Pro-Israel lobby flying high but may face trouble ahead
Washington - One traditional certainty of US politics is that virtually every politician — regardless of party affiliation, state of residence, religion, age, race or any other factor — voices unwavering support for Israel. Congressional votes in support of Israel regularly win by lopsided margins with only a small handful of dissenters.
The reasons behind US support of Israel are complex. The power of the pro-Israel lobby, manifest in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), is certainly a factor. Any politicians who dare to challenge Israeli policy are likely to see campaign contributions flow into their opponents’ bank accounts. The safest political move is to adopt the positions of the pro- Israel lobby and not risk entering its cross hairs.
To ascribe US support for Israel to only money and lobbying power is overly simplistic. During the Cold War, Israel wisely positioned itself as the US ally in a region that featured many Soviet clients, including Syria, Iraq, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Egypt (until 1974) and Algeria. Americans genuinely believed that Israel shared the US values of democracy and free enterprise. Israel’s mostly Ashkenazi leadership looked, dressed and talked like Westerners.
More deeply, even subconsciously, Americans identified with what was euphemistically called Israel’s “pioneering spirit” — another term for “settler colonialism.” As the world’s most prominent and successful settler colonial country, the United States shares a certain affinity with Israel.
In the 1980s, Israel discovered a powerful new ally: Evangelical Christians, many of whom say the second coming of Christ will not occur until Israel is re-established and all the world’s Jews live there. Evangelicals also embrace the “Abrahamic Covenant,” the belief that God gave the land of Canaan to the Jewish people.
For some, it is simply a reflection of Islamophobia: They view Jews as being much closer to Christians, potentially convertible and — since 9/11 — on the front lines against terrorism.
Israel’s continued strong support is reflected in countless ways. In late 2016, US President Barack Obama, who was not seen by Israel as a friend, reached an agreement to provide Israel with nearly $40 billion in advanced weaponry over ten years. During heated debate over the Iran nuclear deal, the US congressional leadership invited Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress.
Never before had the leader of a foreign country been invited to openly criticise a US president before Congress and it is hard to imagine any other foreign leader who would be given that honour.
Perhaps most glaring is the fact that, despite the Obama administration’s opposition, Israel brazenly continued its policy of settlement building while sabotaging the peace process with the Palestinians. It did this without risk of sanctions or punishment.
These victories by Israel and its US lobby conceal a growing erosion in support by the US public and, significantly, young American Jews. Israel has increasingly become a partisan issue in US politics: Republicans are far more likely to offer Israel the blind support it is accustomed to receiving while more Democrats challenge its policies.
A poll conducted in October 2016 by the University of Maryland’s Shibley Telhami indicated that 65% of Democrats asked said they supported a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlement building and only 16% of Republican respondents said they backed it. More startling, the same poll showed that 60% of Democratic respondents supported imposing sanctions on Israel for its settlement building.
The strongest criticism of Israel was among those aged 18-34, which is the demographic that was most supportive of US Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination last year. Sanders, who is Jewish, ran perhaps the most pro-Palestinian campaign in US history and refused to speak at AIPAC’s candidates’ forum in 2016.
The Sanders wing of the Democratic Party remains strong — even more so after Hillary Clinton’s defeat — and many of his supporters are young American Jews. Unlike their parents and grandparents, they do not see Israel as an endangered country surrounded by enemies. They also are more likely to support civil rights causes such as Black Lives Matter and the struggles of American Indians and they see the connection with the Palestinians’ plight.
US university campuses have become a battleground in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with student groups demanding that their schools participate in the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel. One of the most active of such groups is Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP); another group, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), is a student coalition of Jews, Arabs and others.
An aeroplane that loses its engines will continue to fly for some time but eventually it will lose altitude. The Israel lobby is flying high and, from the ground, all appears normal. But it is losing its engines. The most vital question is: Will the plane come down to Earth before Israel’s actions have made peace impossible?