November 18, 2018

‘When US doesn’t meddle in Israeli politics, it strengthens the right’

David A. Weinberg is a visiting fellow at UCLA’s Center for Middle East Development while wrapping up a doctorate in political science at MIT.  He formerly served as a Mideast advisor to the late Rep. Tom Lantos, who was chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs at the time. 

His dissertation uses archives and interviews to tell the story of American efforts to shape internal Israeli politics and internal Palestinian politics over the years.

Weinberg kindly agreed to answer some questions related to recent comments on Israel made by several top US officials.

When the US intervenes in Israeli politics – is it mostly to change policies or to get rid of annoying politicians?

Every American president since before I was born has deeply desired a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and has therefore preferred the political program of the Labor Party – and in recent years, Kadima – to that of the Likud.  As a result, American presidents also tend to have preferences for certain Israeli politicians or political groupings over others, and these groupings tend to come from the center or the left, not the Israeli right.  And sometimes presidents are even willing to pay costs to promote these preferences.

Probably 95% of American actions toward Israel are aimed at either supporting Israel or influencing its policies, not its politics. But that other 5% is a critical part of the story that I think most observers either ignore or unreasonably demonize.  America has interests, and those interests are advanced by a strong relationship with a strong Israel.  But it also matters who is in charge in Israel. If American presidents become deeply dissatisfied with Israel’s leadership, they sometimes do what they can to let the Israeli public know.  More often than not, however, they are silent on the issue, and that silence benefits the Likud.

When Secretary Clinton says Israel is becoming more like Iran – is this also an attempt to intervene? Do such attempts usually bear fruit?

Secretary Clinton’s recent remarks were off the record, so I cannot know what she said with exact certainty. However, my general impression was that her remarks were not directed at Israel’s prime minister but rather at specific policies being pursued by this Israeli government which clash with Israel’s reputation in the U.S. as a democracy that safeguards the rights of all its citizens. These policies include gender segregation in some public spaces and McCarthyist attacks against citizen groups because of their policy positions. 

So, no, I don’t think her comments were directed at PM Netanyahu, per se. But such efforts, when they do take place, often do succeed. When Netanyahu was defeated in 1999 by Ehud Barak, the American government under President Bill Clinton had worked very hard to convey to Israeli voters its belief that Netanyahu was harming relations with the U.S. – less intensively than President Clinton worked in 1996 to get Shimon Peres elected but hard nonetheless. My impression was that Israeli voters listened in 1999 and that these gestures did help Barak against Netanyahu at the polls.

Will we ever see an American President intervening against the Israeli left-wing candidate or party and in favor of right-wing policies?

Occasionally the U.S. has backed non-Labor politicians in Israel, but only when those politicians display a genuine sensitivity toward U.S. interests and a basic appreciation of making tough sacrifices in pursuit of peace. This is why the US was inclined to bolster and cooperate with Moshe Arens in 1983 as well as Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, and Tzipi Livni in the past decade, even though none of them were hardcore lefties. 

On the other hand, American presidents have generally seemed to conclude that PM Netanyahu, like Yitzhak Shamir before him, is not adequately sensitive to American interests or the urgency of the peace process. They tend to see Netanyahu as bad for American interests and even bad for Israeli interests in the long term.

You conclude that even though President Obama isn’t popular in Israel he can still make life politically difficult for PM Netanyahu – how?

Israeli voters place strong priority on their nation’s ability to be self-sufficient, but they also believe that their prime minister should do a wise job of managing relations with Israel’s number one ally, the United States of America. 

Although President Obama does seem to believe PM Netanyahu is harming U.S. interests, he has a much broader range of tools at his disposal for communicating this message than he has used thus far. In short, he has been avoiding this fight. 

But if Obama does choose to pursue this fight, it is certainly possible he could prevail – even though he is less popular with the Israeli public than, say, President Clinton. For instance, Bush Senior was able to contribute to the election of Yitzhak Rabin and the defeat of Yitzhak Shamir in 1992, and yet there was little love lost between President Bush (41st president, not W.) and the Israeli public at the time.

So is it better for Israel to have a Romney or a Gingrigh?

Some skeptics might conclude that it would be better for Israel to have a Romney or Gingrich in the White House, but I strongly disagree with this proposition.  Israel’s long-term strategic choice is for a two-state solution, and these two Republican candidates have suggested that they will do little to advance this vision while in office. Kneejerk support for tough Israeli policies while abandoning the cause of peacemakers in the region means turning a blind eye toward Israel’s longer-term strategic needs. 

The closest analogue for a Republican presidency under one of these candidates would be Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush, both of whom pursued foreign policies that de-prioritized the peace process. As a result, both presidents unintentionally caused Israel long-term harm by sidelining moderates in Israel and among the Arabs. It is also no coincidence that Israel engaged in its most poorly-planned and counterproductive wars in recent memory while Reagan and Bush 43 were sitting in the Oval Office.

Moreover, President Obama has been exceptionally committed to security assistance for Israel, as well as strategic coordination. Given Republic opposition to public expenditures, security assistance could decline. It has become fashionable in the Republican debates to declare that America’s foreign assistance budget should “start at zero”. And diminished aid to Arab regimes in transition could weaken forces in the Arab world which are prepared to cooperate with Israel overtly or covertly.

Does American intervention justify Israeli intervention in American politics?

The alternative to American meddling in Israel by commission is American meddling in Israeli by omission. When the US does not consciously get involved in Israeli politics, its passivity often artificially strengthens the right-wing in Israel and weakens the left by enabling hardliners to pursue reckless policies cost-free, at least in the short term.

Anyway, Israeli intervention in American politics happens all the time, regardless of whether or not the American President tries to shape Israel’s domestic politics. Last I checked, Israelis did not look to American actions first before deciding whether or not they should meddle in Washington. 

In fact, meddling behavior by Israeli governments is sometimes the cause of American efforts to do the same. For instance, PM Netanyahu’s original love-fest with Republicans in Congress over a decade ago only added to President Clinton’s desire to ultimately push him out in 1999. 

Only time will tell if the prime minister’s outreach to Republicans this time around has the same effect on President Obama in the year or two ahead.  However, it seems Netanyahu himself is hedging his bets, doing what he can to prepare early elections in Israel while Obama is preoccupied with his own reelection in 2012.