Impeachment tribal war dooms Israel bipartisanship

In a political culture in which Democrats and Republicans demonize each other, building a national consensus in favor of the Jewish state becomes difficult.

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts presiding over the impeachment trial of U.S. President Donald Trump. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts presiding over the impeachment trial of U.S. President Donald Trump. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The effort to impeach and remove President Donald Trump from office has produced many losers and few winners. The drama of the trial in the U.S. Senate is must-see TV for political junkies, but it has also been dispiriting viewing for Americans of all political stripes. Few issues have divided the country more starkly than the question of whether or not the president should be removed from office. The arguments from both sides of the spectrum and their lawyers, as well as from the talking heads on television, have not worked to change any minds from their original political positions.

This means that no matter where you stand on impeachment, it’s painfully clear that Americans will emerge from this bruising battle even more at odds with those with whom they disagree, harboring bitter grudges that they may never entirely give up.

Amid the damage coming from all the nasty arguments Trump opponents and Trump supporters have not merely disagreed on, but often delegitimized and demonized each other over, is the entire notion of a bipartisan consensus on behalf of the State of Israel.

Building any consensus that stretches across the vast chasm that separates the two major political parties is a heavy lift, no matter what topic is at issue these days. But it has become increasingly difficult to speak about Israel in a manner that is not affected by opinions about the president and his detractors.

That was particularly obvious this week during the announcement of the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan at the White House, televised while the impeachment trial was being held at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. In a more normal political universe, the unveiling of any such scheme wouldn’t necessarily be considered a partisan event, no matter the identity of the president. And were the plan in question considered to be favorable to the Jewish state—or at least rooted in ideas that were widely held by most Israelis—it should not be difficult to portray that plan or the motives of those promoting it as something that Republicans and Democrats ought to at least treat as a reasonable starting point for future negotiations.

But in an atmosphere in which everything Trump says or does is viewed by his opponents as not merely debatable but more evidence of his personification of evil, there was never a chance that the administration’s proposal was going to get much of hearing from his opponents.

To note this is not to argue that its terms were above reproach, even if they seem far more based in the realities of the conflict then those of his predecessors, which were the product of magical thinking about the willingness of the Palestinians to make peace. But it bears pointing out that it is hard to think of anything that might have been put forward by any previous administration that was supported by both major political blocs in Israel—the Likud-led coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Blue and White Party led by Benny Gantz, the former general that is his rival—that would not be viewed as non-controversial by both major American parties.

Yet despite the endorsement of both leaders, reactions to the Trump plan in the United States broke down on familiar partisan lines—with the GOP cheering the proposal while Democrats uniformly denounced it.

The collapse of bipartisanship goes far deeper than opinion about the Trump peace plan.

We’re now at a point where Trump’s undoubted support for Israel is considered problematic by some backers of the Jewish state because they believe that anything the president likes will be irremediably tainted in the eyes of the half of the country that wants him impeached and removed from office.

Perhaps that makes some sense if you truly believe that Trump isn’t merely unfit for office, but a foe of all that’s good. But if you turn the argument around and ask if someone who was bitterly opposed to a Democratic president like Barack Obama, Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter would be justified in thinking that any stand those men took on any issue—even if it was one that would otherwise be considered unexceptional by their political opponents—would discredit the cause they supported, the illogic of the argument becomes obvious.

More to the point, do pro-Israel Democrats really want Trump not to support the Jewish state?

By the same token, the willingness of many on the right to dismiss every Democrat as an intransigent foe of Israel, even though any are ardent supporters, speaks to the same impulse to paint political enemies with the broadest possible brush in order to discredit them.

The problem here isn’t so much a matter of how polarizing a figure that president is as it is the way that Americans are now divided into warring political tribes incapable of viewing each other as decent people or to credit their opponents with good motives.

There is nothing inherently wrong with partisanship. Democracy is about disagreement, not uniformity of opinion. But if there are to be any issues that ought to be matters of consensus, then we must remember that wide-ranging agreements on basic principles are antithetical to the sort of zero-sum-game thinking that drives contemporary tribal political warfare.

There is little reason to believe that the end of the impeachment battle will impel most of those with strong opinions about the outcome to step back and consider the consequences resulting from the sort of anger Americans are expressing about each other. To the contrary, no matter where this conflict leads, it will probably only reinforce the general sense of outrage that the two sides hold against their opponents.

But those who rightly cherish the idea that support for the rights of the Jewish people to a state is a matter of human decency—and not a Republican or Democratic talking point—need to consider the implications of where the battle over Trump is leading the nation.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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