End of bipartisan support for Israel

John Judis, writing in Foreign Affairs follows others who have argued that the bipartisan support for Israel is ending. He begins “In 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy told Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir that the United States and Israel had a “special relationship.” A hallmark of that relationship has been its bipartisan nature, which has been reinforced by powerful lobbies working in unison on both sides of the political aisle. Such support made it possible for the United States to send Israel $121 billion in foreign aid between 1948 and the end of 2014—more than to any other country. The United States also backed Israel in its regional conflicts and vetoed or opposed United Nations resolutions critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. But there are growing signs of discord within that community that could, in turn, threaten the special relationship. The most recent is the rift created by House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to invite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the Likud Party, to speak before Congress on March 3 without consulting beforehand the White House or congressional Democrats”.

Judis writes “During most of the half century after Israel’s founding, both parties in Congress backed aid to Israel and supported its government. There were conflicts over specific issues. For instance, in 1981, 36 of 46 Senate Democrats opposed and 42 of 54 Senate Republicans supported the sale of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft to Saudi Arabia, which AIPAC and Israel opposed. But that remained an isolated issue and did not lead to partisan animosity over Israel”.

Interestingly he makes the point that “From 1948 until the early 1980s, liberal Democrats led the main lobbying organizations, and Democrats were the main champions of aid to Israel in Congress. When there was a difference over aid to Israel, as in the case of AWACS or the foreign aid cuts also in 1981, Democrats took the lead in pressing for Israel’s interests. But two developments tilted things toward the Republicans. The first occurred in Israeli politics. The Labor Party, which was ideologically closer to the Democrats, controlled Israel’s politics from 1949 to 1977. From 1977 onward, it was the conservative Likud Party (in fact, Likud has been in power for 27 of the past 38 years, Labor for only eight, and a centrist party for three). Likud was closer to the Republicans in its domestic policy and in its foreign policy, which stressed a less compromising stand toward the Palestinians and Israel’s neighbours”.

He continues “The second development was in American politics. In 1980, Republicans won the White House and Senate, and in 1994, Republicans finally won the House and Senate. Republicans have controlled the House, which initiates appropriations for foreign aid, for all but four of the last 21 years. Since AIPAC’s strategy was always based on maintaining support for Israel’s government in Congress, initially, that meant working primarily with Democrats. But after 1980, that started to change. After 1994, AIPAC was dealing with a whole new world. To reach the new leadership in Congress and the White House, AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference began elevating leaders who were closer to the Republicans and to the Likud Party in Israel. That began in 1982, when AIPAC chose a Republican as its president. In 1993, AIPAC fired its executive director, Thomas Dine, a former aide to Senator Edward Kennedy, and replaced him in 1995 with a Republican candidate, Howard Kohr, who remains at the helm”.

Judis goes on to write that “The first signs of partisan division over Israel began to appear in the 1990s. Although U.S. President Bill Clinton welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat to the White House to sign the Oslo Accords, conservative Republicans sympathized with the Likud opposition to the treaty, as did some AIPAC leaders. In 1995, Congress Republicans passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, which, by declaring Jerusalem an undivided city, threatened to undercut negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians over East Jerusalem. After Rabin’s assassination in November 1995, Republicans backed Netanyahu, who hired Republican campaign consultant Arthur Finkelstein to help him run his campaign in Israel’s 1996 election. Clinton sided with Labor candidate Shimon Peres”.

He continues, “Netanyahu embraced the Republican lean in U.S.-Israeli relations. In 2008, he made Ron Dermer—a former Republican political consultant who had helped draft the Republican “Contract with America” in 1994 (a set of proposals that the party would enact if it took power)—his chief adviser and then, in 2013, his ambassador to the United States. Dermer helped arrange a visit by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to Israel in the summer of 2012, and this January, he initiated the plan for Boehner to invite Netanyahu to address Congress on the eve of the Israeli election. In its ads, Netanyahu’s party flaunted its defiance of the Obama administration”.

Importantly, Judis argues that “The Democrats, for their part, no longer unequivocally support the Israeli government. Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former Clinton aide, founded J Street in 2008 as a counterweight to AIPAC in Washington. It advertises itself as the “home for pro-Israel pro-peace Americans.” As the Obama administration moved into outright opposition of the Netanyahu government, J Street moved with it. After the breakdown of the peace talks last spring, the organization called for Netanyahu’s removal and for Netanyahu to cancel his visit to the United States. In the past, AIPAC was able to vanquish similar rivals such as Breira and New Jewish Agenda, but J Street has lasted and grown. It now has a following among Capitol Hill Democrats”.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, “the bipartisan consensus has been shattered over the negotiations that the United States, along with Great Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia, is conducting with Iran. In November 2013, the countries reached an interim agreement that set terms for a final agreement. If a final agreement is reached, it will not be subject to Senate ratification. And although Obama believes he can suspend Iran sanctions without congressional approval, he can’t permanently end them without congressional support”.

Judis writes that after the overly aggressive lobbying of Netanyahu a bill that would implement Israeli foreign policy objectives into the US strategy of the Iran talks “The bill, sponsored by Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Robert Menendez, won the support of 43 of 45 Republicans, but only 16 of 55 members of the Democratic caucus. J Street also opposed the bill. And when Obama threatened to veto the bill, should it cross his desk, in his State of the Union address, several more Democrats, including Menendez, backed off. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he wouldn’t bring the bill to a vote”.

Judis concludes the piece noting, “allegiance can’t explain the refusal of 70 percent of Democratic senators to back a sanctions bill in January 2014 that AIPAC lobbied strenuously for and that reflected a position the Israeli government had loudly and consistently advocated”.

He ends “with the fracas over Netanyahu’s visit, and the continuing battle over the Iran negotiations, the era of automatic bipartisan support for Israel’s government is drawing to a close, and with it, perhaps, the special relationship between the United States and Israel. Bipartisan support is also ending on an odd note since Democrats, who were once the staunchest supporters of Israel’s government, have become its critics, while the Republicans, buoyed by evangelical fervor, have become its most enthusiastic backers”.



4 Responses to “End of bipartisan support for Israel”

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