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Restoring American Bipartisan Commitment Towards Israel: A Moral Duty and Strategic Necessity

By Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman, Vice President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

It is possible to restore American bipartisan backing for Israel. Therefore, it is important to avoid being too identified with President Trump, despite Israeli gratitude due to him for many of his policies. Bonds between Israel and American Jewry should be bolstered; bridges should be built to both sides of the aisle in Congress; and US defense establishment support should be solicited. All this, in view of Israel’s need to influence decisions in Washington on matters vital to its future.

Recent events in Washington highlight the dangerous polarization in American society, and the ensuing challenges to the democratic resilience of the United States – a friend and an ally upon which Israel’s relies. On the other hand, there is the prospect of US political stability being reestablished through an inclusive approach from the new Biden Administration.

The latter is identified with the mainstream of the Democratic Party, rather than with the “progressive” wing whose views on Israel tend to be problematic, even hostile. Given these circumstances, Israel’s affinity with the Republican Party, which led to the use of Israel as a wedge issue in political polemics, has cut into the traditional bipartisan base of support. The inauguration of a new Democratic president should be an opportunity to strengthen bipartisanship regarding Israel.

Jewish and Israeli Responses to the January 6 Events

Following the January 6 assault on the Capitol, and the violent attempt to disrupt the confirmation by Congress of the Electoral College vote, all leaders of American Jewry expressed a sense of shock in the face of the events and their implications. In most cases, this was accompanied by sharp comments as to the role played by the President in the incitement which preceded the attack (although Trump did distance himself from the perpetrators a day later). The dismay among American Jews was enhanced by the ugly anti-Semitism of some of the rioters (“6MNE”), which president-elect Biden referred to in his response to the events. This, even though some of the participants chose to brandish Israeli flags.

Prime Minister Netanyahu also expressed the abiding importance he attaches to the American political model of democracy. He called America a source of inspiration for Israel, and for him personally throughout his life. “The rampage at the Capitol yesterday was a disgraceful act,” which must be unequivocally condemned. “No doubt that American democracy will prevail.”

Similar statements condemning the events, asserting the importance of democratic procedures, and warnings against polarization and radicalization were advanced by other Israeli leaders, including alternate prime minister Benny Gantz, and leader of the “New Hope” party Gideon Saar (one of Netanyahu’s challengers). Even if this was not explicitly said, these messages should be read as an effort to distance Israel from the Trump “camp” – as distinct from the Republican Party, some of whose leaders have firmly condemned what happened – and from conduct that contradicted the basic values common to both countries.

Gratitude is indeed a noble and important sentiment. Trump deserves Israel’s gratitude for several significant and courageous actions he took during his presidency (and which proved the pundits wrong). But in this case, the call of gratitude took second place to several moral and practical considerations, which obliged Israel to clarify where it stands. Down the road, more effort will be required to make clear Israel’s reliance on the resilience of American democracy, and to once again anchor the “special relationship” between the two counties in a firm foundation of bipartisan values.

Basic Outlines for Israeli Policy, Given US Domestic Dynamics   

There are moral and principled reasons for a clear, unambiguous Israeli message of commitment to bipartisanship. Chief among them is the realization – which in some ways goes back to David Ben-Gurion’s days in New York during World War I – that the democratic affinity is an aspect of identity central to the Zionist project, and to Israel’s special relationship with the United States. This is even more important in the face of dangerous US ideological tendencies which mix in elements of racial hatred and anti-Semitism. These hatreds come from both the far right (the so called “Proud Boys” and others who took part in the assault on the Capitol) and from hostile elements of the radical left (who deny the very legitimacy of Israel and the Jewish People’s right to self-determination).

Moreover, at the strategic level Israel’s national interests and national security are bound up today, and well into the distant future, with the future of the US and the stability of its governmental institutions. For now, this stability has withstood the recent severe testing. As already indicated, meaningful voices from within the GOP were of assistance in containing the crisis and bringing about affirmation of the Electoral College vote. Even President Trump felt obliged to denounce the assault, distance himself from its perpetrators, and commit to an orderly transfer of power.

It is thus altogether fitting and proper for the Government of Israel, as well for the main contending parties in the Israeli elections and for major players shaping public opinion, to avoid being dragged into a polarized US discourse.

Israel should stand firm and improve ties with the mainstream of both American parties, against the forces of the hard left (who also have crossed the line into violence in their protest marches) and against forces of the far right (who tend towards conspiracy theories, some of them clearly tinged with distinctly anti-Semitic themes).

At the operational level, Israel must implement a coherent and consistent policy which includes messages from the highest political level as well as in the daily activities of the Israeli embassy in Washington and Israeli consulates at the federal and local levels. The same messages should be advanced in intensive dialogue with the main American Jewish organizations. Israel’s priority must be strengthening the strong bipartisan base of support for Israel in the US, even if this implies a degree of distance from a president who has been a loyal friend and supporter of Israel.

There are several practical reasons for this policy approach, including:

  1. Israel’s close relationship with organized American Jewry (who almost universally expressed shocked at recent events and the president’s conduct). Even Israel’s most committed supporters among American Jewish leaders watched with growing unease the unquestioning support on the part of many Israelis for Trump and his ways, even if they understood what gave rise to such sentiments. It is important that Israel reestablish intense channels of dialogue with American Jewry at the highest levels; listen attentively to their perspectives and needs; and try to respond to their expectations from the Government of Israel, even in the midst of (another) Israeli election cycle.
  2. The need to once again re-ground US-Israel special relations in firm bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. Congress is charged with setting the levels of annual Foreign Military Financing (FMF) budgets. The immediate goal should be to enhance ties to the Democratic mainstream, which Biden and Kamala Harris belong to, and isolate the influence of radical elements from the “progressive” left-wing of the party (the “Squad,” as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley have come to be known, and others). The latter have taken a distinctly anti-Israel stance, and it is not in Israel’s interest to tar the entire Democratic Party with the same brush. All this can be done, without turning Israel’s back on Republican friends in Congress.
  • The important role of personal connections With Chuck Schumer as majority leader in the (hung) Senate, and with Republican senators like Mitch McConnel and Lindsey Graham (who broke with Trump over the Capitol assault), Israel will be well placed to strengthen relations to key figures on both sides of the aisle. The same is true in the House of Representatives. Obviously, this will require some effort on Israel’s part to combat the impression of being too identified with the outgoing president.
  • The equally significant aspiration to bolster Israel’s already strong partnership with the US defense and intelligence communities. By and large, these establishments have registered their dismay over the president’s post-election conduct as a breach of the Constitution they were sworn to defend. The very fact that ten former secretaries of defense, among them two who served under Trump (Jim Mattis and Mark Esper) and others identified as hardline Republicans (like Donald Rumsfeld), saw fit to publish a warning against bringing the military into politics – is indicative of the central role that the defense establishment plays in public discourse today.

Above all, direct Israeli channels of communication with the Biden administration should be opened immediately. Most of the key administration officials in foreign affairs and defense positions clearly assert the primacy of American commitment to Israel, and not only because many of them are Jewish.

This is also likely to be the case with the nominated Secretary of Defense, General (res.) Lloyd Austin (the first ever African-American in that position), if indeed he passes the hurdle of Congressional approval (and overcomes the mandatory seven-year cooling-off period requirement for former officers). As former commander of CENTCOM (to whose “Area of Responsibility” Israel very recently has been assigned, in one of the last acts of the Trump Administration) he would be attentive to the perspective on regional affairs shared by Israel and her new partners in the Arabian Gulf. This is extremely relevant given the gravity of what is at stake for Israel relating to the Iranian nuclear project, the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean; and in the Palestinian arena.

Precisely because of the potential for US-Israel disagreements on highly sensitive issues, it is important to make US-Israel interactions as obstacle-free as possible. Israel should tap into three avenues of influence to assist in mitigating conflicts of interests. These are the organized Jewish community, the professional defense establishment, and mainstream elements of both parties in Congress.

Israel should signal to Democrats, in the administration and in Congress, that it will be willing to take an initiative towards progress on the Palestinian question. This should be based upon key aspects of the January 2020 “Peace to Prosperity” plan, without rigid adherence to all its components.

On the Iranian question Israel’s message should be much tougher, opposing any premature gestures and concessions to the regime in Tehran, and emphasizing the existential nature of what is at stake for Israel. However, this does not rule out discussions regarding what Biden has called a “longer and stronger” agreement than the 2015 JCPOA.

Close coordination with the Gulf states as well as with Egypt (and Jordan) on this central issue, as well as on the questions of policy towards Turkey and the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean, will add weight to Israeli messaging. It should be assumed that the incoming president, like his predecessor, will seek to reduce US commitments in the region. Therefore, it is important that Biden develop an early appreciation that today Israel is a much more significant strategic player in the region than it had been during his years in the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee or even as President Obama’s vice president.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.