December 19, 2018

Does Israel Need Bipartisan Support?

Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

It is not easy to ditch orthodoxies — and not always advisable. This is as true for the political arena as it is for religion. Consider, as one example, the orthodoxy of the two-state solution. It is an orthodoxy that many, if not most, Israelis are willing to let go. On the other hand, what is the alternative? What happens when the two-state orthodoxy is gone? 

Enter Donald Trump. He is, of course, a prime example of the unorthodox. 

Trump destroyed many orthodoxies of presidential decorum. He might have destroyed some orthodoxies of diplomacy. He painted a question mark above the orthodoxy of the two-state solution. And one must wonder whether his unorthodox manner is about to end another orthodoxy: “Bipartisan support for Israel.” 

Rabbi Eric Yoffie seems to think he is. But he doesn’t blame Trump. It is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who, Yoffie said, “allowed Israel to get caught up in the hyperpartisanship that now divides Republicans from Democrats in America.” And Yoffie is not alone in that view. An institute I work for, The Jewish People Policy Institute, warned in its annual assessment “that Israel was becoming increasingly politicized in the United States.” A Jerusalem Post editorial reminded its readers that “Israel cannot count on one president and one party.”  

The list goes on, but the point is well taken: Bipartisan support for Israel is better than partisan support. Duh. This is like a company saying that having people of all ages buy its product is better than having just young people buy its product. Countries, much like companies selling product, prefer the many over the few. A dilemma begins when having it all becomes impossible or very pricey. As in, if you get the old buyers, many youngsters will abandon the product; and if you sell to everyone, you must sell cheap and lose profitability. 

These are the questions one must consider as one deals with the orthodoxy on bipartisan support. First, is it possible to keep this orthodoxy alive, or is it just an empty allusion to a more politically benign past? And, what is the benefit for Israel, and what is the price Israel must pay for bipartisanship? 

“What if Israel actually believes that the U.S. cut of Palestinian aid is a positive move?”

Observers who assume these questions are easy to answer usually overlook a key side of an argument. For example, in his article, Yoffie asks: “Why in heaven’s name is Bibi applauding” the American decision to “drastically cut social and economic aid to Palestinians?” When Israel applauds such moves, he argues — and I agree — it leads to a loss of bipartisan support.

So where is the problem with Yoffie’s argument? He sees only downsides. He detects no dilemma. 

Yoffie (for whom I have great respect) assumes that the U.S. decision “will likely lead to a third intifada, a Hamas takeover of the Palestinian Authority, or a massive humanitarian crisis for which Israel will ultimately be responsible.” If that’s the case, Israel looks quite dumb. It will get an intifada and erode bipartisanship. Indeed, it is not clear why anyone would choose this course of action.

But what if Israel actually believes that the U.S. cut of Palestinian aid is a positive move? What if it believes that it can tame Palestinian irrational expectations or make Palestinian leaders reconsider their positions? You see the dilemma. It is not a choice between “do the dumb thing and lose bipartisanship” and “do the right thing and win bipartisanship.” That’s no dilemma. It is between “do the right thing and lose bipartisanship” and “do the wrong thing and win bipartisanship.”   

So what should Israel do when such dilemmas occur? Make sure to weigh the real costs (of losing bipartisanship) against the real benefits (of the specific move under consideration). In other words: Beware orthodoxy. 

For a Reform rabbi such as Yoffie, this should be easy to accept.