The Democrats Are Finally Turning Away from Israel
And it's high time they did.
The news that Martin Indyk, the U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, has resigned and is returning to his think-tank perch at the Brookings Institution is confirmation of what most Middle East observers already assumed — active American involvement in the Arab-Israeli peace process has ended.
Despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s protestations that the United States "remains committed … to resuming the process when the parties find a path back to serious negotiations," what comes next is anyone’s guess. And that refers not just to the peace process but also to the long-term bond between the United States and Israel.
If the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is like that of a bitter divorcing couple that will argue over even the smallest of issues and hold their ground with undiminished intensity, the U.S.-Israel bilateral relationship can be defined in similar matrimonial terms. The two countries are becoming more and more like a married couple that has fallen out of love but remains together, in large measure because of a combination of inertia — and the kids (American Jews and evangelical Christians).
While the United States and Israel continue to be, in the words of National Security Advisor Susan Rice, "bound by our shared history and our shared values" and still cooperate closely on security and anti-terrorism initiatives, there is little question that on everything from Iran and the Arab Spring to the peace process, there is less and less common ground between the two countries. Unless there is a dramatic political change in both countries, the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship is likely one of less cooperation, more disagreements, and greater tension.
Personality explains a lot about how we’ve reached this point. While publicly the two countries have played nice, there is clearly no love lost in Barack Obama’s administration for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Things got off to a rocky start in early 2009 when Netanyahu initially refused the United States’ request for a settlement freeze. They got worse when Netanyahu sought to give Obama a "history lesson" in the Oval Office on the security challenges facing Israel; they plummeted further during the 2012 election when Bibi all but endorsed the president’s Republican rival, Mitt Romney; and they took a major hit when Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon publicly disparaged Kerry.
But relations truly reached rock bottom after the signing of the interim nuclear deal last fall between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the United States, Britain, China, France, and Russia, plus Germany). It was one thing to oppose the deal. It was quite another for Israel to actively try to torpedo it. Not only did the Israelis seek to poison the well in Geneva by bad-mouthing U.S. efforts, but via the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, they sought to undermine the deal in Congress by pushing for passage of the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act.
That rancor is likely to get worse, particularly as Washington and Tehran continue negotiations toward a final deal this summer — and new indications of cooperation between Washington and Tehran over the ISIS invasion of Iraq are beginning to emerge.
There is also a larger strategic context at play. Resolving Iran’s nuclear program would take one of the most pressing Middle East security challenges to the United States off the table. Doing so would likely hasten America’s retreat from the region and its ongoing pivot to Asia. According to Amos Harel, a national security reporter for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, that process is already beginning: "You keep hearing from everyone in the Israeli security community — both publicly and privately — that the Americans are less engaged in what’s going on in the region." The concern (which was bolstered by President Obama’s decision to not enforce his red line on Syrian chemical weapons) is that U.S. support for Israel will inevitably weaken as a result.
So the tensions are as much about strategic priorities as they are about personalities. The failure of the Kerry peace gambit is not in itself an inflection point but, rather, confirmation of how differently the two sides see the world.
U.S. diplomats believe the Israeli-Palestinian status quo is ultimately not sustainable. Support for Israel — as it becomes more isolated, delegitimized, and resolved to maintain the occupation — could, in time, boomerang against the United States as Washington is put in the unenviable position of defending increasingly indefensible Israeli behavior. Already, Obama has hinted that the United States will no longer be able to carry diplomatic water for Israel the same way that it has in the past.
The current Israeli government does not feel the same sense of urgency.
This divergence was evident in the U.S. response to the breakdown in negotiations. Much of the public focus has been on Kerry’s use of the word "apartheid" to describe where Israel may be headed. Strikingly, after his off-the-record comments were leaked, he refused to take them back. While noting that he should have used a different word, Kerry stuck to the view that Israel is facing a dark, undemocratic future.
Then there was the bombshell interview given by anonymous State Department officials (one of whom is generally assumed to be Indyk), published by Yedioth Ahronoth columnist Nahum Barnea. They placed most of the blame for the talks’ failure on Israel, and they were not shy in saying why: "People in Israel shouldn’t ignore the bitter truth — the primary sabotage came from the settlements."
In a follow-up speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in early May, Indyk tried to cast blame more equitably. But he was also not shy in placing significant responsibility on Israel’s continued construction of new settlements during the talks.
It is, says Matt Duss, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, an indication of a subtle "shift in the relationship. U.S. officials are willing to speak up more bluntly when Israel acts in ways that undermine U.S. goals."
It’s more than words, however. In June, the U.S. government recognized the newly created Palestinian unity government, which controversially includes members of Hamas. The move caught Israelis off guard, but of an even greater salience, it failed to spark much of an outcry in the United States. The once unthinkable has increasingly become the norm.
Still, what we’re seeing is more a gradual decline in the U.S.-Israel relationship than a dramatic turning point. Israel will likely find itself under international pressure from emboldened Palestinian diplomacy and European sanctions, and, according to Alan Elsner, the vice president for communications at J Street, the pro-peace U.S. lobbying group, there may be less willingness by Washington to push back on these moves. But the gestation period should be measured in years, not months. "This erosion would probably play out over a very long period of time," says Eisner. "And much of it would depend on which administration comes into power in 2017."
But even on the politics of Israel, the ground is shifting. Support for Israel was once one of the few issues on which both Democrats and Republicans could agree. Yet in recent years Republicans have tried to make Israel a partisan issue (with often ample backing from Netanyahu). The failure last fall of the Iran sanctions bill was emblematic. The debate in Congress was cast along party lines, with Republicans seeking to undercut one of Obama’s key foreign-policy initiatives and Democrats choosing to side with their president.
For Republicans, unquestioning backing for the Jewish state is a reflection of the strong support among conservative American evangelical Christians for Israel — rather than a political move to steal away votes from American Jews, who continue to uniformly sway Democratic. But even among American Jews, new cracks are visible. Support for Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians is exceedingly low; fewer than half of American Jews see Israel as sincere in its desire to make peace. Among younger, secular Jews, support for Israel as an essential element of their Jewish identity is far less than that among older and religious Jews. It’s a reflection of the growing and pervasive generational divide in the community.
No longer can it be said with certainty that a candidate’s support for Israel is a litmus test for Democratic voters the way it might have been 20 years ago. As Israel becomes more nationalistic, more religious, and more defensive in its attitudes toward the occupation, it is hard to see an increasingly secular, liberal, American Jewish community responding with unqualified backing. And for national Democrats, the need to be seen as a steadfast ally of Israel may no longer be so politically important. If the Obama administration — as well as a potentially subsequent Democratic administration — truly intends to pivot to Asia and reduce the U.S. footprint in the Middle East, it will no longer want to be bogged down in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is particularly so as the actions of Israel, in regard to the occupation, become far more difficult to defend — and Israeli leaders increasingly identify themselves with the Republican Party. When one combines the changing politics of support for Israel with Israel’s continued obstinacy on ending the occupation, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the U.S.-Israel relationship doesn’t change.
This process of divergence will take time. But it is increasingly clear that the United States and Israel are on two different and diverging paths. If Kerry is right that Israel is becoming an apartheid state — or some approximation of that — it’s a question of not if but when that begins to remake the U.S.-Israel relationship.