America is changing its mind on Israel: How Netanyahu is alienating his most essential ally

The most recent flare-up in the Middle East reveals America's shifting political fault lines

Published October 25, 2015 2:00PM (EDT)

John Kerry; Benjamin Netanyahu   (Reuters/Carlo Allegri/Nir Elias/Photo montage by Salon)
John Kerry; Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters/Carlo Allegri/Nir Elias/Photo montage by Salon)

The current violence in Israel-Palestine—immediately following the debate about the Iran arms deal, which revealed growing fissures in American support of Israel--has brought the conflict into the foreground of U.S. political discourse. The absence of any serious mention of Israel-Palestine during the first Democratic presidential debate thus speaks volumes. It tells us that even as polls show more and more of the Democratic base shifting its support away from Israel, the leading candidates for the Democratic nomination are reluctant to talk about Israel. It will be interesting to see if they shift their stances at all in the next few months, given the stakes that are emerging. Recent polls have shown that Latinos, a critical constituency, are lending their sympathy to the Palestinians. They join the young, progressives, Blacks, and Asian Americans. This is not only the perception of supporters of Palestinian rights, this point of view is shared by advocates of Israel as well.

Everything seems in play, and that calls for our attention. Here’s what is unfolding on the American political scene:

To begin with, let’s look at the reactions of the U.S. State Department regarding the escalation of violence in Israel-Palestine. On October 13, Secretary of State John Kerry declared “What's happening is that, unless we get going, a two-state solution could conceivably be stolen from everybody… And there's been a massive increase in settlements over the course of the last years, and now you have this violence because there's a frustration that is growing."

Upon being accused of laying the blame for the violence on the building of settlements, the State Department rushed to back off from the October 13 statement:

“State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters that Kerry had not been ‘trying to affix… blame for the recent violence’ during a Tuesday evening address at Harvard University, when the secretary told his audience that ‘there’s been a massive increase in settlements over the course of the last years and there’s an increase in the violence because there’s this frustration that’s growing.’ The two ideas, Kirby suggested, were not meant to be interpreted causally.”

Right. It’s hard to believe anyone bought that spin. What this flip-flop indicates is precisely the fluid state of our political discourse on Israel-Palestine.

It is much more likely that Kerry knows exactly who is to blame for the violence, and his reaction to Benjamin Netanyahu’s bizarre and macabre statement that the blame for the Holocaust lay not with Adolf Hitler but with the Mufti of Jerusalem showed his growing impatience with the behavior of the Israeli government. Although he said after his October 22 meeting in Berlin with Netanyahu that he was “cautiously optimistic,” that feeble pronouncement, behooving a compassionate physician at the bedside of a terminal patient, was overshadowed by his statement in reaction to Netanyahu’s Holocaust thesis:

We have to stop incitement, we have to stop the violence. And I think it’s critical… It is absolutely critical to end all incitement and all violence, and to find a road forward to build the possibility that is not there today for a larger process.

And this time the State Department, instead of retreating, doubled down. John Kirby characterized Netanyahu’s comments as “inflammatory” and “factually incorrect” and contradicted by “scholarly evidence.”

As we leave the State Department having to come up with a way to actually deal with the situation in real time, what about the presidential candidates?

Predictably, the Republican candidates are either silent or unabashedly pro-Israel. Senator Ted Cruz said the U.S. should “stop lecturing the Israelis,” and suggested again that Kerry should resign, demonstrating once again that he cannot process the basic idea that if you annually give a country billions of dollars in aid, high-grade arms, and nearly unlimited diplomatic cover, you might allow yourself a word or two about the way they spend all those resources. Ben Carson similarly added his unequivocal support for Israel, seeming to want to make up in part for having used the Holocaust as an opening for arguing for easy access to guns. (“What would have been the impact on Hitler’s war machine if his victims had had more access to guns? It is something that we will never know for sure.”)

In terms of the Democrats, not much as been said. During the first debate, Jim Webb spoke briefly about the Iran deal. Then, nothing. As the Israeli news source Ha’aretz put it:

Neither Hillary Clinton nor Senator Bernie Saunders picked up on the point. They had both supported the Iran appeasement, oblivious to the pleas of the Jewish state. Sanders was the first Democrat to declare that he would boycott Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to the Senate. Clinton has stood silent during the feud between Obama and the government in Jerusalem. There were no expressions of concern over the build up of rockets by Hezbollah, of the Iranians above the Golan.


But there is a discernible difference between the ways Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton talk about Israel-Palestine. Despite the fact that Sanders lost several family members in the Holocaust, his position is the more balanced one. Though the Forward asserts he is a “lefty except Israel,” he seems a lefty compared to Clinton. Here is Bernie Sanders on Israel in a 2013 interview in Playboy; nothing he has said since indicates any change in position:

If you had the power, how would you negotiate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where fundamentalism is so strong?

The hatred, violence and loss of life that define this conflict make living an ordinary life a constant struggle for both peoples. We must work with those Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are committed to peace, security and statehood rather than to empty rhetoric and violence. A two-state solution must include compromises from both sides to achieve a fair and lasting peace in the region. The Palestinians must fulfill their responsibilities to end terrorism against Israel and recognize Israel’s right to exist. In return, the Israelis must end their policy of targeted killings, prevent further Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes, businesses and infrastructure.

Just this year he repeated the same sentiments:

“The United States has got to work with other countries around the world to fight for Israel’s security and existence at the same time as we fight for a Palestinian state where the people in that country can enjoy a decent standard of living, which is certainly not the case right now.”

In his statement on the current violence, Obama also acknowledged both sides:

"At this sensitive moment in Jerusalem, it is all the more important for Israeli and Palestinian leaders and ordinary citizens to work cooperatively together to lower tensions, reject violence, and seek a path forward towards peace… Too many Israelis have died. Too many Palestinians have died."

But in her comments on the same topic, Clinton leaned more toward Cruz than she did toward Obama, mentioning not a single Palestinian death:

“I am alarmed by the recent wave of attacks against Israelis, including more than a dozen separate attacks since last Saturday. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. Men and women living in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere cannot carry groceries or travel to prayer without looking over their shoulder. It is wrong, and it must stop. There's no place for violence--only dialogue can produce a lasting peace.”

Although even The New Republic has come out to say that Democrats should not be afraid to criticize Israel, Democratic politicians have been silent on that score. On the other hand, the Democratic base has proven more vocal and more willing to distance itself from Israel than its reputed leaders, “lefty” or not. Poll after poll after poll show a deepening rift between Democrats and Republicans on the issue of Israel and rights for Palestinians. And think of this one that shows by a ten-point margin that a majority of Democrats feel that Mexico is a better ally than Israel.

At the same time, the crucial Latino vote is aligning not only with Democrats, but also with a position critical of Israel. At least that is the finding of the pro-Israel research group, The Israel Project. In terms that are hardly going to endear Israel to Latinos (or nearly anyone else), the Israel Project finds

Americans of Hispanic origin, the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, are relatively hostile towards Israel because they are ignorant about Middle East affairs and are influenced by traditional anti-Israeli Catholic views, according to the Israel advocacy group, The Israel Project (TIP)…

[T]he group’s Executive Director for the Americas, Allan Elsner, said that Israel is more popular among older Americans, Republicans, conservatives and Evangelicals and less popular among “liberal elites”, African-Americans and Democrats. Elsner said that the Israel Project was focusing its efforts on “groups where we have a problem.”

The State of Israel notes this trend as well, and not only with regard to Latinos:

Speaking to Washington Jewish Week last year, Stuart Eizenstat, the former US ambassador to the European Union, warned that people of color in the United States might see the oppression of Palestinians as similar to their own.

“The problem is, and this is for Hispanic and Asian Americans and African Americans, they see themselves as minorities,” said Eizenstat (“Courting majority minority,” 24 July 2013).

To combat this natural alliance, Eizenstat implored pro-Israel groups to “make it clear” that the struggle for justice in Palestine “is not a civil rights issue. It’s rather a very different conflict in which violence is being used and Israel’s right to be a state is questioned.”

Here are the take-away points. More and more people, minorities and others, are seeing the oppression of the Palestinians and the denial of their rights as deeply resonant with what they fight against here in the United States. This is particularly true of the black community, as attested to by the statement of solidarity recently issued by over 1200 black artists, intellectuals, and organizations. But more and more Latinos, as well as Asian Americans, are also taking that position. And these two groups are the largest growing voting demographic in the United States.

Although this is a tiny sampling, it is still indicative that the very first national academic organization to sign on to the academic boycott of Israel was in fact the Association for Asian American Studies—a group comprised largely of younger Asian American and other scholars, students, and activists.

Any U.S. political candidate running for office these days ignores these trends at their own risk. It will be interesting indeed to see if Hillary Clinton budges even an inch toward justice.

Palestinians Suspicious of Proposed Al-Aqsa Agreement

By David Palumbo-Liu

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter at @palumboliu.

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Aol_on Benjamin Netanyahu Bernie Sanders Hillary Clinton Israel John Kerry Palestine