Jonathan S. Tobin
For years, we’ve been told that support for Israel is being undermined by two factors. On the one hand, many Americans view the policies of the government led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with regard to the Palestinians and peace with dismay. On the other, Netanyahu’s reliance on Republicans and his close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump also alienates Democrats, especially American Jews who view the GOP and its leader as evil incarnate.
But in one month when Israelis go to the polls to elect a new Knesset, that might all change. Netanyahu and his Likud Party are currently trailing in the polls behind the new Blue and White Party, which is led by a trio of former chiefs of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. That could mean that sometime this spring, Israel will have a new prime minister in the person of former general Benny Gantz, who might be able to repair all the damage that Netanyahu has supposedly done by re-establishing good relations with Democrats and liberal American Jews, and perhaps even restarting the peace process with the Palestinians.
Those who are hoping for such an outcome shouldn’t hold their collective breath. Despite the good poll numbers, Gantz might not emerge triumphant from the elections. Even if he does win, his policies aren’t likely to differ much from those of Netanyahu. Even more importantly, as American Jews have just learned after the Democrats’ disgraceful handling of Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar’s anti-Semitism, no matter who is leading Israel in the future, the Jewish state is going to be just as reliant on Republicans as Netanyahu has been.
The first thing to understand is that despite Blue and White holding a lead that ranges from two to seven seats in the polls, it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, for Gantz to form a coalition. Although Likud trails Blue and White, the parties that comprise the current coalition are still predicted to hold a majority in the next Knesset, albeit a slender one. The math is such that the centrist Blue and White and its potential left-wing partners seem incapable of getting close to the magic number of 61.
That means Netanyahu could wind up winning the election, even if his party finishes a distant second to Gantz. Another, perhaps even more likely scenario, would involve a coalition between Blue and White and Likud, either with or without Netanyahu, since the two largest parties may be unable to govern without each other.
Given the enmity between Netanyahu and his rivals, that result seems unthinkable. But it is possible because although the Likud calls Gantz a leftist, the differences between the policies of the current government and those of Blue and White are minimal. Gantz’s proposed formula for peace negotiations, in which Israel retains security control over the Jordan Valley while retaining the settlement blocs and an undivided Jerusalem, are just as unacceptable to the Palestinians as those of Netanyahu or Trump.
Yet even if we assume that Gantz will lead the next government, that still leaves us with the question of which American politicians Israel will be able to trust.
While liberal critics of Israel would cheer Netanyahu’s defeat, the liberal Zionists of J Street and its supporters will be just as dissatisfied with a government led by Gantz as they are with the Likud. The same is true for those like former President Barack Obama and other Democrats who think Israel must be saved from itself. Doubtless, the atmospherics between a Gantz government and American liberals would be less confrontational. But conflict between a Blue and White-led government and American liberals who still blame Israel for the continuation of the conflict—as opposed to the Palestinians and their leaders, who remain intractably against negotiations at this time—is not only likely, but inevitable.
It’s true that the leadership of the Democratic Party in Congress is still very much pro-Israel, and they will welcome the opportunity to embrace an Israeli prime minister not as closely identified with the GOP and Trump as Netanyahu.
But as we have just seen, people like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer don’t speak for all Democrats. More to the point, as the Omar debacle illustrated, they may no longer speak for the majority of their party activists and officeholders. Radicals like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her anti-Zionist allies seem to speak for the Democratic grassroots, not Pelosi or Schumer.
As I’ve previously noted, the willingness of so many Democrats to excuse and even defend Omar’s anti-Semitism and her smears of supporters of Israel is deeply troubling. But of even greater concern is the fact that supporters of intersectional ideology, which demonizes Israel, are now effectively calling the shots for Democrats, and able to intimidate both the party leaders and their leading presidential candidates.
That people like Pelosi are so eager to embrace members of Congress who are—as is the case with Omar and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib—supporters of an anti-Semitic BDS movement dedicated to Israel’s destruction makes it harder to take their protestations of continued backing for the U.S.-Israel alliance. Democratic leaders not only must take the views of Israel’s critics into account, they clearly fear them. It’s no longer sufficient to say that the Democrats are divided on Israel. When push comes to shove, it is the left that sets the agenda.
That’s why even a potential Prime Minister Benny Gantz is bound to view Republicans and the Trump administration as his only trustworthy partners. That might not correlate into the lovefest that exists between Trump and Netanyahu. But it will be just as unacceptable to the liberal Democrats who stood up for Omar.
All of which means that no matter who leads the next Israeli government, the elected candidate will enter office just as dependent on Trump and the Republicans as Netanyahu has been—and just as likely to be vilified by the American left.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.