Jeffrey Herf

Foreign threats and wary electorates

When voters in democracies believe they are threatened from abroad, they turn to the political leaders who they believe will best defend them. That is what happened in Israel’s elections. This week the editors of Commentary magazine have written a very long and important account of the deterioration of US-Israeli relations since Barack Obama entered office. As I agree with their version of events and their conclusions, I urge readers to read it for themselves. President Obama’s Press Secretary, with Netanyahu’s comments about a Palestinian state and the Arab vote in mind, has reminded us that “words matter.” Commentary’s editor, John Podhoretz helpfully points what the Prime Minister did and did not say. In the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer has made the important point that in view of growing Iranian influence, radical Islamist extremism and chaos in the region, it would be irresponsible for any Israeli government, including one led by the Zionist bloc, to support a Palestinian state now because the chances are good that it would soon be taken over by radical Islamists devoted to the destruction of Israel. After all, Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni proudly headed a party called “the Zionist bloc” not the anti-Zionist bloc, and as such obviously understand that Israel must be able to rely on itself rather than on the guarantees of distant others for its survival and self-defense.

David Horovitz strikes the right balance in expressing shame over Netanyahu’s late election pandering to fears about foreign influence and the Arab vote and rage over Obama’s policies towards Iran. Given the comparisons of Netanyahu to Winston Churchill in recent weeks, it’s important to recall that during World War II Churchill led a coalition that encompassed British conservatives and leaders of the left-of-center Labor Party. Hopefully the bitter divisions in Israeli politics can give way to a broader based coalition that can address both the domestic and foreign policy issues that Israel faces and that can work to heal the rift with the United States. That said, had the Israeli elections turned out as the Obama administration hoped, that is, with Netanyahu’s defeat, the atmospherics of US-Israeli relations might have improved for a short while. But soon the fundamental clash between Obama’s eagerness to engage Iran, his refusal to clearly address the threat of radical Islam and his inclination to pressure Israel into a deal with the Palestinians that even a center-left government would not accept would have led again to the kind of tensions we are now witnessing.

In the near future, the road is going to be rough in the United States. If there is a deal with Iran that leaves 6,000 centrifuges spinning and sends nuclear fuel to Putin’s Russia for safekeeping, chances are that the entire Israeli political center will join Netanyahu to oppose it. If that is the outline of a deal, there will be fierce opposition to it in the United States Congress and despite the turmoil of recent weeks, that opposition will include significant number of Democratic Senators. That said, in the United States, the mood is going to get uglier as those who criticize a possible deal with Iran will be accused of “war-mongering” in the service of another country. There will be American Jews who will agree with or be intimidated by such accusations and turn instead to denouncing Israel’s policies. In this grim situation, I offer the following suggestions.

It is time to remind governments and voters in Western Europe, Japan and the United States that Israeli voters are actually pretty much like they were in the early 1980s. Then, as the Soviet Union pointed a growing number of nuclear weapons at Western Europe, Japan and the Middle East, the not at all surprising result was the election of right-of- center governments in the United States, Britain, West Germany and Japan, along with Socialist Prime Ministers in Italy and France, all of whom supported a hard line in response to the perceived threat from Moscow. In most of the Western democracies, voters did not trust the parties of the center left to stand up to Moscow’s challenge. It was Moscow’s policies that played a huge role in the turn to the center right in all of the major democracies.

The exact same pattern of foreign threat and turn to the center right has occurred in Israel and explains why Benjamin Netanyahu has been in power for the last nine years. Instead of the Soviet Union, it has been Iran, the Palestinian leadership and radical Islamist that have prompted Israel’s turn to the center right. The facts are familiar but bear repetition. In 2000, Arafat rejected a perfectly reasonable offer of a two-state solution from left-of-center Ehud Barak and then initiated a terrorist campaign. Israel left Lebanon in 2000 and Hezbollah filled the vacuum. After Ariel Sharon agreed to leave Gaza, the radical Islamists of Hamas filled that vacuum, crushing their secular foes in the Palestinian Authority and launching two wars of aggression in 2009 and 2014. Mahmoud Abbas then decided to form a joint government with Hamas. It is these realities that led the Israeli electorate to decide that Likud and Netanyahu were best able to defend Israel in these dangerous times. It defies credulity and the polls in Israel that a huge shift of voter sentiment took place only in the last 48 hours of the Israeli election in response to Netanyahu’s comments about a Palestinian state and Arab voter turnout. Rather, it is more plausible to assume that the combination of foreign threats and perceptions of an American retreat from active engagement in the region made Israeli voters receptive to Netanyahu’s arguments.

In the American context, it is, of course, vastly preferable if the alliance with Israel has strong support in both political parties. The fact is that the movement of the Democratic party to the left rather than Israeli policy has led to an erosion of support, affection and enthusiasm from both its activist base but also, so it now appears, from the Obama White House. This erosion matters for two reasons. First, an alliance with a democratic alley is always stronger when it rests on both major parties, rather than only one. Second, given demographic changes, especially Hispanic immigration, it remains an open question whether the Republican Party, where support for Israel is strongest, remains a serious contender for the Presidency when the American electorate grows in size during Presidential elections. To be sure, as the Western victory in the Cold War indicated, Republicans have governed successfully with foreign policies opposed by Democrats. Yet a broader rather than narrower support for Israel in American politics is preferable.

Hence it is important for those of us who strongly support the alliance with Israel to put Democrats and liberals, Jewish and non-Jewish, a bit on the defensive about the connection between their liberalism and their views on Israel. For example, it is not liberal, but illiberal, to dismiss the sincerity of the Iranian regime when it announces its determination to destroy the state of Israel. It is an example of Western arrogance to assume that the Iranian leadership does not mean what it says when it speaks of eliminating the cancer of Israel. Liberals pride themselves on paying attention to the interpretations of the world that others offer;they view themselves as cosmopolitans rather than provincials. A cosmopolitan has the courage to look straight into a heart of darkness and to grasp the otherness of the foreign cultures. Classic liberals assume that culture matters. They do not underestimate the sincerity of enemies. Iran is such an enemy.

Second, liberals are opposed to genocide, threats of genocide and anti-Semitism. Iran has made genocidal threats against Israel and is led by theocrats who subscribe to Jew-hatred. Iran is an officially anti-Semitic regime, the first since the Nazis to make hatred of the Jews a defining element of its identity. President Obama must know this is the case but has refused to make it a defining element of his policy. He has not placed Iran’s anti-Semitism front and center before the world’s attention. A genuinely liberal policy would do so. Yet only a minority of liberals have criticized Obama for his reluctance to make this issue a centerpiece of his policy towards Iran.

Third, it is important to remind Israel’s critics in Western Europe and the United States of the enormous contribution Israel has made to their own well-being and security and to the alliance of Western democracies as a whole. Many will find this a ridiculous assertion as they have become accustomed to viewing Israel as a danger to world peace. They need to be reminded that the defeat of Soviet policy in the Middle East during the Cold War was crucial to the defense of the Western Alliance and to the economic and political security of Western Europe. In the era of radical Islamist terror, it is Israel that raised the alarm first. Those now in a state of rage against Netanyahu—and the electorate that chose him?—should be asked how the world would look if the United States places more “daylight” between itself and its long-standing ally, still the only well-functioning, liberal democracy in the Middle East. If the United States were to weaken its support for one of its oldest allies, what credibility would it have with those many other small countries that look to the Washington for protection in a dangerous world? If it were to do so, it would cause severe damage to the national security interests of the United States.

Fourth, as I will discuss in the next blog, the time is long overdue for liberals and Democrats to ask, most of them for the first time, just what is so terrible about Jews living on the West Bank of the Jordan River and why their living there poses any problem at all for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Do liberals want to be in the position of advocating a Palestinian state that is free of Jews?

There are different strands of liberalism. Barack Obama’s is one whose banner is “hope and change.” It is a noble and important motto that resonates deep in American history. Yet the achilles heel of that sunny American liberalism is its inability to acknowledge the darker angels of our souls, and the fragility of sweet reason in the face of ideological fanaticism. It is the Prime Minister, more than the President who has a firmer grip on the realities that are threatening Israel’s security and survival.

About the Author
Jeffrey Herf is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. He has published extensively on modern German and European history including Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, He is completing a study entitled “At War with Israel: East Germany and the West German Radical Left, 1967-1989" (Cambridge University Press, 2016). His "Israel's Moment: The United States and Europe between the Holocaust and the Cold War" is forthcoming.
Related Topics
Related Posts