2016 is starting off painfully for Israel. Arab assassins continue their murder spree; the Obama administration cautions against violence on all sides. Iran tests ballistic missiles and publicly humiliates American sailors; Obama champions the release of $100 billion or so to the mullahs. The EU moves ahead with its discriminatory labeling plan of selected Jew-made products in a major boon to the global BDS movement; the Obama Administration announces that the U.S. will ease their efforts. And the American Left sets aside its apoplectic rage against the corrupting effects of money in politics long enough to decry a Knesset bill seeking transparency about foreign political funding of Israeli NGOs.
Meanwhile, with election 2016 looming, America’s leading pro-Israel activists again boast of unshakeable bipartisan support and hold fund raisers for anyone willing to mouth platitudes about standing with Israel. Never mind that investigations into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails uncovered her favorable responses to numerous brutal anti-Israel libels and strategic recommendations from her closest advisors. Pay no attention to Bernie Sanders’ declared Israel policy advisors including James Zogby and J Street. Forget the debacle of 2015, when a sizable majority of “pro-Israel” Democrats agreed to enhance Iran’s ability to exterminate the Jewish State. To hear them tell it, when it comes to Israel there is no difference between the parties.
Decades of polling by organizations like Gallup and Pew tell a different story. The gap between Democratic and Republican views of Israel is stark, longstanding, and growing. An overwhelming majority of Republicans, often approaching 85%, consistently express warm support for Israel. Among Democrats, pro-Israel sentiment routinely tests below 50%—and even that support skews old. Young Democrats overwhelmingly take pride in their anti-Israel politics—hence the dire situation on college campuses.
Astoundingly, many American Jews who know from personal experience that full-throated support for Israel has become contentious continue to accept the absurd fiction that Israel’s position in Washington remains secure no matter who is in charge.
This denial of the obvious has been killing Israel slowly. Those claiming to be Israel’s leading supporters in Washington claim exemption from the most basic rule of politics: While it is nice to have friends on both sides of the aisle, control of Congress and the White House is critical. Planned Parenthood and the NRA know it. So do the Sierra Club and the Chamber of Commerce. Each of these groups champions an agenda, as does every real lobby. They push votes forward, sometimes knowing they will win and sometimes hoping that a loss will impel more sympathetic politicians into office. Through it all, they remain mission-driven, willing to fight for their beliefs and their agendas, known to reward proven friends and just as committed to punish enemies.
Not so the “pro-Israel” establishment. In their effort to boast as many “friends” as possible, they win public lip service but private contempt—for themselves and for Israel. As the Iran Deal showed, Congress overflows with politicians eager to welcome Jews into their offices, accept Jewish money, attend Jewish parties, spout pro-Israel platitudes, and cast easy, symbolic votes. The moment that Israel requires a vote of conviction rather than convenience, however, they scurry for the exits, politely expressing regret and an intention to return as soon as the easy money resumes flowing—because it always does.
This “strategy” perverts the role of pro-Israel advocacy. Israel is a small state, surrounded by enemies seeking her destruction and the genocide of her citizens. The primary—overwhelming—task of Israel’s leadership is defense of the nation and its citizens. Because Israel plays with razor-thin margins of error, risk aversion is rational: when survival is a form of victory, playing to win is a luxury. As a result, the significant risks that Israel has incurred have almost all focused on securing friends and allies, rather than on playing to win. Israel repeatedly risks the lives and welfare of its own citizens and soldiers to curry global favor that rarely arrives. When such risks become untenable and Israel reluctantly moves to protect its citizens, global condemnation flows freely. Rather than pushing America to help widen the political margin within which Israel exists globally, the leading Jewish voices in Washington have long advocated mirroring this risk aversion – and that is at their best. Just as often, these same groups actually pressure Israel to accept even more risk and endure more pain in order to accommodate the liberal preferences of American Jews. Thus Israel’s desire that America become energy independent fell on deaf ears, because, according to AIPAC’s point person on the issue: “as American Jews we couldn’t touch environmental issues and have any credibility with our community.” This behavior must stop.
Israel deserves advocates fully committed to the cause and who are willing to play to win. And Israel’s supporters in Washington should behave more like the lobbyists for American interests they are, and less like envoys of an embattled state. Israeli officials have to make all kinds of conciliatory statements about this Administration that nobody takes seriously: it’s the nature of diplomacy for a foreign government so dependent on America. That doesn’t mean that Americans who care about Israel should pretend to believe them. On the contrary, our value is added for Israel when we do the tough-talking the Israelis can’t but which needs to be done. And it goes way beyond messaging.
A pro-Israel lobby that played to win would shed the risk aversion, and instead articulate basic, immutable principles for which it fights no matter who is in power. A pro-Israel lobby playing to win would work to pressure Israel’s neighbors to work with Israel, while removing pressure on Israel to take risks that compromise its security. A pro-Israel lobby seeking to do more than preserve its own popularity with the Left would stop pushing Washington and Jerusalem to reward Arab incitement and terror with a PLO-led state. Quite the opposite: it would fight to ensure that anti-Jewish terror moves Arab interests visibly backwards. A pro-Israel lobby planning victory would innovate on matters of policy and narrative, promoting maximalist ideas that run counter to conventional wisdom even if such innovations might remain minority positions for the years that it often takes lobbyists to assemble a winning coalition. In short, an effective pro-Israel lobby would know that the best defense is a good offense.
Israel’s enemies understand this strategic imperative. They are never afraid of pushing the envelope. In 2000, Yasser Arafat began a campaign of “Temple Denial,” claiming that there were never Jewish Temples in Jerusalem, despite the absolute indisputability of their existence. By 2015, the New York Times detailed the “controversy” surrounding Jewish “claims” to the Temple Mount and UNESCO tried to declare the Western Wall a Muslim holy site.
Similarly, the BDS movement did not arise overnight; a coalition of NGOs launched it in 2005 as a radical fringe movement. Over time, they grew BDS to become part of the conversation dominating American college campuses, European halls of power, and Middle Eastern analysis. Pro-Israel activists may boast about state legislatures adopting anti-BDS legislation, but it is the anti-Israel forces who framed the conversation and set the terms of debate. When the point debated concerns the propriety of singling out Israel as the subject of an international boycott, Israel cannot win. At best, Israel can minimize the damage – temporarily.
Or consider a campaign of even greater significant than BDS –arguably the mother of both Temple Denial and BDS: the so-called “Two-State Solution.” By giving legitimacy to the fabricated idea of a “Palestinian” polity, Oslo breathed new life into the fight against Israel’s existence. Almost the entire world – Jews included – now takes for granted the creation of an independent, PLO-led State of Palestine, wedged into disputed territories west of the Jordan River that Israel liberated in 1967. First sold as a way to achieve security and peace for Israel, it has morphed into an entitlement for the incorrigible PLO.
In all three cases, Israel’s enemies have created fictitious narratives slandering the Jews as perpetrators of disenfranchisement, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. In all three cases they have innovated on policy, and worked hard for years to move from the radical fringes to the mainstream of discussion and debate. And in all three cases they have succeeded in raising doubts about the very legitimacy of Israel’s existence. Imagine what might happen if pro-Israel forces mirrored their creativity and their passion in the service of the truth!
To be sure, many American Jews (in proportions far greater than Americans as a whole) actively seek a Palestinian state. But they ignore a critical point: to qualify as a “solution,” the second state must solve some underlying problem. For those who see “the problem” as the perpetual threat to Israel’s existence and security, however, any plausibly configured State of Palestine would exacerbate matters rather than solve them. Far too many of these “pro-Israel” two-state advocates concede this point while nevertheless lamenting “that ship has sailed,” seemingly oblivious that it is their hands on the tiller.
If that ship has indeed sailed, it did so only recently, on their watch, and it is reversible. Not too long ago, it was acceptance of a Palestinian state that appeared radical and fringe. Jimmy Carter—hardly pro-Israel—spoke passionately against the creation of such a state in 1980. Yitzhak Rabin, martyred in 1995 for his dovish politics, never wavered from his opposition to a Palestinian state. In 1998, five years after the Oslo accords, Hillary Clinton ventured tentative support for an independent Palestine; her husband’s White House was so horrified at the almost universal condemnation that it issued a blunt statement: “That view expressed personally by the first lady is not the view of the President.”
Fast forward toward the present. With foresight and boldness, nimble anti-Israel forces have solidified the “Palestinian” claim while rendering contingent Israel’s legitimacy. Israel, playing risk-averse and having no real alternative, has gone along with the Two-State farce. Meanwhile AIPAC eschews visits to Jewish Judea and Samaria as counterproductive to their commitment to “Two States” and has actually adopted visits to Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah as a standard part of its Congressional Israel tours. This approach sends a disastrous message, shackles Israel’s staunchest supporters in Washington and severely constrains Israel’s options. With Jewish leadership in Washington refusing to champion the simple proposition that the U.S. should show the same steadfast opposition to anti-Jewish terrorist organizations that it does to all other forms of terrorism, why shouldn’t America’s political leaders join the global chorus viewing Jew-killing as perhaps regrettable, but understandable? And so, by 2011, when Abbas demanded from the UN the recognition of a state without the pretext of peace, ex-President Bill Clinton had come around to his wife’s views, volubly attacking Israel for the lack of peace.
The situation has been dire since President Obama assumed office. If he, Vice President Biden, or Secretaries Clinton or Kerry have ever had a kind word to say about Israeli policy vis-à-vis its relationship with the Arabs, we have missed it. On any other issue, Washington lobbyists would have sounded alarm bells, informing their members and supporters of the animosity emanating from the White House. What did AIPAC do? It called a special meeting of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations to demand that Jewish groups stop criticizing Obama. AIPAC’s former president hosted Obama at his home for a Shabbat meal.
Such actions impose unbearable costs on Israel. As Winston Churchill observed, the only way to avoid making enemies is to stand for nothing. To fight for Israel is to risk the enmity of Israel’s enemies, not to wish it away.
As Israel’s fortunes get progressively worse in Washington, the roll call of Congressional “friends” at Policy Conference is evidence of AIPAC’s obsequious inadequacy, not its success. It is appalling that Democrats who supported the Iran Deal only last summer have already been rewarded with fundraisers. Inevitably, if we continue down the path of appeasement, even that empty façade of support will soon erode.
Should France—a permanent member of the UN Security Council—carry through on its recent threat to recognize a State of Palestine, it would become the 137th country to reward the Arab campaign of genocidal anti-Jewish incitement, war, authoritarianism, and anarchy. Might the UN follow suit? Why not? After all, if America’s pro-Israel elite pronounce the ship to have sailed, where is the logic of delay? If pro-Israel activists in Washington, living in the safety of history’s least anti-Semitic nation and boasting unrivaled access to the chambers of power, do not vocally oppose the emergence of this new terror state founded in Jew hatred, who will? Perhaps more poignantly, if Israel’s “friends” in Washington accede in arming those most viscerally committed to the destruction of Israel and the extermination of Jews, what good are they?
Israel is losing on many fronts. Badly. And those who claim to be its greatest advocates in Washington give no apparent consideration to shifting the game from defense to offense. Yet the success of Yasser Arafat’s delegitimization of Jewish Jerusalem, Hillary Clinton’s implicit Palestinian State, and Barack Obama’s nuclear Iran and the growing influence of J Street and BDS should have taught us a critical lesson: drastic shifts in both the terms of debate and U.S. policy are achievable—but only to those who think strategically, risk criticism, and act fearlessly.
The absence of policy innovation within the pro-Israel establishment is palpable. To pick but one example, in 2015 Mahmoud Abbas announced to the United Nations that the PA no longer felt bound by its obligations under the Oslo Accords—making explicit a position that had been obvious for at least fifteen years, a strategic thinker might have suggested that Israel and the U.S are similarly unshackled—setting off a debate about two decades of rewards for Arab incitement and violence. The creation of a new Arab state, the limitations on Jewish life in Judea and Samaria, and even the PA itself would all come under a microscope. Ships deemed to have sailed would reenter port. The U.S. would pursue American interests with no sense of obligation to a terrorist organization. For once, Israel’s friends would frame the discussion. Just as Israel cannot win a debate about BDS, Israel cannot lose a debate about PA incitement. The only downside would be increased risk of criticism and condemnation from those who believe that supporting Israel should be easy, comfortable, and remunerative.
From the perspective of American politics, such a debate would pick up where last summer’s Obama-Iran deal left off. It would give meaning to the phrase “pro-Israel” and clarify and highlight the real differences between Republicans and Democrats. It would reward those very few Democrats who bucked their party to support Israel, rather than render foolish their principled sacrifice. It would educate voters for whom Israel is a critical issue. It would highlight the importance of November’s election, in which a Democratic victory will accelerate the Left’s anti-Israel policy orientation while a Republican victory will reverse it. It would set the stage for a new era of pro-Israel activism, emphasizing policy innovations that frame the debate and play to win. And it would help re-elect and empower a Republican majority eager to turn those pro-Israel innovations into American policy.
The 2016 primary season has been quite a show so far. While it’s way too early to know who will emerge as our next President, it is crystal clear that absent a dramatic change in pro-Israel lobbying strategy, Israel will continue playing a weak defense, losing ground against an increasingly bold and successful offense. The time has come for Israel’s friends to play offense. The time has come for us to play to win.