AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Between the protest movement sweeping Iran, the dangers posed by a continued political deadlock in Iraq, and Chinese efforts to extend influence in Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration has more than enough real problems on its plate in the Middle East. Yet the White House still seems determined to create a crisis in American-Israeli relations where none existed.
This “crisis” is the supposed threat posed by the inclusion in Benjamin Netanyahu’s new cabinet of two ministers from the Religious Zionist party, which the media and American Democrats have decried as “far-right extremists” for their hardline Jewish nationalist stance.
This crisis is a myth. In fact, what is happening is that liberal Democrats are reflecting the emotions of many of their supporters, whose support for Israel as a Jewish state only exists so long as that state practices the “right” kind of Judaism – namely, a type that is indistinguishable from social liberalism. When Israel deviates from this approved ideology, whether on policy or by returning someone like Netanyahu to power, Democrats view it as their duty to exercise American pressure to return Israeli politics to the “right track.”
Barack Obama never had an easy relationship with Netanyahu, and the Biden administration, along with congressional Democrats, made no secret of the fact that they welcomed his defeat and hoped he would not return. But the current level of interference in Israeli politics by the White House is unprecedented both for its scope and the lack of relationship to reality.
In particular, American liberals have raised the alarm about Itamar Ben-Gvir, a Religious Zionist whom the White House has suggested they cannot work with due to “his party’s racist rhetoric and positions against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the Arab minority in Israel.”
But concerns about Ben-Gvir’s supposed racist views seem to exist outside of actual evidence or events. Ben-Gvir was, for example, filmed embracing the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates at a reception. Ben-Gvir has also been celebrated as a “superstar” in the UAE.
The Biden administration has also expressed alarm at the supposed anti-LGBT stance of the incoming Netanyahu government. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, for example, told J Street, a prominent liberal Jewish advocacy organization, that “We’ll continue to express our support for core democratic principles, including respect for the rights of the LGBT community and the equal administration of justice for all citizens of Israel.”
But again, these supposed concerns don’t match up with reality. According to reports, Netanyahu has been floating the appointment of Israel’s first openly-gay Foreign Minister or Knesset speaker.
These examples demonstrate the gap between two universes: the first, a universe of abstractions and fantasies in which the Biden team operates, and the second, in which the rest of the world goes about the business of engaging with reality.
It is hard not to feel that there is something personal behind the opposition of so many Democrats to the inclusion of the Religious Zionist party in Israel’s government. It would be easy to ascribe it to antisemitism, and for some Democrats such as Ilhan Omar or Rashida Tlaib, that may be true. However, antisemitism does not explain the reaction of Jewish politicians, and Jewish advocacy groups such as J Street.
Conservatives and even some mainstream Jewish supporters of Israel are quick to question whether organizations such as J Street are anything but “anti-Israel” at this point, and they are correct to do so. But these organizations nevertheless represent a substantial segment of the American Jewish community. For that community, support for Israel as a Jewish state has always been tied to their own Jewish identity, and that meant that it was conditional not on Israel having a Jewish identity, but the same sort of liberal Jewish identity they do.
In practice, this meant that Israel was expected to reflect the liberal desires of the American left. In hindsight, it is remarkable how long the relationship was able to last, given the gap between the expectations placed upon Israel by American liberals, and the realities facing the Jewish state.
For decades, however, Israel was able to present itself as progressive, highlighting the role of women in the military, and later gay soldiers. However, as American progressivism became ever more extreme, the demands became impossible to meet. American progressivism became anti-nationalist, anti-religious, and anti-democratic. In the former case, American liberals came to see any nation-building exercise which involved any tradeoffs whatsoever as an original sin. A political tradition which called for statues of Abraham Lincoln to be torn down could not be expected to celebrate David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. They might accept that Israel was created in a process which involved some Palestinians losing some land (ignoring the vastly greater number of Jews displaced from the Arab world) but they expected Israelis to constantly flaunt their guilt for it. Israeli’s defiant pride in their nation’s history was offensive to the American left.
Secondly, the idea of separation of church and state transformed into a belief that any laws or policies informed by religion were inherently oppressive. Nowhere was this more evident in the United States than the absurd legal challenge to Florida’s 15-week ban on abortion where plaintiffs claimed restrictions on abortion were an infringement on the freedom of their Jewish beliefs. The implication was that opposition to abortion could only be motivated by religious views, and hence policies deriving from it violated the religious beliefs of others.
These dynamics meant that American liberals often weighed in emotionally in Israel’s clashes between the Ultra-Orthodox and Secular factions, but in a more extreme way than Israelis themselves. The Ultra-Orthodox influence in politics, especially to liberal Jewish-Americans, was toxic and bordered on illegitimate.
The third and final shift occurred during the Trump years as many on the American left adopted a “rule or ruin” approach to politics in which “democracy” was when the “correct” outcome was produced. As Donald Trump’s election was the “incorrect” outcome, they expected foreign leaders to prove their virtue by opposing Trump, not embracing him.
The current reaction to Netanyahu’s return combines all three dynamics. To the left, Netanyahu himself represents a “failure of democracy.” He was an “authoritarian” leader who embraced Donald Trump and allied himself with the Ultra-Orthodox faction, and hence “deserved” to lose. He was “rightfully” being prosecuted by the courts, and his obstruction of those efforts proved that whether or not he went to jail was a test for Israeli “democracy.” A test, that, by returning him to Balfour House, Israel would fail.
The makeup of Netanyahu’s cabinet is also, in this view, a test of Israeli “democracy.” For American Democrats, Israeli leaders should appoint ministers based on their relations with the ruling party in Washington. Including the Religious Zionist party shows that Israelis are not “mature” enough to feel the proper guilt and shame for their existence. Without that maturity, how can the United States help them? Why should it? Or so the left sees it.
There are few better encapsulations of this worldview than what Congressman Brad Sherman of California, a liberal Democrat, tweeted as the election results were beginning to come in:
Sherman does not choose to dwell on the views themselves, or why enough people voted for them to make the Religious Zionists Israel’s third largest party. Rather, he merely asserts that these nebulous “views” are contrary to the principles of a “democratic and Jewish state.” The formulation is odd.
Democrats argue that Ben-Gvir’s views run contrary to the idea of a “democratic” state because he views Israel first and foremost as a Jewish state which should not hide its Jewish nature. Ben-Gvir has, for instance, called for an end to the ban on Jews entering the Temple Mount, a policy put in place out of fear of Palestinian violence and diplomatic anger. In the words of the Congressional Research Service, Ben-Gvir “openly support[s] policies to favor Israel’s Jewish citizens over its Arab citizens and annex the West Bank.” These, ostensibly, are the ”threats to democracy.” Yet American liberals do not seem to ask themselves why excluding the third largest party, which nearly doubled its support from the last election, would not threaten democratic values even more.
Sherman’s remarks only make sense if you conflate Israel’s “Jewish” identity with Sherman’s own liberal American Jewish identity and that of many of his constituents. With Israel as with politics here in the United States, in liberals’ view, the threat to “democracy” lies in the “wrong” government being formed. The election results and voters got it wrong, and hence the error has to be corrected in the formation of the government. Ben-Gvir should not have won so many seats, but having done so, it would only compound the “error” for Netanyahu to award him the office to which those seats would entitle him.
Blinken’s remarks at J Street echoed this worldview. “Thank you for embodying the principle of Tikkun olam not only in your work on Israel but across the social justice causes that you champion, causes that our administration shares and is committed to defending and promoting with you at home as well as around the world, including LGBTQ rights and women’s rights, religious freedom,” he told the hosts. Missing was Judaism, or Israeli security.
George W. Bush once spoke of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” There is an equally pernicious bigotry of “high expectations.” Catholic Democrats would be mocked if they claimed that the only true Catholicism was its most liberal form, and Democrats express outrage when Catholic prelates suggest denying communion to politicians who reject Church teachings on abortion. Yet, groups like J Street, endorsed by figures such as the sitting Secretary of State, are willing to proclaim themselves the true representatives of Judaism and imply that all other Jews, including the electorate of the world’s only Jewish state, are in error if they fail to embrace their “principles.” There are multiple ways to be a Catholic or Muslim state, but evidently only one way to be a Jewish one.
This arrogance from Biden and his allies on the left is backfiring. The very nature of U.S. interference almost requires Netanyahu to reject it. Not just in cases such as the Religious Zionist ministers, but also where he would otherwise have acted in ways Washington wanted when it came to appointments. The U.S. ambassador urging the Prime Minister not to do so likely made it far harder for Netanyahu to resist the claims of the Religious Zionists, who could now argue that Israeli democracy, not their own personal careers, were at stake when it came to what offices they received. The prospects of former Ambassador Ron Dermer, a close Netanyahu ally, Obama critic, but yet an individual with a good working relationship with everyone in Washington, to be Foreign Minister have been harmed by Blinken, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and the US Ambassador lobbying in his favor.
The current “crisis” in relations between Israel and the Biden administration is really about the wider crisis in American domestic politics, where every institution must be political, and to fail to be political or political in the correct way is to be illegitimate. If something does not change, the same bitter divisions which exist within the United States will emerge in our relations with the wider world.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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