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the pulpitU.S.-Israel Relations

Quo vadis, bipartisan support for Israel?

Stopping the erosion of—and reinforcing—bipartisan support requires addressing U.S. concerns in general as well as the changing US society, culture and order of priorities.

The flags of Israel and the United States wave above a camp for U.S. service members supporting exercise Juniper Cobra at an Israeli Defense Forces site on Feb. 23, 2018. Credit: Sgt. Matthew Plew/U.S. Air Force.
The flags of Israel and the United States wave above a camp for U.S. service members supporting exercise Juniper Cobra at an Israeli Defense Forces site on Feb. 23, 2018. Credit: Sgt. Matthew Plew/U.S. Air Force.
Yoram Ettinger
Yoram Ettinger

According to the March 2020 annual Gallup poll of country favorability, Israel enjoys 74 percent favorability in the United States (90 percent among Republicans and 67 percent among Democrats), compared to 23 percent for the Palestinian Authority (9 percent of Republicans and 34 percent of Democrats).

However, while Israel enjoys bipartisan support among most U.S. voters and, therefore, among members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate at the dawn of the Biden administration, one must not ignore the gradual—and recently accelerated—erosion of this support.

Conventional wisdom suggests that Israel’s national security policy, and especially its confrontational opposition to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is responsible for the erosion.

However, while U.S.-Israel relations have been strained by a number of raucous confrontations between U.S. and Israeli leaders—some of them harsher than the Obama-Netanyahu “Iran showdown”—this has never fractured bipartisan support of Israel.

For example, in 1948-49, during and following Israel’s War of Independence against a military invasion by five Arab countries, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion confronted most brutal pressure from the White House, State Department, Pentagon and CIA to refrain from the application of Israel’s law to “occupied” western Jerusalem and parts of the Galilee, the coastal plain and the Negev. The U.S. administration claimed that Israel’s “intransigence” would severely undermine U.S.-Arab relations, threaten the supply of Arab oil, serve Soviet interests and further destabilize the Middle East (all of which were resoundingly repudiated by reality).

Yet, in defiance of the Truman administration, Ben-Gurion expanded the area of the Jewish state by 35 percent. He was aware of bipartisan support for the renewed Jewish Commonwealth in the Land of Israel, which reflected the worldview of U.S. voters and their representatives on Capitol Hill. This worldview was consistent with the legacy of the Early Pilgrims and the Founding Fathers—the framers of the Federalist Papers, the Federalist system, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights—and the abolitionist movement, all inspired by the biblical Exodus and Mosaic values.

For example, in 1891, more than 400 prominent Americans, including House and Senate leaders, the chief justice and other Supreme Court justices, as well as governors, mayors and leading businessmen, signed the Blackstone Memorial, which called for the restoration of the Jewish state in the Jewish homeland.

Also, in 1922, the Henry Cabot Lodge (Senate) and Hamilton Fish (House) bicameral and bipartisan Joint Resolution was unanimously approved and signed by President Harding—despite the harsh opposition by the State Department and The New York Times—endorsing the reestablishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.

Furthermore, 1981 featured the major rift between President Reagan and Prime Minister Begin over the Israeli destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor, the application of Israeli law to the Golan Heights and Israel’s war on PLO terror headquarters in Lebanon. These confrontations triggered a suspension of the delivery of F-16 aircraft to Israel and the suspension of a major US-Israel strategic pact and arms deals.

Yet, bipartisan support persisted and the mutually beneficial defense relations were renewed, reflecting U.S. awareness of the historical and cultural common denominator between itself and the Jewish State, which has emerged—since 1967—as America’s most effective, reliable and democratic force multiplier.

Then, between 1989 and 1992 there was the ruthless campaign conducted by President Bush and Secretary of State Baker to discredit Prime Minister Shamir, who was more hawkish and steadfast than Netanyahu. However, U.S. national security and technological challenges in the increasingly stormy world and Middle East—against the backdrop of a vacillating Europe and vulnerable pro-U.S. Arab regimes—highlighted Israel’s unique military and technological capabilities and its contribution to America’s national security and economy.  This reality overshadowed the bitter Bush-Shamir friction, generating bipartisan congressional initiatives that uniquely expanded U.S.-Israel defense and commercial cooperation.

Bipartisan support threatened  

As indicated, bipartisan support for Israel has been a derivative of U.S. history, values and civic experience, which are shared and cherished by most Americans (Democrats and Republicans alike), dating back to the Mayflower’s 1620 “parting of the sea,” followed by the legacy of the Founding Fathers. The latter catapulted the United States to the leadership of the Free World, economically, educationally, scientifically, technologically, agriculturally, militarily and democratically—a global role model of liberty.

The stronger the affinity of the American people to the legacy of the Founding Fathers, the more enduring is their identification with—and support of—the Jewish state.

This bipartisan support of Israel was buttressed following the Holocaust, and gained further momentum with the emergence of Israel as the “largest US aircraft carrier.”

However, the time factor (245 years since the American Revolutionary War) has scaled down the overall attachment to the legacy of the Founding Fathers. This trend has been intensified by the dramatic demographic and ideological changes of the last few decades, which have been accompanied by bitter and growing political and social polarization. The latter has also infected bipartisan support for Israel.

These developments have provided a tailwind to those who have attempted to belittle, and even discredit, the legacy of the Founding Fathers, as well as the special U.S.-Israel ties.

The more tenuous the connection of Americans to U.S. history in general and the legacy of the Founding Fathers in particular, the more uncertain their historical and geostrategic support of the Jewish state.

Moreover, the diminished stature of the legacy of the Founding Fathers has eroded the common denominator between Democrats and Republicans, thus eroding bipartisan collaboration in general and bipartisan support of Israel in particular.

Stopping the erosion of—and reinforcing—bipartisan support requires addressing U.S. concerns in general as well as the changing US society, culture and order of priorities.

Thus, Israel and Israel’s friends in the United States should shift the focus from “What’s in it for Israel” to “What’s in it for the United States”—from Israeli to American concerns.

Notwithstanding the progressive erosion of bipartisan support of Israel, support for Israel still epitomizes the majority of the U.S. constituency and members of the House and the Senate, who are aware of the shared values, history, threats and challenges that bind the United States and its unabashed, unconditional, effective, reliable and democratic ally Israel.

Just like the giant Sequoia tree, bipartisan support for Israel is 400 years old, has deep roots, a strong trunk and a fire-resistant bark, which have made it possible to grow to an impressive height while fending off a multitude of assaults, including the most recent erosion.

Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: A U.S.-Israel Initiative.

This article was first published by The Ettinger Report.

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