Israel’s Standing in America Is Now Far Weaker Than It Seems
Over half a century of occupation is finally catching up with Israel, and its support base in the U.S. is slipping – not least among young American Jews. Delusions like Micah Goodman’s “manage the conflict” won’t help.
A word of advice to Naftali Bennett: Don’t delude yourself. The “manage the conflict” days are over. When it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel needs a vision and a plan.
This may not be apparent to you from where you now sit.
When you arrive in Washington for your scheduled visit later in the summer, President Biden and members of his administration will be friendly, and so too will the leaders of his party.
Biden’s affection for Israel is real, but the most important reason for his embrace is that you are not the Obama-hating, Trump-loving, Netanyahu, much despised by Democrats everywhere. In addition, of course, the president and his team, consumed by domestic battles, are not anxious for additional problems in the foreign policy realm.
But as those of us in the pro-Israel camp know, difficult times are ahead. Israel’s position in America is much weaker now than it seems.
And in the months to come, when your government has stabilized and passed a budget, pressure will be forthcoming from the Americans for Israel to put a serious initiative on the table to deal with the Palestinian issue.
On the American right, of course, the argument is made that such an initiative would be pointless. Bret Stephens, writing in the July/August issue of Commentary, has made the case that Bibi’s zigzagging on the Palestinians, advocating simultaneously for and against a peace settlement, was in fact a brilliant strategy; after all, Stephens insisted, no deal is possible, and Bibi was making the best of a bad situation.
Micah Goodman, in the July 14 edition of The Wall Street Journal, made a similar argument. This is the “manage the conflict” approach, which you, Bennett, and even your co-premier, Yair Lapid, supposedly favor, and which is another term for doing nothing until some far-off date in the future.
But the problem with this approach is two-fold. First, it assumes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will magically fade away, something right wingers always believe and that never happens. And second, it also assumes that while the conflict is being “managed,” the status quo will somehow prevail. And this too is a fantasy. According to most experts, Israel adds 3,000 settlers a year to the territories, an act that, over time, will become the equivalent of annexation.
You should be aware, as well, of some deeply disturbing trends in how many Americans look upon Israel. A just-released University of Maryland poll shows the largest one-year expansion recorded in the number of Democrats wanting the United States to lean toward the Palestinians; it also showed that more Democrats blamed Israel for the recent war in Gaza than Palestinians.
And in March, a Gallup poll showed that 53 percent of Democrats favored placing more pressure on Israel to make compromises to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Support for Israel remains strong among Republicans and Evangelicals (although much less so among younger Evangelicals), but the bipartisan backing that Israel could always take for granted is fast becoming a thing of the past.
And this too: Israel is getting clobbered day after day on social media. In the best-case scenarios, Israelis are presented as bumbling occupiers, disrupting Palestinian lives in the West Bank. In the worst-case scenarios, they are presented as evil incarnate. And in a two-month period this spring, 152 colleges – faculty groups, academic departments, and student governments – released statements condemning Israel.
Most of these statements accuse Israel of “apartheid” or “settler colonialism,” and many come from elite institutions. One such statement was released by the Yale student council on May 12, and it was important because 20 years from now, those Yale students will be running America.
And if you think that I am exaggerating the significance of this data, consider the following: In a poll released on July 13, 25 percent of American Jewish voters agreed that Israel is an apartheid state, and another 22 percent were unsure. Among Jews under 40, a third accepted the apartheid label. Did you get that? Jewish voters.
Some pollsters and many American Jews questioned these numbers, as did I. The sample size of the survey was small, and the numbers just seemed too terrible to be true. And to be fair, a large majority of those polled reported an emotional attachment to Israel, alongside their critical views of Israeli policies.
Nonetheless, alarm bells were set off throughout Jewish America. Even assuming somewhat inflated percentages, American Jewish leaders were left shocked and shaken. How, they wondered, could even a modest fraction of American Jews hold such views? And if some Jews were thinking this way, what does that suggest about the thinking of non-Jews on Israel?
One reason for these developments may be the Gaza war in May, a just war in my view but presented otherwise by the media. And events at Sheikh Jarrah, which were both unjust and badly handled, were especially damaging to Israel – and another eruption of controversy is due this week.
But the broader problem may simply be that an occupation lasting more than half a century has finally caught up with Israel, shaping attitudes and political perceptions, especially among the young. Jews and non-Jews who are under 40 know Israel only as an occupying power, and they are much less supportive of Israel than their elders. And while Israel may be more of a benevolent occupier than not, winning support for an occupier of any type is a hard sell.
Are these perceptions fair to the Jewish state? Not really. Or, at least, not entirely.
We in the Jewish community have a list of arguments that we put forward to defend Israel against charges of being a cruel occupier of Palestinians. Consider the following five.
Is not the real problem the rejectionism of the Palestinians, whose leadership remains intransigent, disorganized, repressive and corrupt?
Have not the Israelis offered on multiple occasions to pull back almost to the 1967 borders, only to be told “no” by Palestinian leaders?
Is there not a double standard at work here? Why the anger against Israel while the Syrian genocide passes unnoticed, and the Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs is met with silence?
Why the hysteria about terrorism everywhere in the world, with the sole exception of Hamas terrorism against Israel?
Have not the Israelis withdrawn from Palestinian land in Gaza, only to be confronted with non-stop missile fire from Gaza? And wouldn’t withdrawal from the West Bank lead to the non-stop firing of missiles from those territories into the heart of Israel?
These arguments are compelling. Each has a measure of validity, and each I have used myself. Why then are they not more effective?
Part of the reason is antisemitism, plain and simple. It is roaring back, everywhere in the world. And in its wake, Zionism, forever and rightly associated with Jews, has become a curse word, a sordid tale of imperialism and exploitation. And with antisemitism all around us, there is a real danger that anti-Israel culture will become the default position of the political left and of the white supremacist right.
But now the tough issue, Prime Minister Bennett.
Given that antisemitism is real, and that Palestinian rejectionism is real, and that double standards are real, and that Israel haters are real, does that mean that the occupation doesn’t pose a real problem for Israelis and for Jews everywhere? Of course it doesn’t.
And that is what American Jews, especially younger Jews, are experiencing now. Yes, some are naïve, and some are ignorant, and many, as Jewish leaders keep telling them, could use better Jewish education. But many others are seeing things clearly and are asking tough-minded questions.
Israel, these young Jews know, has sold itself as a beacon of democracy and Western values, including the universal value of freedom. And that being so, they wonder why so many Israelis seem comfortable with, and even supportive of, occupation. They wonder why Israel builds settlement after settlement, creating facts on the ground that make a viable Palestinian state impossible. And they are concerned that Israel’s leaders seem, so often, to be indifferent to issues of democracy and the oppression of their Palestinian neighbors.
Let me be clear: Many of these young Jews understand security. They do not expect Israel to be perfect, and they are not asking for a foreign policy that is monumental or overly ambitious. But they do need to have their questions answered, and they do need to understand Israel’s destructive obsession with settlement, which they read about in the newspapers and online nearly every day.
And this is where you come in, Mr. Prime Minister.
American Jews want you to fight the Israel haters and the antisemites. Those who are deeply hostile to Israel will remain deeply hostile to Israel. Only by taking them on can Israel be secure.
But they also want something else. They want a prime minister who will express Israel’s and Zionism’s highest ideals in plain language.
They desperately need an Israeli leader who will say to American Jews and to all Americans:
“The territories are not Israel. We Israelis have no desire to rule over the Palestinian people.
We are committed to sitting down with Palestinian leadership and working out a peace agreement, based on the principle of two states for two peoples. Until we have an agreement, no matter how long it may take, we will not expand our area of settlement, and we will do everything possible to separate from the Palestinians.”
And then, of course, they want a leader who will follow through on these commitments.
That’s it. Simple. Straightforward. Direct. If you say these words, those polls will improve immediately, the fears of American Jews will be put to rest, and Israel’s standing among all Americans will soar.
Yair Lapid, your foreign minister and the alternate prime minister, seems to understand this. In a briefing last week to journalists, he said that to solve Israel’s public image problems around the world, it needed to “reframe its image as a liberal democracy.” Exactly right. But more specifics are needed.
When you come to Washington, I urge you to seize the moment and to provide the answers that young Jews seek. And if you cannot do it, then have Mr. Lapid do it for you.