In recent days, the Israeli and American media have been full of talk about a crisis in relations between the two countries — and, more specifically, between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The two governments are at loggerheads over the first stage of a nuclear agreement the United States and five other powers negotiated with Iran, which Netanyahu has denounced as an “historic mistake.” Down the road looms an impending showdown over the now-deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
These legitimate policy disagreements flow from two very different worldviews. The Obama administration sees negotiated resolutions to conflicts as not only possible, but also desirable. It seeks, through diplomacy, to heal old wounds, and looks in unexpected places to advance common interests. This is a change from the Bush years, when America viewed the world in black and white, when conflicts could have only one winner and when military force seemed the tool of choice in promoting American interests abroad.
The Netanyahu government and the settler caucus to Netanyahu’s right see the world, and certainly the Middle East, in much the same terms as the neocons who ran the Bush administration. They seek capitulation, not compromise, from Iran, and see little need nor hope for a diplomatic resolution to the Palestinian conflict.
Caught in the middle are most American Jews. Conflict between the Israeli and American governments causes anguish and soul-searching within the American Jewish community, which is understandably reluctant to choose between one government and the other. This in turn presents a challenge for old-guard American institutions and leaders who lean toward the Netanyahu worldview but purport to speak for American Jews who lean toward Obama. Both sides are united in their love and concern for Israel and in their sincere desire to see the country’s security assured — but they differ on how to achieve this.
On Iran, nearly all the major, old-guard American Jewish organizations have lined up behind Netanyahu. They pushed Congress to enact additional sanctions against Iran before the deal was signed, despite chances that such a move might have torpedoed an agreement — and the international consensus that makes sanctions effective.
They seemed undeterred by the fact that the American people as a whole support a deal with Iran by 64%–30%, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll. Many American Jews who take the Iran threat seriously but fear the profound consequences of a military strike undoubtedly find themselves within the ranks of that majority supporting a diplomatic outcome, agreeing with the president’s approach on this important issue rather than with Netanyahu’s.
Similarly, on the two-state solution, there’s a real gap between the respective governments of the United States and Israel. The president and the secretary of state are urgently pursuing a diplomatic resolution to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The prime minister has indicated verbal support for a two-state solution, but those who run his party and represent his government on a regular basis indicate that such an outcome is neither desirable nor feasible.
The stakes for Israel are high. If two-state negotiations fail, Israel will face unprecedented diplomatic isolation and the prospect of an indefinite occupation of millions of Palestinians that will ultimately leave the country with an impossible choice between retaining its Jewish character or its democracy. American Jews should be united in their desire to help Israel avoid ever facing such a decision.
A recent Pew Research Center poll of American Jews confirmed their overwhelming support for a two-state solution. It found further that only 38% of American Jews believe that the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and only 17% support its position on settlements in the West Bank.
The traditional American Jewish organizations face a dilemma: Do they side unquestioningly on every issue with an Israeli government at odds not just with the American government, but also with the opinions of large numbers of Jewish Americans? Or should they in fact bring to Washington a full representation of the range of views held by their constituency?
American support is vital to Israel’s security. To maintain it, Israeli governments have always relied on voices and organizations that have assured them they have rock-solid support in this country, without reserve or criticism. Unquestioning support for Israeli policy from the United States has come to be taken for granted.
It may be a comfort to the more hawkish elements of Israel’s government to think that they still retain that unquestioning support as they pursue policies that fly in the face of American interests. But the present Israeli government should know that if it chooses to continue to pursue dangerous policies that run counter to American interests, and to air those disputes loudly and in a disrespectful manner, it runs a deep risk.
And the Jewish communal organizations that continue to provide unconditional support for the current Israeli government as it veers in a hawkish direction out of sync with the mainstream of American Jewry should know that they, too, run a risk. Either their constituency walks away from the issue completely — as it has been doing — or they will find new voices that better represent them.
Jeremy Ben-Ami is the executive director of J Street.