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Saturday, June 6, 2020

What’s Left of Bipartisan Support for Israel?

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The week after next, three events will reflect and/or impact the bipartisan nature of the U.S.-Israel alliance. On March 1, AIPAC will hold its annual policy conference. On March 2, Israel will hold a general election. On March 3, the Democratic Party will have its Super Tuesday primary election. This means that on March 4, we might be in bigger trouble than we are now — or begin to see a light. 

Scenario one: Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu is reelected to another term as prime minister at the head of a right-religious coalition. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) defeats his rivals to become the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party.

Scenario two: Blue and White’s Benny Gantz and a centrist coalition become Israel’s ruling majority. Mike Bloomberg defeats Sanders and becomes the most likely Democratic candidate.

If you believe U.S.-Israel relations supported by a bipartisan American majority is greatly influenced by the ebb and flow of a frequently changing political landscape, then these two scenarios lead to a very different outcome. The first: a clash and a highly partisan fight over Israel in the U.S. The second: a relative calm. 

What is the underlying concept of bipartisan support for Israel? Put simply, it is the notion that policies related to Israel basically are undisputed, and when there are differences between parties or leaders concerning Israel-related issues, the gap is narrow enough to overcome. As everyone understands, the concept of bipartisanship is becoming challenging in a highly polarized American society. But Israel has a special interest in the bipartisan nature of the support for it because its reliance on the U.S. is such that it can hardly afford periods in which U.S. policies are indifferent or hostile to its needs.

As everyone understands, the concept of bipartisanship is becoming challenging in a highly polarized American society.

AIPAC is the epitome of bipartisan support for Israel. Yet presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) vowed to skip it. AIPAC strongly supported moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, yet Sanders says moving it back to Tel Aviv “would be on the table” under certain circumstances. Can AIPAC forge a path for a bipartisan U.S. policy under such terms? And what would it be? A relocation of the embassy to Modi’in, about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv?

What about the question of the parties’ general approaches to U.S. foreign affairs? Can one carve a path to a bipartisan support for Israel when the candidate of one party believes the nuclear agreement with Iran was a travesty — President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the pact in May 2018 — while most other candidates on the other side would “reenter the deal with no new preconditions”? (The quotes of Democratic candidates are taken from the New York Times foreign policy survey of their views on a variety of topics.)

The larger question about bipartisanship isn’t the one about this or that leader, be it Netanyahu and Sanders or Trump and Gantz. It is the question about general public support for Israel and all that comes with it. The elected leaders usually reflect their voters’ beliefs; hence, one must wonder about these voters. Do they deem Israel an ally or a rogue? Is it seen as a model or a pariah? Is it seen as a country deserving sympathy or condemnation, assistance or pressure? 

Debates about Israel-related policies always were a part of public discourse, and no one expects the two main parties will agree on all the details. However, some tenets were considered foundational to the idea of bipartisan support and these also seem under threat. Military aid to Israel is one such topic. When Sanders says  “Aid can be conditioned on Israel taking steps to end the occupation and move toward a peace agreement,” that’s a change. When candidates preach for a more even-handed approach — no more prioritizing the alliance with Israel — that’s a change. And it is a change from “support” to “less support.” 

Bipartisanship is defined by basic agreement on some fundamental features of policy toward Israel. But when everything — including the embassy’s site, right of return, aid, Iran’s threat, use of force — is open for discussion, what is left of bipartisanship is very little. It is the cliché all candidates make sure to repeat about “Israel’s right to exist.” Well, thank you. You have a right to exist, too.

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