By Douglas Bloomfield
The latest Gaza war should be called Operation Déjà vu. It will end in a standoff while both sides rearm for the inevitable next round. Each side will declare victory. The big Jewish star will be the Iron Dome anti-missile system, but this battle could turn into a political defeat for the Jewish state.
The Israel/ U.S. Relationship
The clearing smoke from the battlefields is exposing a disturbing political weakness. Israel’s standing in America has been shrinking in recent years, and its actions in this round of fighting could accelerate the process.
Americans, particularly many Jews, rally round the flag while the missiles are flying, but when smoke clears it will give way to introspection and the rifts will once again emerge, possibly with greater intensity. An increasingly active and visible Jewish minority is speaking out against Israel’s actions.
There’s the usual “Israel has a right to defend itself,” but for many there’s a “but” attached.
President Joe Biden didn’t want to get bogged down into fruitless efforts to broker peace between unwilling Israelis and unwilling Palestinians, preferring to pivot from the Middle East to more pressing problems in Asia. He understands that Hamas’ thousands of missiles drove prospects for Palestinian statehood even farther into the distant future.
Demands For Ceasefire
Biden was reluctant to get involved in the latest blow-up, but he had no choice. He bought time for Israel by vetoing three UN Security Council resolutions and fending off pressure from fellow Democrats to take a more assertive role in halting the fighting, which he finally did in private calls to Netanyahu.
A majority of Senate Democrats, led by the body’s newest Jewish member, Sen. Jon Ossoff of Georgia, have urged to press Israel harder for a ceasefire. Over in the House, 12 of 25 Jewish lawmakers are demanding an “immediate ceasefire.”
There’s even unprecedented talk among some friends of Israel in the House of delaying a planned $735 million sale of smart bombs to Israel, apparently to replace those homing in on Hamas targets.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is Jewish, called the Netanyahu government “undemocratic and racist” in a New York Times essay. He called for an “evenhanded approach” in which military aid “must not enable human rights abuses.” He wrote, “Palestinian rights matter. Palestinian lives matter.”
Rep. Andy Levin (D-Michigan), scion of a prominent Jewish political family, calling himself a “lifelong Zionist,” said that U.S. policy “must support real human rights for Palestinians.”
Jewish Republicans will label their Democratic rivals anti-Israel for not marching in lockstep with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as they do.
As Jewish and Democratic criticism of Israel grows, an increasing number of lawmakers, mainly but not solely of the progressive wing, are expressing outspoken support for the Palestinians, with several branding Israel an apartheid state.
Biden has yet to disabuse Netanyahu, at least in public, of the notion that he has carte blanche from Washington to do whatever he wishes. But that doesn’t deter Republicans from blaming Hamas’ attacks on Biden’s “weakness.”
Republicans are delighted to exploit Democratic criticism to advance their “we love Israel more” claims, ramping up their unconditional backing of the Israeli response.
That plays well to the GOP’s evangelical base and to the growing Orthodox Jewish minority, but it’s unlikely to have much impact on a majority that remains heavily Democratic and progressive.
A recent Pew Research Center survey showed Republican Jews expressed stronger ties to Israel than their Democratic coreligionists by an impressive 74-52 margin.
Yet Republicans seem unable to elect Jews to Congress. Of the 37 Jews in the 117th Congress, only two are Republicans, Reps. David Kustoff of Tennessee and Lee Zeldin of New York. Democrats count 10 Jews in the Senate and 25 in the House.
The Republican Israel Caucus has been giving full-throated backing to Israel and opposing any dealing with the Palestinian Authority.
A senior Democratic operative on Capitol Hill told me to “look at how much Israel has changed, not the Democrats.”
Criticism of Israel from the left is no longer muted but louder and coming increasingly from a newer generation of lawmakers.
But it is also coming from the mainstream. Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is a shtarker, which made his criticism of the civilian death toll in Gaza more stinging. Joining him were Democratic senators Chris Von Hollen of Maryland, Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Chris Coons of Delaware, Biden’s close friend. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi joined the calls for a ceasefire.
Research by University of Maryland ’s Shibley Telhami found a majority of Democratic voters “support imposing sanctions” or “tougher measures” on Israel in response to its settlements policy. He sees “important shifts” in American public attitudes, adding that Democrats increasingly support U.S. “neutrality” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Pew study of American Jews found only one third of respondents felt the Israeli government was sincere in seeking peace and just 12 percent thought the Palestinians were.
That report also showed 71 percent of Jews identify as Democrats, a number than has been consistent for many years and is reflected in their votes for president. Fewer than one in 10 American Jews are Orthodox and of those three quarters consider themselves Republican, up from just over half eight years ago.
Estrangement from Israel
What should be disturbing is the shrinking number of non-Orthodox Jews who feel an attachment to Israel. While two thirds of those 65 and older report strong emotional ties, that drops to just under half of adults under 30. With the current prime minister seeking to make extremist Kahanist parties his coalition partners, that estrangement will likely increase markedly in the coming years.
Support for Israel in Congress tends to be a trailing indicator of what is going on in the Jewish and Democratic rank and file, where Israel’s stock has been falling in recent years.
A driving downward force has been Netanyahu’s plunge into partisan GOP politics, his tight embrace of Donald Trump and the political right, all of which pursue an agenda — both domestic and foreign—on a broad range of issues they reject. Even on Israel they differ, as can be seen in differing responses to the latest Gaza war.
As Members of Congress see their Jewish constituents drift away from Israel they will feel less restrained in voicing their criticism and more inclined to listen to those who speak of greater scrutiny of the relationship.
For now, clear majorities of Congress in both parties are opposed to imposing conditions being advocated by progressives like Senators Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but that it is even being discussed should cause great concern in Israel.