by Mitchell Plitnick
1. FOUNDATION FOR MIDDLE EAST PEACE: In your latest book, you explore a growing divide in the American Jewish community over Israel. In the current presidential election, Israel has been at issue a number of times: Donald Trump’s AIPAC speech, Bernie Sanders stating his support for Palestinian rights in a speech in Brooklyn, the Democrats refusing to use the word “occupation” in their platform while the Republicans’ platform explicitly states that Israel is not an occupying power. How do you see these issues playing out in the Jewish community, in the context of your view of this growing divide?
DOV WAXMAN: Although Israel often comes up as an issue in American presidential election campaigns (unlike most foreign policy issues which are generally given scant attention), what makes this election campaign unusual, and highly significant, is the divisive way in which Israel has been discussed and debated. Unlike in previous elections when candidates simply spouted bromides about the US-Israel relationship and competed over who was the most pro-Israel, in this election we have heard a broader range of views about Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians, including some unprecedented criticism of Israel during a nationally televised primary debate (Bernie Sanders’ denunciation of Israel’s “disproportionate” response to Palestinian rockets attacks in the 2014 Gaza War during a CNN Democratic debate with Hillary Clinton).
Political disagreements over Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—both within the Democratic and Republican parties and between them—have been on prominent display, clearly indicating that Israel is becoming a divisive issue in American politics. Although there is still strong support for Israel, there is growing disagreement over Israel’s policies (most notably, its continued settlement building in the West Bank), over its treatment of the Palestinians, and over how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Surveys show that Democrats, especially liberal democrats, have become more critical of Israel and more sympathetic towards the Palestinians, while Republican support for Israel has become emphatic and absolute (to the point that the Republican Party platform now explicitly rejects calling Israel an “occupier” of the West Bank, despite its almost 50-year military rule over that area). The bipartisan pro-Israel consensus that has long reigned in American politics is, therefore, eroding, just as the pro-Israel consensus within the American Jewish community is also eroding—as I describe in my book, Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel. What’s happening in American politics today mirrors what’s been happening in American Jewish politics for some time—criticism of Israel is going mainstream and divisions over Israel are deepening.
None of this, however, is going to affect how American Jews will vote in November—the vast majority of them will vote for Hillary Clinton. They will do so for the same reasons they always vote overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential candidates, and also because Donald Trump’s derogatory and inflammatory statements on the campaign trail (against Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, and women) are deeply offensive to the liberal, universalistic values of most American Jews. Ultimately, neither party’s stance on Israel will have any impact on how most American Jews will vote because Israel is not what matters to most American Jewish voters (in surveys, it is ranked well below others issues). The main exceptions to this are Orthodox Jews (about 10% of American Jews), who are much more politically conservative than non-Orthodox Jews, so most of them will likely vote for Trump. If and when non-Orthodox Jews vote for Clinton and Orthodox Jews vote for Trump it will highlight the growing political and cultural divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, a divide that drives much of the current American Jewish conflict over Israel.
2. FMEP: In recent years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been more open about his relationship to the Republican Party. But the 2016 election has been a tumultuous one for the GOP, to say the least. How do you see this affecting Netanyahu’s relationship, and that of Israel more broadly, to both the Democrats and the Republicans?
DW: In the last presidential election in 2012, Netanyahu almost openly supported Mitt Romney, raising suspicions that there was an alliance between him and the Republican Party, both of whom are backed by the billionaire casino magnate, Sheldon Adelson. Netanyahu’s controversial speech to Congress in March 2015, at the invitation of then GOP House Leader John Boehner, confirmed these suspicions. Netanyahu seemed to be publicly aligning himself with the Republican Party, probably because he believes that Democrats cannot be counted upon to support Israel’s indefinite occupation of the West Bank. This alliance now appears to be threatened by Trump’s takeover of the GOP.
Although Trump was quick to abandon his initial promise to be “neutral” when negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and has since championed his stalwart support for Israel, his election would surely be a risk for Israel. His nationalist, isolationist and xenophobic orientation to American foreign policy endangers all US alliances, even that with Israel, and his recklessness, inexperience and ignorance in foreign affairs is bound to unnerve Netanyahu, who is politically conservative and is always seeking to maintain the status quo. I doubt that Netanyahu really wants a Trump presidency.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is someone that Netanyahu knows well, and he will probably get along much better with her than he has with President Obama. Whereas Obama’s presidency strengthened the Likud-Republican alliance, therefore, a Clinton presidency will likely weaken it, especially if the GOP loses one or both Houses of Congress as well. More broadly, a Clinton victory and a GOP implosion—both of which now look likely—would prove to most Israelis the importance of maintaining bipartisan American support for Israel, which has been jeopardized by Netanyahu’s embrace of the GOP (among other factors).
In the longer term, however, I think that Israel’s relationship with the Democratic Party will become increasingly strained if Israel continues to occupy the West Bank and deny rights to millions of Palestinians. The base of the Democratic Party is strongly opposed to the Occupation, even if the party’s platform refuses to acknowledge it. The longer the Occupation goes on, the harder it will become for Democratic policy-makers to ignore it. Their grassroots supporters will demand that they apply some kind of pressure on Israel to end the Occupation. This puts the Democratic Party on a long-term collision course with Israel, although whether this collision will eventually occur obviously depends on what happens in Israel as well.
3. FMEP: The Obama Administration has, if nothing else, been more open than prior administrations to the messages of domestic peace groups like J Street, Americans for Peace Now, the Foundation for Middle East Peace and other groups that are critical of Israeli policies but firmly supportive of Israel’s security. Many fear that whoever wins this election, the next administration is going to be much less critical of Israeli policies and less committed to Palestinian rights. How do you see the post-Obama terrain for those forces pushing for a just peace and an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza?
DW: If elected President, Hillary Clinton will not make attaining a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians a top priority in her foreign policy (which is what Obama did when he first entered office) because the prospects for reaching such an agreement are very slim, and she will have other, more urgent foreign policy challenges to address. Nor is Clinton likely to insist that Israel halt its settlement building. Instead, she will probably try to avoid the conflicts and tensions with Netanyahu that have marred US-Israel relations during the course of the Obama presidency. But, like every president before her, Hillary Clinton will surely find that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be placed on the foreign policy back burner for long. Sooner or later, it forces presidents to deal with it, often after a serious escalation of violence. For this reason, I think that as president, Hillary Clinton, or her foreign secretary, will eventually try to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, with the aim of reaching at least a partial agreement, if not a comprehensive one. When this happens, she will probably turn to groups like J Street to help her rally American Jews to support her Administration’s diplomatic efforts.
Besides the White House, if the Democrats succeed in regaining control of the Senate, or even the House of Representatives, that will undoubtedly help J Street and other left-of-center groups pushing for a more active and assertive US role in trying to end Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. If Congress becomes less willing to give its unconditional backing to whatever Israel does, then the cost for Israel of its occupation of the West Bank might increase, which in turn may increase the domestic pressure in Israel (currently negligible) to withdraw from at least parts of the West Bank.
One final factor worth noting is that if those Democrats in Congress who supported the nuclear agreement with Iran get re-elected in November it will be a serious blow to AIPAC’s once-fearsome reputation, and a major boost for J Street (which supported the nuclear deal).
4. FMEP: Finally, there seems to be a growing divide among anti-occupation groups, particularly over the tactic of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). Many leading BDS activists and groups are Jewish. Is this debate a healthy one for the Jewish community, and how do you see this split on the “Jewish left” playing out going forward?
DW: I think debate is healthy for any community. The problem with the American Jewish community today when it comes to BDS is that there isn’t enough debate about it. In fact, in much of the mainstream Jewish community the debate isn’t even allowed to take place. Supporters of BDS (for the record, I’m not one of them) are actively excluded from the organized Jewish community. Jewish Federations won’t partner with any organization that supports BDS for any kind of activity, Jewish Community Centers won’t host speakers who support BDS, and Hillels on college campuses won’t even allow public discussions about it to take place. But as long as the occupation continues, American Jews opposed to it are bound to consider whatever non-violent means is available to break the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate and end the occupation. Support for BDS is, therefore, likely to grow on the Jewish left, and organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace, which champion BDS, will continue to gain support, especially among young American Jews.
Nevertheless, many Jews on the left will still be put off from supporting the global BDS movement by its insistence on a Palestinian right of return, its strident anti-Zionism, and especially by the anti-Semitism occasionally expressed by some of its supporters. While they may become more open to some of the tactics of BDS (particularly divestment from companies profiting from the occupation of the West Bank), they will not endorse the movement as a whole. The problem for leftwing and liberal American Jews who are both opposed to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and opposed to BDS is that, as long as the peace process is moribund, there doesn’t appear to be any suitable strategy for ending the occupation. This is why many Jews on the left are currently in a state of despair.
Dov Waxman is Professor of Political Science, International Affairs, and Israel Studies, and the Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies at Northeastern University. He is also the co-director of the university’s Middle East Center. An expert on Israel, his research focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israeli foreign policy, U.S.-Israel relations, and American Jewry’s relationship with Israel.
Originally from London, England, Professor Waxman received his B.A. degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Oxford University and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University. He has also held fellowships and visiting appointments at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, the Middle East Technical University, the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, the Avraham Harman Institute for Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and St. John’s College at the University of Oxford.
Professor Waxman’s most recent book is Trouble in the Tribe: The American Jewish Conflict over Israel (Princeton University Press, 2016).
Reprinted, with permission, from the Foundation for Middle East Peace blog.