Embracing the sumptuous history of snubs, leaks and insults by the Obama administration towards Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, prominent Democrats are now hurling recriminations at Mr. Netanyahu. They are livid at his accepting House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to address Congress about Iran. The charge is that he is undermining America’s purportedly invulnerable bipartisan embrace of Israel, as though his precarious country’s imminent existential concerns over the administration’s backdoor dealings with Iran are thin political pretense.
But with much of the Middle East perilously destabilized - also arguably by Obama’s foreign policy - fear of a nuclear Iran is of course a legitimate concern for Mr. Netanyahu. The pretense is the vaunted myth of American bipartisanship on Israel. Everyone in Washington knows the parties are deeply divided on Israel and that the chasm is rooted in fundamental philosophies. Far from being personal or cyclical, the partisan division has steadily grown over the past 25 years regardless of who is in the White House or who controls Congress.
Pew Research reported this week that while 83% of Republicans and 59% of Independents sympathize more with Israelis than Palestinians, only 48% of Democrats do.
That isn’t even close. In 2012, Pew analyzed 15 issues to determine where the largest partisan gaps lie. Only 3 - Social Safety Net (41%), Environment (39%) and Labor Unions (37%) - were greater than the 35% that exists on Israel. Scope and Effectiveness of Government (33%), Immigration (24%), Social Conservatism (17%) and National Security (15%) were among the many issues more bipartisan than Israel appears to be.
Nobody would have the chutzpah to suggest there is no difference between the parties when it comes to any of those issues.
Democrats and liberals - including establishment Jewish groups – use the myth of “bipartisan” as a cudgel to bludgeon conservatives’ and Republicans’ enthusiasm when it comes to Israel policy. For years, Israel’s largest and most powerful support base in America, the Christian Right, has submitted, typically with some head-scratching, on the premise that the Jews must know something they don’t. But for years polls have shown that Israel is far higher on their political priority list than it is on most Jews’ priority lists. And if Republicans have complied in the futile belief that it will curry American Jewish favor come election time, they should stop. It won’t.
And it’s hurting Israel.
In 2012, Jewish groups pushed to have long-established language on Jerusalem as Israel’s capital reinstated in the Democratic platform: language that was loudly booed and jeered by the delegates live on camera when it was brought to a vote at the Convention.
Less well known is the work those same groups did on the Republican side in 2012. There, a number of Republican delegates tried – three times - to change the GOP platform from supporting only the “Two-State Solution” to more unambiguous and unconditional support for Israel’s pursuit of peace. This is more in line with the sentiments of the Republican base and undeniably more helpful to Israel. Unfortunately the GOP instead caved to lobbying from “pro-Israel” groups who did not want evidence of the partisan schism. Sorry, Israel.
It’s also hurting Republicans. America is far more in line with conservative and Republican sentiments about Israel. According to Pew, 70% of Americans view Israel favorably. Only 17% view the Palestinian Authority favorably. (And that was before this week’s news that a federal court has held the Palestinian Authority legally liable for the terror murder of American citizens.)
In short, rather than a blow to a bipartisanship that simply doesn’t exist, Mr. Netanyahu’s acceptance of Mr. Boehner’s invitation offers the possibility of clarity and a way forward. It is an opportunity for Republicans and conservatives to break free from those who have shackled them to lowest common denominator policies and empty pro-Israel rhetoric for decades in order to foster an illusion helpful to the die-hard Democrats of the American Jewish establishment, but often inimical to Israel.
In coming to Congress, Mr. Netanhayu isn’t playjng partisan, he’s trying to save his country. Like most moments of clarity, though, it is unlikely to last unless it’s seized. Here is what conservatives and Republicans should do:
Focus on policies not platitudes: “Pro-Israel” is as hollow a phrase as “Pro-America.” J Street, New Israel Fund and many other groups shilling for the Left, including those who accuse Israel of being Apartheid and push for boycotts, divestment and sanctions, claim they are pro-Israel; that their support of Israel’s enemies is “tough-love.” Ignore the labels and rhetoric and differentiate on policies. Israel is dealing with existential issues. Stake out aggressive positions focused on Israel’s security. Make the choice clear and let the pressure be on the other side to catch up. Go well beyond the easily bipartisan matter of foreign aid and articulate policies on support for Israel not being contingent on the forced creation of a Palestinian state that brings neither security nor peace. Stand up for a unified Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Go ahead, change the party platform this time.
Focus on ideas not identity: Israel is a key issue for vastly more Americans than Jews. They overwhelmingly are on your side. Be friendly to AIPAC which does a splendid job of involving American Jews, but remember that it does not speak for Israel. And it does not speak for even a small fraction of Americans committed to supporting Israel: it speaks for its membership, which is overwhelmingly Democrat for reasons having nothing to do with Israel policy. It is, after all, an establishment Jewish organization. Remember too, America’s Israel policy is an issue for many Jews, but it isn’t by any stretch a “Jewish issue.” Jewish support for Israel is a small drop in the bucket of American support. In fact, in national polling of attitudes on Israel, “Jewish” isn’t even a demographic: it’s far too small a number.
Stop worrying about maintaining the myth of bipartisanship: The stakes are too high. Just ask Mr. Netanyahu.
Jeff Ballabon is media executive and formerly a lobbyist, a lawyer, and a political and Orthodox Jewish community activist.