OP-ED: Trump and Netanyahu are pushing American Jews to the left on Israel

Samuel G. Freedman
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows guided missile sites in Beirut during his address of the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

When Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu met for the first time as heads of state, the Israeli prime minister praised the American president for restoring a policy of “no daylight” between the nations.

Such a policy can mean providing Israel with the security to take risks in peacemaking, as was the case with President Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak during the Oslo talks and with President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. But with Trump and Netanyahu, this “no daylight” claim has been politically divisive in both countries.

In the United States, the two leaders have sealed Israel’s bond with the Republican Party and evangelical Christians, completing a process Netanyahu started years earlier. In Israel, the right-wing government has enjoyed Washington’s complicity in expanding settlements, annexing the Golan Heights and pushing for similar control over the Jordan Valley and ultimately most of the West Bank.

All these moves have ruptured seven decades of bipartisan agreement on American ties to Israel. They have also left a large share of Democratic voters, including Jews, feeling outraged that their support for Israel and Zionism has been used to endorse a martial state ruling over several million disenfranchised Palestinians and marching headlong toward apartheid.

What long seemed politically impossible — ending a blank-check foreign aid policy that refused to question Israel’s actions — is gathering force within the Democratic Party. Far from being a threat to Israel, as the right will surely portray it, this trend offers a vital third way between the extremes of occupation and annexation on the right and the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement on the far left, with its implicit goal of expunging Israel as a nation.

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The public emergence of this middle ground on American-Israel relations could be seen at the annual conference last month of J Street, the progressive pro-Israel lobby that is a competitor to the center-right behemoth, AIPAC.

At the three-day gathering, speaker after speaker called for American aid to Israel to be paired with clear limits on its use and other conditions. The aim was to revive some prospect of a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Bernie Sanders, after proudly proclaiming his own Jewish identity, insisted that some portion of the U.S.’s annual $3.8 billion in military aid to Israel be spent alleviating the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Two other presidential candidates, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren, expressed similar positions. All three would require imposing a ban on using U.S. aid for annexation.

Such a position could lead to other conditions, like bans on the use of U.S. aid in constructing settlements and imprisoning Palestinian children.

This is a sizable shift in Democratic positioning, given that the party’s 2016 convention delegates rejected platform language condemning occupation and annexation, which had been drafted by Sanders’ backers.

Recent polling shows that Democrats as a whole and Jews specifically are separating opposition to Netanyahu from their support for Israel.

A survey in May by J Street of likely Democratic primary voters found that 82% believed one can be pro-Israel while also criticizing specific Israeli policies. In the same poll, Israel had favorable vs. unfavorable percentages of 41 and 16. Netanyahu, however, had a positive rating of just 12% and a negative of 39%.

The American Jewish Committee had similar results in its June 2019 poll of American Jews. Some 59% disapproved of President Trump’s handling of American-Israeli relations, which he has made the basis of his appeals to Jewish voters. Of those surveyed, 57% said it would be appropriate for American Jews try to influence Israeli policy on issues including peacemaking and security and 64% endorsed a two-state solution.

Predictably, the right wing of both Israeli and American Jewry has cast any criticism of Israeli policies as anti-Israel broadly. And we can expect Trump to continue depicting criticism of Netanyahu’s regime, even from Jews, as being anti-Semitic.

By the time of the Democratic National Convention next summer, though, there will be no way to quash a full-throated debate and, quite possibly, the passage of a very different platform plank from that of 2016. That kind of daylight could be illuminating in more ways than one.

— Samuel G. Freedman is a journalism professor at Columbia University and the author of eight books, including “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.”