GOP's Israel conundrum: Will it still "Stand With Israel" -- if Netanyahu loses?

A Netanyahu loss could force Republicans to rethink their Israel rhetoric. "Could" being the operative word

Published March 17, 2015 2:21PM (EDT)

  (AP/Cliff Owen)
(AP/Cliff Owen)

What better way is there to mark the total convergence between the right wings of the United States and Israel than kooky actor Jon Voight cutting an ad for Benjamin Netanyahu on Mike Huckabee's Facebook page? This is: kooky actor Chuck Norris cutting an ad for Benjamin Netanyahu on Chuck Norris' YouTube channel. It's just beautiful. An endorsement that ends with an Easter message, for Israel. There are a few minutes left for the rest of the right-wing entertainment-huckster complex to Stand with Israel. Where is Ted Nugent straight-up shreddin' for Netanyahu? Has Dennis Miller gotten in a few wry jokes about Isaac Herzog?

Never before have conservatives and the Republican party Stood closer to Israel. By which we mean, never before have they Stood closer to Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party and the foreign policy position that it represents in Israel. Conservative quasi-celebrities are sending out desperate pleas for Israelis to reelect Netanyahu because conservatives quite like the current arrangement: a hawkish Israeli prime minister who happens to co-exist on the world stage as a much-needed foil to Barack Obama, the Enemy. Netanyahu is the father that conservatives don't have stateside, the isolated world figure who best represents their global outlook. And Netanyahu, as he demonstrated in his speech to Congress, is quite happy to play this paternal role to American conservatives, even if he damages the Israeli government's relationship with the Democratic party in the process.

The Israeli elections are today. It's far from a sure thing that Netanyahu will lose, even with his party's recent slip in polls. Even if Likud doesn't win a plurality of seats in the Knesset, it may have an easier path towards forming a governing coalition. In the last day of campaigning, Netanyahu tried to shore up support by turning even harder right, going so far as to abandon the pretense that he ever really supported a two-state solution.

If Netanyahu does lose his bid for a fourth term as PM, though: How will American conservatives Stand with Israel, if Israel no longer stands with them?

I admit that the prospect of this egg-face meeting piques my interest. Republicans throw their entire lot in with Netanyahu -- basically, he's the only person from a foreign country that they like -- and then Netanyahu's kicked out of power. Ha! Who wouldn't want to see this, aside from the people who wouldn't want to see it?

Paul Waldman writes in the Washington Post about the change that a Likud defeat could bring about in Republican rhetoric surrounding Israel:

In recent years, the Republican Party has elevated “support for Israel” to a level of passion and consensus usually reserved for things such as tax cuts and opposition to abortion rights. But that happened during a string of conservative Israeli governments. If Israel is led by a Labor Party prime minister and begins to change some of its policies, will Republicans decide that “support” is more complicated than they used to think?

That might actually force Republicans to think about Israel, and America’s relationship to it, with a little more nuance. They’d have to admit that when they used to say “I support Israel,” what they actually meant was that they support the Likud and its vision for Israel’s future. More broadly, they’d have to acknowledge that one can disagree with what the Israeli government does and still support the country, since that’s the position they would find themselves in.

If Netanyahu is sent packing, and the new Israeli government that comes into power isn't reflexively hostile to the Obama administration, this will certainly add an element of dissonance to the Republicans' posturing as the only party that's looking out for Israel. My guess, though, is that this dissonance will not prevent Republicans from shifting their rhetoric in a more nuanced direction, since they do not ever add nuance to any of their rhetoric or thinking.

Republicans -- and plenty of hawkish Democrats -- will simply ignore the election and continue to define their standing with Israel as doing what AIPAC wants. And if a new, left-of-center Israeli government decided it was okay with Iran keeping some nuclear reactors whirring under a diplomatic accord, AIPAC would still lobby against it.

When Republicans say they Stand with Israel, what they mean is that they want to bomb Iran and a bunch of other places. They're already omitting all of the other areas where they don't stand with Israel. They obviously have no interest in pursuing an Israeli-style socialist health care system, for example. If Netanyahu's gone, Republicans will still want to bomb Iran and a bunch of other places, and they will still use "Standing for Israel" as code for that, because it's a winning line.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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