Partisanship In U.S.-Israel Relationship Threatens Israel’s Security


Following the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem amidst the simultaneous riots in Gaza, Prime Minister Netanyahu proclaimed on Twitter that it was a “great day for the U.S.-Israel relationship,” and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina hailed it as “a monumental day in United States-Israel relations.”

In fact, it was just the opposite.

The embassy rally marked the highest level of brazen partisanship in U.S.-Israel relations since Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress in 2015 in which he expressed his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. The concurrent Gaza riots signify perhaps the lowest point for prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace since the second intifada.  Both developments threaten to dismantle the foundation upon which the U.S.-Israel relationship has been built.

Democrats and Republicans alike should have been able to celebrate the recognition that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and Israel’s advocates throughout the Jewish community should have been able to unreservedly praise it.  But the embassy celebration put partisanship on stark display. Democrats were notably not invited to the embassy ceremony that was akin to a Trump campaign rally, with evangelical ministers known to call for the End Times delivering convocations amidst praise for President Trump as a leader of biblical proportions.  Israel’s Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked proudly declared on Israeli television that she wore red in solidarity with the Republican Party.

The alliance on display between Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Republican Party, led by the most divisive American president in modern history, will not be cost-free. Disillusionment with the State of Israel, not only among younger American Jews but within the mainstream of the Democratic Party is certain to increase.

The growing rifts between American Jews and Israel and between Democrats and Republicans portend a crisis for the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship which would pose a dire national security threat to the Jewish State.  It is especially troubling that this urgent situation, with all of its ramifications, has been ignored or discounted by Israel’s government.

This crisis is further exacerbated by the lack of any realistic vision emanating from either Israel or the United States to advance credible efforts to improve the potentially explosive humanitarian calamity in Gaza and advance prospects for a two-state solution.

The decision to open the embassy on the eve of Nakba Day [marking the founding of the State of Israel as a “catastrophe” to the Palestinians who fled or were displaced from their homes] was a needless provocation that played right into the hands of Hamas. It helped to stoke the protests and create the split-screen broadcast around the world of violence alongside an especially callous and tone-deaf celebration.

The alliance on display between Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Republican Party, led by the most divisive American president in modern history, will not be cost-free.

To be sure, Israel has the obligation to defend its borders and the absolute right to determine the location of its capital, just like any other sovereign nation. Israel had to protect its citizens by preventing thousands of Palestinians from crossing the border, which would have resulted in a far greater number of casualties than those to date.  A truly peaceful protest would not have included gunfire, Molotov cocktails, and bombs being placed along the border.  However, despite six weeks’ advance notice of the impending riots, the Israeli government has not explained why there were no better options than the use of live fire as questions regarding Israel’s tactics have mounted.

The Gaza riots mark a low point in Israeli-Palestinian relations because none of the key players has proposed an avenue for reducing tensions and returning to a legitimate peace process. Israel has not put forward any new ideas, and a majority of the members of Israel’s governing coalition are publicly opposed to a two-state solution.  The Palestinians are weak and divided, promoting riots that call for Israel’s destruction on the one hand and deeply disturbing anti-Semitic rhetoric on the other. And there is no obvious choice of a Palestinian successor to the ailing Mahmoud Abbas. Meanwhile, the United States has effectively removed itself from serving as a viable mediator.

The Trump administration has repeatedly claimed that recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital  will ultimately aid the peace process. But if the administration’s policy was truly based on understanding reality, then the embassy move would have come alongside a recognition that there can be no resolution without acknowledging Palestinian aspirations for a capital in east Jerusalem and with an unequivocal American endorsement of a two-state solution as the only viable path to a sustainable end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Instead of promoting policies to preserve the goal of two states while working to reduce tensions, Trump has perpetuated the fantasy of his negotiating the “ultimate deal” between the parties even as he has stoked tensions between them, making that deal ever more difficult to achieve.

As it becomes increasingly clear to Palestinians that diplomacy will not deliver a promised state, support for violence cannot help but rise.  And as it becomes clear that their national project is destined to fail, Palestinian discourse will continue to steadily shift from one of national rights in a Palestinian state to civil rights in a single state.  Such an outcome would jeopardize Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, lead to increased violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and further undermine U.S.-Israel relations.

Israel is strongest when it can depend on bipartisan support in the United States and responsible American stewardship of a credible Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Today, though, both elements are being placed into question as never before. Policies and rhetoric that divide Republicans and Democrats over Israel do far more damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship — and, therefore, to Israel’s security — than anything the Palestinians could possibly envision.  Exulting in the apparent apex of American support for Israel while ignoring the divisive manner in which it is being driven augurs a nadir of American backing for Israel under a future Democratic administration and among the next generation of U.S. leaders.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, and pro-Israel activists across the political spectrum who cherish the U.S.-Israel relationship, must repair the damage being done and stop making support for Israel yet another partisan issue.  Meanwhile, Israeli politicians must cease aligning themselves with one US political party or the other. Israel’s future depends on it.

Susie Gelman is chair of Israel Policy Forum.