America’s New Two-Party System – and Its Challenge for Israel

The United States has two parties, and both support Israel. Not Republicans and Democrats; that split is passé. On foreign policy, America has a new two-party system. In this new system, as in the old, both parties support Israel. The challenge—whatever the outcome of the Syria crisis—is to keep it that way.

The two parties are the foreign policy interventionists and the non-interventionists. The debate over a Syria strike has put on display the split between them. On the merits of intervention abroad, the two parties have clashing worldviews. One believes the United States should be active abroad (and in the Middle East in particular). The other, to simplify, does not. 

Despite their sharp differences, both parties want to be seen as supportive of Israel. Most of Israel’s best friends on Capitol Hill are in the interventionist camp. But the non-interventionists, too, include friendly faces plus a number of others who voice goodwill. In the politics of U.S. foreign policy, the Syria strike is the great divider. Support for Israel is a great uniter.

The question is how to sustain that support and how to maintain Israel’s magical place in U.S. politics. The task is not easy. Israel has common interests with the interventionists. But Israel must not alienate the non-interventionists, a camp with growing clout. So how can Israel, at the same time, side with interventionists while keeping non-interventionists as friends?

Israel’s interests are much closer to those of the interventionists. Like American neo-conservatives and liberal interventionists, Israel supports action against Assad. Like the interventionists (or most of them), Israel supported the war in Iraq. Like the interventionists, Israel supports—and benefits from—an active U.S. role in the Middle East and a strong U.S. hand in setting the global rules of the game.

In fact, an alliance between pro-Israel groups and interventionists is in bloom. Barack Obama—here an interventionist—has sought to work with Israel’s supporters to get the Syria authorization past Congress. AIPAC has jumped aboard. Sure, Israel voiced concerns over damage to its brand, cast as a free-riding schnorrer dragging the United States into Middle Eastern quagmire. But the interventionists made clear they needed help from the pro-Israel camp to push through the measure.  Israel’s interest in working with the interventionists outweighed the jitters about branding.

The more interesting challenge lies with the non-interventionists. What common bond can Israel forge with Rand Paul? In late 2011, Ron Paul, the junior Paul’s father and predecessor as head of the non-interventionist camp, was dissed by Republican Jews. The Republican Jewish Coalition invited all other GOP presidential hopefuls for a candidates’ forum but told Ron Paul to stay home.  The contention was that engaging non-interventionists would legitimize them.

That policy was arguably right for Ron Paul in December 2011; in September 2013 for today’s non-interventionists, it is dangerous. Israel needs bipartisan support. It held that support throughout the Republican-Democratic era. It needs it just as badly in the interventionist-non-interventionist one. The non-interventionists—who might now be the majority party in the House of Representatives—are too powerful to ignore.

Moreover, many are willing to give Israel support.  Rand Paul is not an anti-Israel activist; he has not attacked Israel or its policies. He has sought non-aggression with Israel’s supporters, assuring them that his non-interventionist positions—staying away from Syria or pulling foreign aid to the Egyptian army—would not seep into an undermining of U.S.-Israel cooperation generally. He even came to Israel in January and expressed his affinity. Others opposed to a Syria strike are full-throated supporters of Israel, chief among them Texas Senator Ted Cruz whose outspoken pro-Israel rhetoric is well-known.

Alienating voices like these makes no sense.  Israel and its supporters must find a modus vivendi with the non-interventionists—even as everyone knows that sympathies lie with the other side. This is not easy. Politicians do not like working with the other side’s buddies. Then again, politicians may overcome that presumption if a deal-sweetener is on offer.

This leads to three policy recommendations for Israel and its supporters. First, Israel’s supporters must maintain their policy of supporting non-hostile incumbents. Israel’s supporters can lobby for intervention when issues come before Congress and can nudge the interventionists ahead. But if an incumbent is not hostile to Israel—even if he or she votes with the non-interventionists—that incumbent should win support. An interventionist litmus test for incumbents would endanger the era of bipartisan support. If Israel wants the support of both parties, then its supporters cannot demand that non-interventionists switch sides.

Second, the Israeli government can do its part to solve America’s freier problem. The non-interventionist party is against American freier-dom, in which American taxpayers pay in blood and treasure—in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria—for security benefits that others then enjoy for free. The non-interventionists want the free riders of the international system—which includes most everyone outside the United States—to foot more of the bill for global public goods, including security.

Israel, through its military and intelligence contacts, must encourage other regional states to do more—including pay more money—to handle security threats such as Bashar Assad. Ours has been a region full of free riders on American security largesse, the Gulf states and Turkey chief among them. That may be changing, with undisclosed Arab countries offering to foot part of the Syria bill. Israel can try to move this process forward. Israel may not be the best placed to do so—these countries are not our most steadfast allies—but Israel must show the U.S. non-interventionists that it is trying.

Above all, Israel’s policy establishment must openly consider anew the option of voluntarily foregoing part or all of Israel’s U.S. aid. Prime Minister Netanyahu correctly emphasized on Syria that Israel “knows that it can defend itself,” turning to a cliché with enduring relevance. Foregoing funding would underscore that point. It would also do something to help America’s fiscal situation. The non-interventionists would like that.

The time is now for making these moves. Israel and its supporters can keep both new parties at our side. The old two-party system showcased Israel’s knack for warm ties with two sides at odds about most everything else. The Syria vote ushers in the new challenge: how to ensure that the bipartisan support of old becomes the bipartisan support that can manage the future.

About the Author
Owen Alterman is a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies affiliated with Tel Aviv University. He made aliyah in 2010 and lives in Tel Aviv.