After Years of Netanyahu, US-Israel Ties Are on Life Support
As Netanyahu’s new government has become increasingly unhinged, the task of American Jewish supporters of Israel has become untenable.
Pro-Israel advocacy in the United States is on the verge of collapse. The system that American Jews have laboriously constructed over the last 75 years, and that has been exceedingly effective in promoting support for Israel in America, is on life support.
There is plenty of blame to go around for this development. American Jews should certainly have done more to avoid it, but the lion’s share of the fault rests squarely on the shoulders of Benjamin Netanyahu. The events of recent months have driven home the point that even the most skilled American advocates cannot win support for Israeli policies that are deeply politically and morally flawed.
As Netanyahu’s new government has become increasingly unhinged, the task of American Jewish supporters of Israel has become untenable. Nothing they do or say will convince Americans, or even otherwise supportive American Jews, to rally behind Israel’s coalition.
Netanyahu may perhaps find himself chastened by the massive protests and ultimately abandon his judicial coup, offering hope to a discouraged American Jewish community. But if this does not occur, the implications for Israel’s future are ominous.
Since Israel’s founding, American Jews have developed a pro-Israel advocacy strategy based on four principles: emphasizing the shared values of the United States and Israel; making the case that the national interests of the two countries substantially overlap, even if they are not identical; developing and encouraging bipartisan support for Israel, among both Democrats and Republicans; and maintaining the broadest possible support from American Jews for Israel.
But since the beginning of his second term in 2009, Netanyahu has worked to undermine every single one of these principles.
As President Joe Biden has suggested, the most jarring blow to the ties that bind Israel and America is Netanyahu’s disregard for the values that the two countries are supposed to share. The latest Netanyahu government has appointed racists and messianists to senior government positions, attempted to neuter Israel’s independent judiciary, proposed governance models for Israel that are semi-democratic at best and dealt with the Palestinian issue in a way that ranges from erratic to morally outrageous.
Netanyahu’s display of authoritarian sympathies constitutes far more than a glitch in American-Israeli relations. It has caused an earthquake, leaving a broad swath of previously sympathetic Americans rattled and confused.
Bibi has done no better when it comes to showing that Israel and its American ally share vital interests. On Netanyahu’s watch, Saudi Arabia has reestablished relations with Iran and drawn closer to American adversaries China and Russia, while weakening the ties forged through the Abraham Accords in the process. American policymakers are unsettled by these developments, to say the least.
Netanyahu is not solely responsible for these diplomatic developments, but he had promised to do his part to keep the Saudis in the western camp by calming tensions with the Palestinians. What he actually did was exactly the opposite. His government passed legislation to allow settlers to return to previously evicted settlements, stood by during the shocking pogrom at Hawara and bungled the handling of disturbances at the Temple Mount, even if this step was corrected. The rabid anti-Arab rantings of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and members of their parties in the Knesset add fuel to this fire; they seem to delight in infuriating Israel’s partners in the Gulf and cannot stop embarrassing themselves.
Americans Jews like to point to Israel as a reliable, democratic, pro-American ally that is supportive of America’s strategic needs. The previous Israeli government more or less fits that model, but the current one does not. What the American administration now sees is what Israeli demonstrators have been demonstrating against over the last three months: The Bibi freak show, mixing general ineptness, a coup against liberty, open racism and barely camouflaged hostility to America.
As for the principle of cultivating bipartisan support for Israel, Bibi has actively favored Republicans over Democrats since 2009, challenging more than 60 years of American Jewish efforts to maintain a stronghold in both major parties.
Even the relationship of American Jews with Israel is cause for concern, although statistics on it are hard to come by. Netanyahu has not cared about world Jewry for a long time, and since abandoning the agreement to upgrade the egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, has mostly written them off.
Jewish devotion to Israel runs deep, and Diaspora support has generally remained vital and strong. But those of us who spend time speaking about Israel with communities across the country know that there is something different about the current crisis. Even the most committed elements of the American Jewish community have been shaken by the events that followed the 2022 Israeli election.