Bibi Netanyahu is due in Washington next week to address the annual AIPAC Policy Conference. Nahum Barnea of Yediot Ahronot, the lead political commentator at Israel’s largest-circulation newspaper and widely considered the dean of Israeli journalism, has some advice for him. If you’re relying on the Jewish right as your main base of support in the United States, you’re walking on thin ice. It’s a bad bet.
It’s something you don’t hear much from Israelis, though it’s gaining currency.
Here’s some of what Barnea has to say:
When Benjamin Netanyahu will arrive at the AIPAC Conference in Washington next week, he will be received with great enthusiasm. The audience will stand up and applaud. The youngsters will cheer. The venue will settle down only once the chairman repeatedly appeals for quiet. The Israeli prime minister will feel like a rock star; like a conqueror. The loudest of all will be the boys in the knitted skullcaps; the decedents of Orthodox families. Meanwhile, the wealthy individuals on stage will grace Netanyahu with the warmest embraces; most of them are major Republican Party donors. The clash between Netanyahu and the Obama Administration is their finest hour. Israel’s confrontation with Obama is their entry ticket to the non-Jewish world of Republican America. The occasion will be intoxicating, but possibly deceptive as well. For a moment, the prime minister of Israel will forget where he came from and whose interests he represents. The sobering up process shall come later. Israel is gradually losing the support of the liberal camp within America’s Jewish community. This is a process that did not start with Netanyahu, Lieberman, or Eli Yishai. It has many reasons and not all of them have to do with the policy of Israeli governments or with the occupation. Many members of this camp stay away not only from commitment to Israel but also from commitment to Judaism.
However, as opposed to Israel, the liberals – who in Israel terms can be characterized as moderate leftists – constitute an overwhelming majority of America’s Jewish community. They have decisive influence on the Democratic Party, which at this time holds power both at the White House and in Congress. Netanyahu can take as much pleasure as he wants to in the support of the Jewish Right, yet he cannot change the political facts: Obama will be at the White House for at least three more years, with a group of liberals surrounding him, some of them Jewish. The loud applause that will welcome Netanyahu at the AIPAC Conference will not help him with his future contacts vis-à-vis the White House. They may even cause damage. This is precisely what happened to Netanyahu in his previous term in office, vis-à-vis Bill Clinton and his liberals.
(For the record, Barnea is off in claiming that “most” of the “wealthy individuals on stage” at AIPAC are major Republican donors. It’s more balanced than that. But it’s a fact that the passion on the Jewish right combined with the lassitude on the center-left–see under “passing health care reform”–leaves many casual observers under the impression that those folks are mostly Republicans. Which is the larger point he’s trying to make.)
It’s a serious problem Barnea is addressing. The right represents a small minority of Jews in America. The more you allow Israel to be identified with the right in the American public mind, the more you will alienate the liberals and moderates who make up the great majority of American Jews. For that matter, Democrats are a big chunk of the American body politic. If you make Israel a partisan cause of the right, you’re virtually inviting liberals and the left to take up the challenge and move away from Israel. Most haven’t yet, but the process is already visible. That doesn’t serve Israeli interests; it only narrows Israel’s support base.
Barnea’s bottom line, if you read the whole article (recommended), is the Bibi should skip AIPAC and stay home so he doesn’t cause more trouble. I don’t know if he’s serious or not, but it’s obviously not going to happen On the other hand, Bibi is capable of addressing a crowd and speaking in moderate tones. The fire and brimstone stuff stirs up crowds and wins applause, but it’s a terrible strategy for Israel these days. You can’t prevent the left from coming back to power every so often. But you work to develop civil relationships and support and avoid alienating them.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).