Israel could be a big loser in last week’s presidential and congressional elections — and not because of the re-election of a president whose middle name happens to be Hussein.
Support for Israel will remain strong in the second Obama administration despite the strained personal relationship between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. An administration facing multiple domestic crises is unlikely to launch major new U.S. peace initiatives that would cause friction between the two allies, especially given the unfavorable climate in the region for peacemaking and the upheavals shaking the Arab world. The administration will continue to ratchet up what is already unprecedented economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran aimed at thwarting its nuclear ambitions.
But the interminable, bitter campaigns highlight deep fractures in the Jewish community and represent one more big step in turning Israel support into just one more issue defined by bitter partisanship and the endless quest for political advantage. That will undoubtedly widen the gap between Israel-focused Jews and communal leaders on one hand and the Jewish majority on the other — the same Jewish majority that gave Obama almost 70 percent of the Jewish vote despite a vastly expensive and aggressive campaign portraying him as a mortal danger to the Jewish state.
The demographic earthquake that seems to have stunned the Republicans and led the less tactful among them to lament the demise of “white America” also has implications for a Jewish community whose political power has traditionally emphasized coalitions with other minority groups — coalitions that are increasingly difficult to maintain because of the hot-button issue of Israel.
And then there’s the issue of peace in the Middle East. Election 2012 showed more clearly than any previous elections that Middle East peace making has become a radioactive issue on the campaign trail. If that translates into a diminished willingness by Washington to assertively engage Israel and the Palestinians in peace efforts, the long-term results could be dire for a Jewish state whose internal politics make territorial compromise all but impossible.
Listening to Democrats and Republicans address Jewish audiences, it would be easy to assume they were speaking to groups living on different planets. The gap between Israel-focused Jews — a minority who tend to be more conservative, more Republican and more right-of-center on Middle East issues — and the more liberal Jewish majority is nothing new on the Jewish political scene. But the gap has been widening dramatically in recent election cycles, with another quantum jump in 2012.
Part of that increase is the influence of right-of-center pro-Israel mega-donors, who made up with shrill, expensive advertising for what their side of the debate lacked in numbers. And part of the increase is the continuing shift of even multi-issue Jewish organizations to an agenda dominated by Israel.
Like the gap between Americans who see gun control as a pressing and common-sense necessity and those who see even modest restrictions as the inevitable first step in taking away a fundamental constitutional right, there is literally no middle ground between these factions. This isn’t a political debate; it’s a fundamental clash of world views, with each side demonizing the other.
Obama’s strong win with Jewish voters showed just how wide that gap has become.
Last Wednesday I received angry, anxious e-mails from Jewish Republicans simply unable to believe that almost 70 percent of their co-religionists voted to give Obama a second term, thereby — in their view — forsaking Israel. I heard from Jewish Democrats incensed about a GOP faction that they believed misrepresented Jewish values to the broader public by portraying Obama as an anti-Israel monster and, they believed, utterly ignoring every critical domestic issue.
Even Jewish leaders whose organizations have a broader focus seem increasingly to reinforce these divisions.
Exit polls showed that a small proportion of Jewish voters listed Israel as a top concern going into the voting booth. It would be interesting to see an exit poll of mainstream Jewish leaders. I’m betting Israel was at the very top of their political priority list, and that their skepticism about the Obama administration’s Middle East policy was far greater that that of the average Jewish voter.
Increasingly, the pro-Israel movement mirrors the broader political environment: polarized, angry, with no middle ground and a decreasing interest in even talking to the other side. It’s one of the reasons so many Jews, especially younger ones, are detaching from community institutions and why so many Jewish organizations are struggling for survival.
The wound in the heart of the Jewish community is mercilessly and recklessly poked by politicians eager to make Israel a wedge issue in pursuit of their partisan concerns. Criticizing Obama’s Mideast missteps is fair game; running ads in Jewish communities portraying him as a mortal threat to the Jewish state is meant only to serve partisan interests at the expense of broad support for the embattled nation.
Election 2012 demonstrated more clearly than ever the fact that Jews are at war with themselves over Israel, and that cynical politicians and their supporters are seeking political gain by widening the chasm. Ultimately, that can only narrow the base of active support for Israel both within the Jewish community and in the broader political environment, with grave implications for the Jewish state’s future.
The election also demonstrated with disturbing clarity how the issue of peace between Israel and its neighbors has become political poison. Politicians in both parties were generous with the pro-Israel platitudes and promises to “have Israel’s back.” But when was the last time you heard a candidate for the House or Senate or a presidential contender promise to work harder to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table? When was the last time you heard any semblance of a Mideast peace plan? When was the last time you heard a candidate speak like a statesman, not a greedy politician pandering for pro-Israel campaign money?
Part of that, of course, is the fact that conditions in the region are so unpromising. Both Israeli and Palestinian leaders seem unwilling to make the painful concessions any real peace will require.
But even more important is the fact that Jewish groups, intimidated by a fringe that rejects the very idea of a two-state solution, have made any mention of a U.S. role in peacemaking and any hint that Israel, as well as the Palestinians, will have to compromise, something close to political suicide. Thoughtful debate over the best course for U.S. policy in the troubled region has been replaced by rote slogans about support for Israel. To suggest that a president must work to win the trust of both sides to allow this country to play a useful role as mediator is something like cutting your own throat in public.
The results are satisfying for American Jews who want things to stay the same in the region, but they may ultimately be tragic for an Israel that needs a United States willing and able to engage as a force to bring the warring sides together.
Finally, there’s the matter of the demographic shift that was a big part of last Tuesday’s Obama victory. Hispanics and Asians are surging as forces in the American electorate; a majority of voters are now women. Many Republicans are saying that the GOP lost because it has become the party of old white men.
Traditionally, the Jewish community — a tiny minority — has magnified its clout through coalitions with other minority groups, based on a host of shared interests. It’s no accident that groups like the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith and local community relations councils around the country have in the past decade created mechanisms designed to expand those coalitions.
But as a whole, the Jewish establishment seems to be moving in the opposite direction, toward an Israel-centric parochialism that subordinates every other issue, every relationship with other groups, to that single overarching concern. As even multi-issue Jewish groups have focused more on Israel, building coalitions with other groups and devoting resources to the issues they are most concerned about has slipped as a priority.
And those coalitions have become more difficult to maintain as we have become less and less tolerant of those who do not seem sufficiently supportive of Israel. Just look at the traditional domestic coalitions between mainstream Jewish groups and mainline Protestant denominations, now shattered by conflict over Israel.
The one coalition that seems to have deepened in recent years is the relationship between pro-Israel Jewish groups and Evangelical Christians whose support for Israel is overwhelming, with none of the criticism of Israeli policies that one hears from the mainline Protestant churches. That lack of criticism may make the current Israeli government happy. But it is one more step in narrowing the base of support for Israel at a time of dramatic, demographics-driven change in American politics and one more source of estrangement from Jewish involvement by progressive Jews who doubt the Evangelicals’ motives in supporting Israel and overwhelmingly reject their domestic agenda.
Election 2012 was a warning shot across the bow of the Jewish establishment: it’s time to expand alliances with communities that are emerging as political forces — and figure out how to keep our legitimate concerns about Israel from getting in the way.
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