To Liberal American Zionists: A Call to Intervene

Due to a breakdown in budget negotiations within the governing Likud-led coalition, Israel is now scheduled to hold elections on January 22, 2013.  What a perfect opportunity for liberal Zionists in America who support U.S. President Barack Obama to pull a “Bibi,” that is to say, to be actively engaged — dare I say meddlesome — in  the upcoming Israeli elections in order to help oust current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu from power.  For those unfamiliar, during a critical period of the U.S. presidential campaign, Bibi went public with his disagreements with Obama over the Iranian nuclear issue, leaked a story about being snubbed by Obama after requesting a meeting, and lavishly courted republican presidential candidate and former colleague Mitt Romney during his trip to Israel earlier this year.

These tactics were intended to bind Obama to Israeli red lines for military action against Iran by exploiting his vulnerability to attacks from the right during the campaign season.  But they were also a not-so-subtle endorsement of Romney.  This unprecedented candidate support from a foreign leader has made liberal American Zionists who support Obama both angry and distraught.  Luckily, there is now a chance to reciprocate the gesture.  Considering what’s at stake, it is not simply a matter of payback, but rather a moral imperative for liberal American Zionists to abandon the traditional “wait and see” approach and instead speak up during the forthcoming electoral season in Israel.

Let us be clear:  Bibi’s policies, if left unchecked, may mean the end of Israel as we know it, i.e. as a Jewish and democratic state.  The prolonged occupation of the Palestinian people, the “Judaization” of East Jerusalem and the continued settlement expansion in the West Bank has basically destroyed the possibility of a two-state solution (perhaps what Likud wants but won’t yet admit).  And though you wouldn’t know it from the American presidential debates, these policies have made Israel a pariah on the world stage, and have led to increased isolation and vulnerability to delegitimization campaigns such as the BDS movement.  Making a grim future even bleaker is Bibi’s fixation on waging war with Iran, a decision most Israeli intelligence and military experts agree would be calamitous for Israel.

With this in mind, concerned Jews, individually but more importantly through the policy-influencing Jewish organizations whose purse strings they control, should start endorsing those parties and candidates within Israel whose policies are consistent with the traditional Zionist vision and Jewish values such as those concerning human rights. Israel advocacy organizations in America, for the most part, do not endorse candidates running for office in Israel out of respect for the Israeli electorate and its sovereignty over domestic matters.  However, the present crisis of leadership in Israel necessitates a revisiting of this principle, especially considering the alarming trend toward nationalist and religious extremism among the Israeli electorate.

Many American Jews have little faith left in the Israeli electorate to choose what is right for Israel.  It is an electorate that has become disturbingly hard to recognize.  A recent poll conducted by Dialog shows that, among other unsettling figures, a majority of Israelis oppose granting Palestinians voting rights even if Israel formally annexed the West Bank– arguably an acceptance of the institutionalization of Israeli apartheid.  With respect to the impending election, polls show the Likud party and its right wing bloc, consisting of nationalist and religious parties, are expected to actually gain seats.  As for Bibi personally, his approval rating is above 50%, more than twice as high as his nearest competitor.  This simply cannot stand.

At the risk of sounding elitist or patronizing, to influence the Israeli electorate back to the moderation of decades past is in the best interests of Israel as it will protect the path toward a negotiated two-state solution.  And at the risk of sounding self-interested, it is in the interests of American Jews as well — most of whom count on Israel to be the permanent national homeland and safe haven for the Jewish people.  It is for this reason so many Jews here in America so tirelessly advocate on behalf of Israel to our elected leaders. Israel has a vested interest in maintaining its somewhat symbiotic relationship with American Jews.  American Jews are the conduit through which Israel’s “special relationship” with America is preserved, a relationship particularly special now that Israel’s list of allies has grown so thin.  Considering anti-Zionism is on the rise for young American Jews due to Israeli illiberalism, it behooves Israel to repair the broken relationship with what’s left of the liberal Zionist camp.  Repairing this relationship will increase the degree of leverage this camp can exert both in the domestic Israel-lobbying scene as well as in Israel itself.

Lobbying the lobbyists in Washington, D.C. to endorse specific parties and candidates in Israel presents profound challenges and may prove impossible.  It will require mobilizing support for transformational change on the part of organizations like AIPAC, which as of now works mostly to ensure aid to Israel and American backing of policies set in place by the sitting Israeli government.  It also raises serious questions such as how these lobbying groups will work with elected Israeli leaders whom they didn’t support during the campaign.  More uncomfortably, the question also becomes whether aid procurement efforts should be, to some extent, contingent upon the election of Israeli leaders with whom American Jews agree on some baseline level.

While effectuating large-scale structural change poses many obstacles, individual liberal American Zionists should nonetheless be proactively engaged in the concededly complex Israeli electoral landscape.  This could entail writing letters to the editor or guest op-eds in prominent Israeli media outlets or, even better, making campaign contributions to candidates. Aside from the old guard candidates, like Shaul Mofaz, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni, who seem to shuffle in and out of the political scene and whose politics closely mirror that of each other, there are some new faces with good ideas.  For example, Peace Now Executive-Director Yariv Oppenheimer announced he is running in the Labor primary.  He declared just last week:  “In addition to the social agenda, the Labor Party must raise the diplomatic flag and fight against the expansion of settlement construction and waves of anti-democratic legislation that the Israeli Right is leading.”  This statement, in and of itself, is a brave and encouraging stance worthy of vociferous praise.

Even if the effort to save Israel from itself is largely symbolic at the start, it is a worthwhile pursuit nonetheless.  It will demonstrate to Israel and its electorate that efforts are underway in America to stem the tide within Israel towards illiberalism and the death of the state as we know it.

About the Author
Nicholas Saidel is Associate Director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis & Response (ISTAR) at the University of Pennsylvania