctions on Iran as a confidence-building measure. In exchange, Iran suspended part of its nuclear development program; President Obama has said that he would veto a bill for new sanctions.
The dilemma of American Jews
Over the past few weeks, since Netanyahu accepted Boehner’s invitation, the White House has expressed its anger with one snub after another. First Obama said he would not meet with Netanyahu during his visit to DC, which coincides with the annual AIPAC conference (Netanyahu will speak at AIPAC as well). The official reason: given that the Israeli election is to take place only two weeks later, it would be inappropriate for Obama to meet with the incumbent candidate. Secretary of State Kerry announced that he would be abroad during Netanyahu’s visit, and spokespeople for Joe Biden said the vice president would also be out of town that week.
The administration also leaked that it had stopped giving Israeli officials full briefings on the ongoing talks with Iran. And on top of that, 26 Democrats — 23 from the House and three senators — have announced that they will not attend Netanyahu’s speech. The overt insult to the president (and the institution of the presidency) by a supposedly loyal ally was too much to overlook, even in the name of supporting the special friendship with their most important ally in the Middle East. But note that even the Democrats who said they will not attend Netanyahu’s speech have hastened to emphasize the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship, pointedly eschewing the term “boycott.”
Nonetheless, American Jewish leaders are worried. The mainstream Jewish community votes Democrat and is unequivocally supportive of Israel, which means that it ends up being liberal on pretty much every issue except Israel. Until now, it was easy to live with this cognitive dissonance, since the U.S. position on Israel was unswervingly supportive. For the first time, American Jews are getting the feeling that they might have to choose between Israel as their identity totem, and their loyalty to the country in which they were born and have become successful to a degree almost unprecedented in the history of the Jewish people.
But while the New York Times put its report about Rice’s remarks on its homepage, and while Jewish American journalists who write frequently about Israel expressed shock and dismay at Netanyahu’s refusal to accept the Democrats’ invitation for a closed-door meeting, the Israeli response has been quite different. As of this writing, nearly one day after Rice’s remarks were broadcast, tweeted and widely reported in the U.S., none of the Hebrew media outlets have put their report about her conversation with Charlie Rose on their homepage. Rice’s blunt comments led the news for a few hours in the morning, but then were quickly knocked off the top of the news hour by the much-anticipated release of the state comptroller’s housing report, in which Netanyahu is accused of exacerbating the country’s catastrophic housing crisis. It was the housing crisis that precipitated weeks of protests in the summer of 2011, and economic issues continue to be the leading concern for Israeli voters.
One standing ovation after another
Many Israeli commentators have been deeply critical of Netanyahu’s having insulted the Obama administration by accepting Boehner’s invitation. But Netanyahu’s core voters are like the people in the United States who base their worldview on Fox News: they are deeply suspicious of the “liberal” mainstream media, and their loyalty to the Likud party is as unswerving as their support for their favorite soccer team. It is part of their identity. Netanyahu is betting that with the support of his core voters he will win enough seats and have sufficient allies on the right to form the next governing coalition.
According to the polls, Likud and the Zionist Union, headed by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, are virtually tied. But while Netanyahu campaigns on security and the Zionist Union campaigns on the economy, the fact is that the Herzog-Livni team have not tried to challenge Netanyahu on his Iran policy. That is because it’s too risky a move. They might be able to mock his hawkishness in their most recent campaign clip, by making a cynical joke about “going to war every two years,” but Herzog and Livni supported every Israeli military campaign against Gaza since Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9.
The center-left objects to Netanyahu’s crass, combative style, but they don’t really object to the substance of his message. They might agree with Israel’s Intelligence establishment, which continues to insist that Iran does not present an existential threat to Israel, but they know it would be unwise to test populist sentiment by expressing that view in the political arena. The economy might be the number one issue that drives people to the streets, but if there is a war, those protestors will without question go home, put on their uniforms and report to their reserve units. Security trumps all concerns in Israel, by default.
Given what I have heard so far on Israeli radio programs, I suspect that Netanyahu’s spokespeople will frame Susan Rice’s remarks as an example of the Obama administration’s callous disregard for Israel’s security. They will push the idea that Rice has put weapons in the hands of the enemies of Israel, who will have taken note that there is a rift with its American protector. This kind of interpretation plays very well in Israel, and it could find a ready audience among Jewish Americans as well. Israelis do care deeply about having a good relationship with the United States — just not at the expense of their security, which they naturally believe only they truly understand and care about. And for some (perhaps many), it hasn’t quite sunk in that without America’s friendship, they are not secure.
As for Netanyahu, it seems that he cares only about being re-elected. If his concern were, as he continues to insist, protecting Israel from an Iranian threat, then surely an opportunity to make a serious presentation to senior American legislators would be the most effective means of conveying his position. But what Netanyahu really wants is prime time television coverage in Israel that shows him speaking in perfect English to members of the American Congress as they give him one standing ovation after another. And if he can’t have that, then he’ll take the second-best option — the sight of empty seats belonging to Democrats who chose loyalty to Obama over concern for Israel’s security.