Pro-Israel Politics Bipartisan in an Age of Polarization
By Shalom Lipner
June 19, 2017
WASHINGTON (JTA) — America.
The literal ABCs of Israel’s national security doctrine
remain Jerusalem’s airtight bond with the United States.
The tangible friendship expressed
for Israel by elected officials at all levels of the U.S. government, the robust cooperation between
their business, scientific, defense and intelligence communities, and grassroots
American support for
the Jewish state endure as the sine qua non of Israel’s success.
None of this would have been possible unless Democrats and
Republicans – recognizing the partnership’s inherent value to America –
had united in common cause to embrace Israel.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has long known
this. Reeling from the fallout of its 2016 policy conference, when
then-candidate Donald Trump took to the podium to castigate President
Barack Obama as “the worst thing that ever happened to Israel,” AIPAC
management was determined to prevent this year’s event in March from turning
into a partisan battlefield.
But noble aspirations are the first victims in the era of
the perpetual political campaign. Addressing the assembly on the first evening,
Vice President Mike Pence stoked the
coals of divisiveness, proclaiming that “for the first time in a long time,
America has a president who will stand with our allies and stand up to our
enemies.” He was only echoing the sentiments expressed at
that same morning’s opening plenary by Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Ron
Dermer, who said, “For the first time in many years, perhaps even many
decades, there is no daylight between our two governments.”
To be sure, Obama clashed with Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly, famously blindsiding his
government by withholding a U.N. Security Council veto that led to the
condemnation of Israel in the twilight of his presidency. But he was still the
same president who ultimately signed off on a multi-year, $38 billion Memorandum
of Understanding on security assistance — the one that compelled Netanyahu
to “thank President Obama and his administration for this historic
Here’s the rub: Memories of there never being any
“daylight” between even the tightest of allies are myth. Nor has the advent
of the Trump era eliminated all points of contention. But Israel has been
fortunate to enjoy sustained, exceptionally high levels of coordination and
collaboration under U.S. administrations of both political stripes.
And what is it that enables that consistency, which allows
Israel to both thrive today and plan for its future? You guessed it.
Skeptics in Israel and within the Republican Party are
not wrong: Israel does have a conspicuous problem within the present-day
Democratic Party. Its sources range from the raging currents of globalization to
differences over Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians. The
incontrovertible fact today is that Republican sympathies for Israel far outstrip Democratic
ones, thus posing a challenge from which friends of this bilateral relationship
dare not shirk; capitulation is an unaffordable luxury for them.
Because the White House switches hands, congressional
majorities are not eternal and even governments in Jerusalem have been rumored
to change, neither side of the aisle can be written off. If the Israeli
leadership ever had to deal with a hostile and alienated counterpart in the
United States, the consequences could be catastrophic.
Ironically, for bipartisanship to be restored to full
health, a particular aspect of Israel’s awkward synthesis of identity politics
is both relevant and instructive here.
Governance in America is anchored in a two-party system,
but Israel’s proportional representation has birthed dozens
of parties since its inception; the current Knesset boasts 11
caucuses. Among them are boutique factions championing narrow constituencies,
namely religious Jews and Israel’s Arab citizens, but counterintuitively, an
independent voice has not always served their needs.
One byproduct has been that these factions are deputized as
chief lobbyists for basic services such as religious education and functional
neighborhood policing for their communities. In more familiar terms: The
fundamental deliverables of liberal democracy have been turned into horse-traded
special interests. And if these smaller parties then fail at their polls, whole
sectors of society risk being marginalized. Meanwhile, with people voting their
parochial concerns, the state becomes almost ungovernable.
A more effective way to guarantee themselves a hearing
would have been for these groups to set up shop within Israel’s two major
political blocs. That way, their core requisites would become integrated into
the platforms of all governments, no matter which way the winds were blowing. In
fact, signs of greater consolidation are now underway in Israel with talk of
mergers and some newer contenders fielding slates
with greater in-house diversity.
Such thinking is a piece of cake for Americans. The
Republican and Democratic universes are seeded with multiple affinity groups
that toil to ensure their pet causes are well represented in both parties. Among
those promoting a strong U.S.-Israel bond, in this context, are the National
Jewish Democratic Council and Republican Jewish Coalition, institutions that
liaise with their respective party apparatuses and work to foster closer ties
between the two nations.
But bipartisan fellowship is becoming ever more tenuous,
and I’ve witnessed personally how hyper-politicization can inflict damage to
the cause – with supporters of this relationship “colluding” to turn it
into a wedge issue when they hammer each other as only fair-weather friends.
Since the mission of both the NJDC and the RJC is to help elect members from
their own parties, they almost have a vested interest in undermining the
bipartisan foundations of U.S.-Israel relations.
This same spirit of polarization has also consumed much of
the cohort advocating on behalf of America’s alliance with Israel. AIPAC’s
commitment to providing a warm bipartisan home for this community is being
assailed by less politically inclusive outfits on both flanks. For the past
eight years, J
Street’s decidedly pro-Obama bent challenged the kumbaya of pro-Israel
orthodoxy. And today, prominent Jewish funders and evangelical groups
are calling for a more hard-hitting approach than AIPAC’s, one attuned to the
sensibilities of Trump’s America.
How to square this circle when bipartisanship is
indispensable but politics is king?
Friends of America’s partnership with Israel might best
consider performing triage to stem the bleeding. If the relationship is to
recoup its “unifier” status, the most immediate order of business should now
be to neutralize the acrimony. AIPAC’s professionalism will remain a
formidable asset — but only if the organization is not transformed into a
boxing ring where political rivals come to exchange blows without regard for the
injury it causes to bipartisanship.
Unless supreme efforts are invested to insulate this
neutral ground, it could conceivably implode. Participants in last week’s
AIPAC joint trip to Israel for Republican and Democratic campaign operatives’
officials – reportedly it
“helped them dial down the bitter partisanship of current-day Washington”
– would be the first to vindicate this approach.
At the same time, the current environment has prescribed an
increasingly important role for tapered and cohesive silos of the like-minded.
Enjoying the cachet of intellectual traction among their natural allies,
partisan groups are equally potent messengers on issues ranging from foreign aid
to the Iranian nuclear threat that they can cast skillfully in the vernacular of
their particular guild. Ideally this task would be performed without too much
emphasis on why the opposing team is “weak” on the issue; rather the mutual
objective would be for all sides to be “strong.”
Psalm 133 is correct: It is good and pleasant for brothers
to dwell together. But to ensure that Democrats and Republicans keep forging
ahead to advance the alliance between the United States and Israel – a “best
interest” of both countries – parallel inclusive and exclusive tracks of
communal activism might just be a sign of the times. Perhaps it’s time for
Bipartisanship 2.0. “Bipairtisanship,” if you will.