I closely follow liberal Zionists because they are the power inside the Democratic Party, witness the fact that Chuck Schumer will be addressing J Street’s conference later this month for the first time. What follows is a liberal Zionist argument I believe we’re going to be hearing a lot of: the only thing we need to do to end the Democratic Party’s disaffection with Israel is get rid of Netanyahu– and Trump.
Jonathan Rynhold is a poli-sci professor in Israel and a researcher at a rightwing Israeli thinktank. His piece “The Special Relationship” was picked up by the liberal Israel Policy Forum and says that Americans feel a religious and “pioneering” identification with Israel, and Democrats remain “firmly” in Israel’s corner, despite the publicity given to two supporters of the Boycott campaign in Congress. “[O]nly a minority of Democrats have a negative view of Israel.” Half of Dems in a recent survey (from a neoconservative source) see the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign as anti-Semitic.
Rynhold’s big challenge is that since 2014, the “pro-Israel margin” among Democrats (whether they have more sympathy for Israel or the Palestinians) has been virtually wiped out. It “has dropped by a whopping 25 percentage points… Such a sharp deterioration is unprecedented.” In the Pew survey below, that margin is in low single digits. Gallup puts it in the low-teens.
Rynhold says the progressive American distaste for Israel is largely the product of Trump and Netanyahu making the issue partisan. He all but ignores human rights concerns. He says settlements are an issue but hardly mentions the Gaza onslaught of 2014 that seems to have been crucial in shifting progressive attitudes. He does not state that Israel killed more than 2000 people including 500 children then. Bernie Sanders slammed the Israeli response as “disproportionate” and called for an even-handed policy.
Rynhold also leaves out the slaying of nearly 200 protesters at the Gaza fence in the last 18 months. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez once called that a “massacre.” Rynhold never mentions the word “apartheid.” But even Jake Tapper at the 92d Street Y says that it is hard to speak of Israel in neutral terms these days, and “apartheid” is a fair charge when Israel’s government “has absolutely no intention of ever giving full rights to Palestinians in the West Bank, which is the definition of apartheid.”
Rynhold pins the blame on Netanyahu. He notes that among Democrats, “the decline in the margin of sympathy for Israel” tracks “the sharp decline in the margin of favorable opinion of the Prime Minister in this period.” He cites an AIPAC official who faulted Netanyahu for speaking to Congress and alienating Democrats.
He also says Democrats don’t like Israel because Republicans like Israel, not so much because of anything Israel is doing.
[B]etween 2016-2018 Israel became bound up with affective partisanship independently of developments in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
He says Dems are getting more dovish generally. Again, nothing about Israel’s conduct.
Democrats’ attitudes regarding policy towards Israel derive from their underlying dovish attitudes to American foreign policy in general. In the new Millennium, Democrats have become increasingly sceptical about the utility of military force and increasingly hopeful about the promise of diplomacy.
And Dems are secular, and Israel’s right wing government is exacerbating seculars’ alienation:
Americans of “no religion” have become the largest “religious” group among Democrats and of all major ethnic and “religious” groups their support for Israel has been the lowest. This means that for Democrats the special relationship increasingly rests on Israel’s identity as a liberal-democracy. Against this background, Netanyahu’s banning the entry into Israel of [Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar], to appease Donald Trump, was another own goal, which, in a highly unusual move, was criticized publicly by AIPAC.
Rynhold offers an Rx to fix the Democrats’ problem. First, Israel must take some largely symbolic steps on human rights.
First, Israel must consistently demonstrate a willingness, in principle, to support a two-state solution which will involve extensive territorial concessions, in exchange for peace and security. In practical terms, it must, at a minimum, hold open the possibility of such a solution, by severely constraining settlement expansion.
And let’s get new leadership on both sides.
As of now, a new Israeli Prime Minister would have an opportunity to begin to reverse the decline of the last five years, precisely because that decline is closely associated with Netanyahu…
[A] future Israeli government working with a future Democratic Administration could have vociferous disagreements and political battles on issues of vital interest to Israel, namely, Iran and the Palestinians. But so long as Israel adopts the recommendations referred to above, Democrat support for the special relationship will likely survive. After all, arguments and crises are nothing new…
At the last J Street conference in 2018, many speakers basically took the Rynhold line. They said the U.S. and Israel were in the same boat, with terrible rightwing leaders who were taking their countries off the path of liberal democracy. We just need to lose Netanyahu.
Rynhold’s view that the special relationship can survive strenuous disagreement echoes the Israel Policy Forum, when it says that the U.S. must oppose the annexation of the West Bank because it “would upend decades of carefully calibrated policy on Israel” and aid the BDS campaign.
Carefully-calibrated policy? Liberal Zionists are by and large actually OK with the status quo; and progressives aren’t. They see massacre and apartheid. That is the heart of the disagreement here. I believe Rynhold is wrong about US public opinion: there’s been a tectonic shift in the progressive camp, the human rights issue is now important because of Israel’s conduct. A majority of Dems support sanctions to end the settlement expansion. It will be interesting to see how much oxygen the J Street conference gives to these critics.