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Thou shalt not intervene

As America heads to the polls, Israeli meddling will create a self-inflicted wound, hurt US Jewry, and drag down this most special of relationships
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015. (photo credit: AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015. (photo credit: AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

In a world awash with states intervening in the politics of other nations, friend and foe, and less than a month before a consequential American election, it bears reviewing why non-intervention is so critical to the US-Israel alliance and why it has such an outsized impact on American Jewish politics.

Most Israeli officials understand, accept and respect non-intervention, especially when it comes to the ultra-sensitive question of elections and internal politics, but not all.

I spoke publicly against Mr. Bernie Sanders,” said former U.N. ambassador Danny Danon, unapologetically, after returning to Israel. Make no mistake, interventions of this kind only worsen already deeply polarized American politics and undermine one of the pillars of American Jewish politics: cultivating and sustaining bipartisan support for Israel. 

Danon’s intervention pales in comparison to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s collaboration with Republican leaders in Congress in 2015, or his dalliances with Mitt Romney in the 2012 election. The 2015 case, a still-charged episode, combined with more recent instances of President Trump using the alliance as a political football, have combined to cause tremendous damage to the decades-long effort by American Jewry—numerically small and decidedly liberal—to build and sustain bipartisan support for Israel. 

The intention is to insulate American bilateral support for Israel from the inevitable pendulum swings of American politics. Bipartisanship has long defined the strategies of the leading advocacy organizations, like AIPAC, the Jewish federations, the President’s Conference, AJC and ADL, yet it is besieged today.

Bipartisanship, as a core interest of American Jewry, is not only limited to Israel advocacy, it also applies to combatting anti-Semitism, advocating for community safety, and leveraging America’s global leadership on behalf of Jewish communities around the world.

There’s also the consequentialist case. Intervention, in either direction, typically fails, often causing collateral damage. Bill Clinton could not get Shimon Peres (re)elected in 1996, despite his considerable investment, and despite his rationale that intervention was justified to save the Oslo process. Neither could Netanyahu damage Obama in 2012. President Trump’s high wattage display of Israel-Gulf “normalization,” impressive to his base, likely won’t move many American voters, including those who care the most about Israel. Yet each of these instances leave behind bitter tastes and damaged confidence and good will.

Israelis have a huge stake in the outcome of US elections, no doubt about it, but Israelis should also be sensitive to non-intervention. Here are three practical benchmarks.

Avoid commenting on the election – Perhaps it goes without saying, but Israeli officials should not comment publicly on the election. Not on the candidates, not on the platforms (well, there’s only one), certainly not on the remaining debates or the tenor of the campaign, and especially not about the outcome should it be contested or delayed. The curiosity of the Israeli public is understandable, the US alliance carries enormous weight in terms of Israel’s future. But when asked, Israeli leaders should deflect and avoid public comments that could be interpreted as taking sides.

In 1972, then ambassador to the US Yitzhak Rabin was accused of signaling a preference for Nixon, but he acted swiftly to put to rest such impressions. Rabin understood the importance of non-intervention. Just the opposite with Ambassador Danon, his statements during the primaries are precisely what Israeli officials should be avoiding.

Low-profile, maintain balance – This is the time when Israeli leaders should lower the profile and seek balance in their interactions with American counterparts, to avoid even the impression of intervention. When Netanyahu visited Washington in September to sign the UAE and Bahrain agreements, he could have placed a call to VP Biden or taken another symbolic measure project bipartisanship.

Sometimes Americans inject their own politics, as Secretary of State Pompeo did with his address to the Republican National Convention from Jerusalem, which also fuels partisanship. During the Democratic primaries, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders repeatedly invoked criticisms of Israeli leaders and policies to whip up support at home. Elements of both parties are using Israel for their own narrow, partisan purposes, but Israelis should avoid being drawn in. 

Former President Bush took a swipe at his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama in his May 2008 speech to the Knesset. But Israeli leaders at the time responded carefully, showed balance, and maintained a low-profile, including in how they received then-Senator Obama when he visited two months later. 

Steer clear of the transition – Israel, like any country, must look out for its interests. But if VP Biden wins, and America enters a sensitive period of presidential transition, then Israeli leaders and representatives should avoid contact on any substantive policy matters. Granted, if Israel firmly believes its vital interests are on the line, as Netanyahu argued in December 2016 around the U.N. Security Council debate on settlements, the pursuit of more substantive contacts becomes almost irresistible. But as a rule, such contacts should be avoided. 

In any democracy, transitions are a sensitive political period and a firewall should be maintained with the incoming president and their team.

Not only is there a strong norm of non-intervention in international affairs, particularly in relations between liberal democracies, but it is also deeply embedded in Israel’s relations with American Jewry. David Ben Gurion promised Jewish leaders in 1950 “that nothing should be said or done which could in the slightest degree undermine the sense of security and stability of American Jewry,” admittedly a norm often observed in the breach. 

Unlike past eras, Israeli and American politics are becoming more entangled, as the scholar Tamara Wittes has said, so much so that even false accusations of intervention can be mobilized for political gain, as with Israel’s 2015 election and accusations by Likud that the US sought to support Prime Minister Netanyahu’s opponents—a charge disproved by a Congressional investigation

Although the politics of this alliance have never been more complex, the merits of non-intervention remain just as strong today. As we enter the final stretch of this US election, any new intervention would undoubtedly create a self-inflicted wound, hurt Jewish American interests, and drag down this most special of relationships.

About the Author
Scott Lasensky teaches American Jewish politics and Israel studies at the University of Maryland. From 2011-2017, he was a senior advisor on Israel and Jewish affairs in the Obama Administration. He is the co-author most recently of The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace (Cornell University Press), and author of “Fate, Peoplehood and Alliances,” a short history of American Jewry’s contributions to Israeli national security (INSS; Hebrew).
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