Today Americans are celebrating the inauguration of Barack Obama’s second administration. In Israel, too, a large number of citizens – despite the flurry of activity on the eve of the general elections – join in wishing the President of the United States all the best during the next four years. They are profoundly aware of the symbolism of this day (which coincides with the commemoration of Martin Luther King and his struggle for civil rights and full equality) not only for Americans, but for all those throughout the globe who share this vision. These Israelis – by no means a minority of the population – recognize that they have common challenges and believe in similar goals. They also understand well, frivolous political rhetoric aside, that Israel’s future depends heavily on its ability to maintain the value-based alliance with the United States and its newly reinaugurated leader.
This Israel is firmly rooted in the realization of the ideal of an Israel that is both a homeland for Jews and a democratic state that promotes justice and equality for all its citizens – as so cogently expressed in its Declaration of Independence and underwritten by all its signatories. This Israel has become increasingly distressed by the growing discrepancies in recent years between rich and poor, Arab and Jew, men and women, religious and secular, asylum-seekers and residents. This Israel applauds the diversity of groups and opinions in the country and understands that tolerance for pluralism is a mainstay of its viability. This Israel is therefore genuinely horrified by the erosion of its nascent liberal democracy not only through patently anti-democratic legislation in the outgoing Knesset, but also through the escalation of frighteningly discriminatory and unabashedly racist discourse and action. Above all, this Israel also understands that any further perpetuation of Israeli rule over the Palestinians against their will compromises both Israel’s own moral fabric and its global standing.
The Israelis who make up this core Israel never subscribed to that school, represented by the present government and its leader, which maintains that Israel – and Israel alone – can assure its own destiny. To the contrary, these Israelis have not forgotten that the creation of the state of Israel is a result of the international legitimacy granted in 1947 by the United Nations. They remember that Israel’s capacity to defend itself against real threats to its existence in the past was due to the support of its global allies. Only recently, they recall, the democratic world backed Israel’s operation in Gaza for precisely this reason. They recognize that their miraculous economic growth is closely linked to Israel’s ties with the world. These Israelis have always seen the security of Israel as inextricably connected to its capacity to become an integral part of the region and the international community. And they view Israel’s alliance with the United States as the country’s most important strategic asset.
This is why progressive and democratic Israelis are so deeply distressed by the country’s growing international isolation and so fervently opposed both to the policies and to the worldview that threaten to make it complete. This also explains why they share the concerns expressed by President Obama (as conveyed Jeffrey Goldberg a few days ago) that “Netanyahu is moving his country down a path toward near-total isolation” and why they so strongly disagree with the prime minister and his supporters who have gone out of their way to disparage his cautionary words.
Barack Obama proved, during his first term in office, that the United States under his leadership is an uncompromising protector of Israel and its security. No previous president ever authorized the kind of quality military assistance as Obama; no former president put the reputation of his country on the line to such an extent as Obama did by standing by Israel in the United Nations (most recently almost alone on November 29th in the General Assembly vote on the granting of non-member state status to the Palestinians); and no other president has so steadfastly recognized and acted upon the Iranian threat to Israel and the region. Thus, when the White House saw fit to articulate its frustration with what Obama considers “the self-defeating policies of his Israeli counterpart,” it behooves all those who truly have Israel’s best interests at heart to pay close attention.
The crux of the President’s critique lies squarely in Netanyahu’s unwillingness to abandon the settlement enterprise and to move towards negotiations on a two-state solution so essential for the Palestinians and so necessary for Israel’s own self-preservation. Clearly fed-up with the penchant of the outgoing government to pointedly defy international currents and American entreaties (most notably the ongoing announcements of additional settlement construction – especially in the E1 enclave), Obama went so far as to depict Netanyahu “as a political coward” and to suggest that: “Iran poses a short-term threat to Israel’s survival; Israel poses a long-term one.” These are strong words indeed. Behind them stands a deep-felt sense that, if Israel does not disengage from the West Bank, it will lead itself down the road to self-destruction.
Little love has been lost between President Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu during the past four years. But the bravado of the prime minister’s response defies the gravity of Washington’s concerns. It was easy for Likud-Beytenu to dismiss the latest messages emanating from the White House as an attempt to intervene in Israel’s elections (forgetting that Netanyahu and his supporters went out of their way to back Mitt Romney’s candidacy several months ago). If that was the intention, it has backfired resoundingly. Besides berating the President of the United States for his blatantly patronizing tone (“Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are”), Netanyahu has gone out of his way to make it clear that Israelis alone will decide what is good for their country and that only he has the capacity to withstand external pressures – even from Israel’s last unwavering ally. Falling back yet again on the rallying cry that “the entire world is against us” serves Netanyahu in two ways: it bolsters his nationalistic credentials on the eve of the polls and further entrenches the siege mentality that will justify Israel’s self-encapsulation down the road. It also does an immense disservice to Israel’s interests and guiding values.
Many Israelis (including some who will vote for the right in the elections) cringe at the sheer arrogance of this irresponsible reaction. They have little in common with those evangelicals and other self-styled Israel backers in the United State who confuse support for the current government with love for Israel. They understand the vital importance of maintaining close relations with the U.S. and with Europe. And they grasp the terrifying implications of that not-so-splendid isolation that is the result of disparaging everyone who dares to question Israeli policies.
Democratic Israelis understand that this is precisely what real friends do. They openly disavow what is being carried out in their name domestically and internationally. They possess a strong belief in the values of equality and justice, work towards creating a decent society, explicitly prefer a two-state scenario, and seek to create a better world for themselves and their neighbors. These Israelis, because of their party fragmentation, may not prevail at the polls. Their opinions, however, continue to have substantial traction in this troubled land.
There is thus a real confluence of interests and values between many Israelis and their American counterparts. Like the close to 70 percent of American Jews who voted for the reelection of President Obama, diverse citizens of Israel want to protect and enhance the hope of progress based on the mutual respect that he embodies. They hope for the augmentation of the bond based on reciprocity that links the two countries. Today, as Barack Obama takes the oath of office once again, and as they prepare to go to the polls, they join with democrats throughout the world to wish him much success as he embarks on his second term.