Obama and Israel

American-educated Binyamin Netanyahu is a skilled politician. He returned to the post of Israeli PM after losing the job once and only becoming the leader of his party, Likud, again after it split in two. Then, he managed to form a coalition in 2009 despite his party not having gained the most seats in the election. The fact that that government has remained intact for almost two years testifies to that skill. But he is also outdueling President Obama in the United States, but doing so at the political peril of American Jews.

President Obama, from what I can gather, is sincere in his concern about solving the Israel/Palestine conflict. Indeed, Obama seems vastly more interested in re-litigating the Clinton years than in repairing the damage of the Bush years—or even of thoughtfully examining them. Not surprisingly, the Republicans are more than happy to oblige since even though they could never sink Clinton personally, they won the ideological wars of the 90s and pushed government policy (if not the electorate) to the right. Don’t be surprised if the GOP starts acting like their old selves even more in the upcoming term. Continuing to convert parliamentary procedure into headlines, they will no doubt scandalize the Obama administration at every turn.

The mainstream media likes to note that the voters punished the GOP’s temper tantrum in the 1998 election. Perhaps. Perhaps that reminder has more to do with the media’s humiliation at having predicted GOP gains than any measured look at the long-term effects of the Clinton impeachment, the government shutdown, and the Haircutgate/Travelgate/Whitewater/etc/etc investigations. Sure, Clinton cruised to victory in 1996. The Dems gained in 1998. But what was the long-term effect? George W. Bush, the small-time governor of Texas, defeated the incumbent party’s vice president in a time where middle class real wages were actually growing. Am I going too far to suggest that Al Gore let himself be conned into running away from Clinton by Beltway opinion even as Clinton’s personal approval was high? Perhaps. But somehow, during the 90s, the attacks on Clinton seemed to bounce of Clinton to be absorbed by the Democratic Party as a whole. 2000 should have been a vote of confidence. Instead, it was a popularity contest. Sure, the Supreme Court had something to do with it. But even if they had not, the House would have installed Bush. And it never should have been that close to begin with.

The GOP does not see the excesses of its Clinton-era leadership as a political net minus, and they are correct. They paved the way for that party’s dominance in the early and mid-2000s. In 2002 and 2004, they even seemed to be able to make 9/11 the Democrats’ fault.

So, here we are. 2010. Obama won on health care (who cares if it cost political capital?). Obama appears to be leaving air in the Don’t-Ask-Don-t-Tell issue in the military, also a Clinton-era issue (though it is much better political turf for Dems than gay marriage). Combine that with a bunch of technocratic minima no one knows anything about, and its hard not to get this “I’ve-seen-this-movie-before” feeling. What’s missing?

Israel/Palestine.

Obama approaches this issue from the point of view of someone who in good faith wants to solve the conflict and believe it has a solution. It does not appear to me that Netanyahu approaches it as anything other than a political calculus, or, perhaps at the best, an Israeli national security issue. Netanyahu can’t do what Obama wants him to do without disbanding his coalition, giving a lot of power to Tzipi Livni, whom he surely hates, and still having to face his voters, probably right away after any major deal. World opinion doesn’t matter much in Israel. Why should it? What, the Europeans? This is a continent of finger-waiving moralizers where most of continental Europe was complicit with the genocide of the Jewish people. Or, more universally, you could consider the world-wide traumas of colonialism, imperialism, communism, and free trade. The Arabs are on the other side of this conflict. Of course they will have a negative opinion. The Chinese and Indians don’t care. That’s pretty much that.

America, on the other hand, is in its strongest manifestation of anti-Arab and anti-Islamism, and it’s been ongoing for almost 10 years. America blames Islam for 9/11. Support for Israel has become a more publicly acceptable way of signaling one’s hatred of Arabs. Too much public pressure on Israel would be seen as a Fifth Columnist pro-Arab move, which the GOP has already repeatedly painted its target on Obama for by the birther issue, the school-yard references to Obama’s middle name, calling him a muslim as if that is a ipso facto slander.

So, if you’re Netanyahu and you’re good at chess, here’s the board. The only player with any leverage that matters to the Israeli public is America; no one matters to the partners in your coalition. But within America, you have substantial power to enforce what your coalition partners want: which is no deal with the Arabs. The ability to do that springs from your connection with and concerted action with the Republican party. But that too comes at a cost.

I believe, for the most part, that the Republican base is not really pro-Israel so much as it is anti-Arab. (Indeed, I believe the best hope for forward progress in the environmental movement is a “Patriotic” campaign against “Arab puppet” oil companies, but Democrats are more concerned with the polo club rules than winning.) I certainly don’t think they are pro-Jew. Evangelical Judaeophilia is really more a part of contemporary popular evangelical eschatology (e.g. Left Behind, etc.) than it is really a warm feeling towards the family down the street with the annoying New York accent who don’t put up Christmas lights, or, you know, actual Jewish people. Democrats? Now, there are plenty of really “pro-Israel” Democrats.

But what the events of the last week in Korea should remind us is that the Israel/Palestine conflict is just a few shots away from being even more of yesterday’s issue than it already is. Very few people I ask can give me an even slightly compelling answer as to why the goings on in Israel or a resolution to the Israel/Palestine conflict have as much geopolitical significance as the coverage of those issues merits. If the answer is that 2% of Americans are Jewish, then why isn’t there more interest in Irish, or, gasp, Mexican affairs? All of the attention on the Middle East used to benefit Israel and the Jews. Israel was seen as a heart-warming redemption story after the Holocaust (and, let’s be honest, a guilt release valve for much of the world). But that certainly isn’t the case anymore. Anti-Semitism is sharply on the rise in Europe and the catalytic events almost always relate to news from Israel.

The same is likely to be true in the U.S. When, not if, but when a large conflict breaks out in the Subcontinent, anywhere involving Russia, with Iran, or with North Korea, Israel will be off the front pages for a while. And there’s a reason it sort of has that sepia-tinge feeling. It’s really not that geopolitically significant anymore. Even within the Middle East, surely the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, along with, you know, repressive regimes we prop up there, and, you know, terrorism probably take a bit of mindshare from the people. If the philanthropy towards the Palestinians were really so overridingly powerful, it’s hard to feature why the Arab countries are so shitty to them.

A resolution to the Israel/Palestine conflict will only slightly lower the density of conflict in the region, or improve the per capita income in the region (the economies of both Israel and Palestine are among the fastest growing in the world at the moment as it is), or shore up the stability of other governments world wide, or end or prevent a major shooting war. You can also be sure that no matter what happens with a peace deal that Israel and its neighbors will not be shiny happy people laughing together after it’s signed.

With so much of his ability to affect domestic policy compromised, Obama is seeking another Clinton-couldn’t-do-it big win and will follow his nose into this tar pit and start doing things that are calculated to actually solve the issue. The problem is, he will be playing a game against players that don’t want a resolution and know that he will be willing to give them huge concessions just to play along for a while and with no consequences if they, once again, walk away.

But this alliance with the American GOP is not to the long-term advantage of Jewry as a whole. As I noted, the GOP base is not reflexively philosemitic. If anti-Arabism stops being the primary publicly tolerated hate in the US, and, say it becomes the North Koreans or the Chinese, philosemitism will lose its appeal as a Miss Manners approved proxy for for anti-Arabism. Good old Israel-irrelevant antisemitism will become more mind-forward for this group, as they try to destroy the wall of separation between church and state in the US. Why can’t people of other religions just understand this is a Christian country and let us celebrate Christmas officially?

And the fact is, the vast majority of Jews are liberals. Most of the GOP base’s values are utterly repugnant to Judaism as most American Jews understand it. If you take Israel out of the equation, there is basically zero correspondence between Judaism and the Tea Party. The political support of the GOP is therefore not contingent upon Jews! It’s contingent upon Christian anti-Arabism. When that fades in relevance, and with Democrats increasingly powerless, there will be a lot less “pro-Israel” on the agenda. As such, it’s not a good thing for either the American diaspora or Israel if evangelical-bidden Republicans control the agenda.

Maybe Netanyahu knows this and knows it means that soon Israel won’t care at all about American opinion either, and he is just calculating his own survival. Maybe he’s just angling for a better deal.