“The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit,” said a senior Obama administration official to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic.
The barnyard reference to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is symptomatic of the crisis in U.S.-Israel relations. The oft-cited “unbreakable” bond between the two countries still stands, but relations are the worst they have ever been — and may get worse after next week’s midterm elections.
The administration’s attempt to broker a deal over Iran’s nuclear program angers the Israelis, and the Netanyahu government’s expansion of Jewish settlements on Arab land on the West Bank, particularly in and around Jerusalem, exasperates American officials. A showdown over Iran is likely, with Netanyahu ready to ignore the Obama administration and appeal directly to Congress and the American public if a deal is reached. Worse yet will be the outcome of a likely attempt by the Palestinian Authority to seek full recognition for Palestine at the United Nations. The United States probably would use its veto power to prevent recognition, but Goldberg says, “It might do so by helping to craft a stridently anti-settlement resolution in its place. Such a resolution would isolate Israel from the international community.”
All this leaves American Jews who subscribe to a liberal Zionism — and a two-state solution to the Mideast crisis — in a tricky and uncomfortable place. Liberal Zionists have been in retreat for decades now, under attack from a succession of right-wing governments in Israel and by the more strident leaders of the American Jewish establishment, accused of being anti-Zionist if not anti-Semitic.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Criticizing Israel for its settlement policies (and for some of its conduct in the recent Gaza war) is not tantamount to anti-Zionism nor to anti-Semitism (though many such critics, particularly in Europe, are anti-Semites). There is nothing inherently contradictory in believing in the moral necessity of a national Jewish home following the extermination of European Jewry and criticizing the fruit of that moral necessity, including the dispossession of the Palestinians during the creation of the Jewish state.
The current unease of liberal American Zionists stems in part from the rightward drift of the Netanyahu government and its unwillingness to take bold steps to achieve peace with the Palestinians. But part of the discomfort also derives from changes in the Zionist movement.
Many of the original late 19th-century Zionists believed in a secular, socialist vision for a Jewish homeland. This vision — expressed in the kibbutz movement — dominated the political and economic life of what was known as the Yishuv, Jewish settlements in the British Mandate in Palestine. It continued as the ideology of the political establishment of independent Israel until the 1977 election of Menachem Begin as prime minister from the rightist Likud.
Zionism changed after the astounding Israeli military success in the 1967 Six-Day War. The secular, socialist dream of the early 19th-century kibbutzniks gave way to a religious, nationalist Zionism dedicated to keeping all of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). It morphed into a Zionism that leaves no room for a Palestinian Arab state. The increasing dominance of rightwing and religious Zionism in Israeli politics freezes out the more traditional secular Zionism, a trend testified to in Ari Shavit’s stunning book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.
American Jewry mirrors Israeli developments. As Peter Beinart showed in an essay in The New York Review of Books in 2010, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establisment,” the leaders of organized American Jewry have adopted hard-line, Likud-friendly positions which have little appeal to younger, secular American Jews who are liberal on domestic issues and who on Israel — to the extent they think about Israel at all — tend to favor a two-state solution.
The older, more establishment-oriented American Jewish leaders are in rapture over Bibi, flocking to hear him speak whenever he visits the United States. At the same time, Orthodox American Jews — including the young Orthodox — have gravitated toward religious Zionism and a pro-Likud pose. As Beinart writes, “If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated, Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who range from apathetic to appalled.”
As for those secular American Jews, they tend to support groups like J Street, the self-described “political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,“ and they believe that maintaining Israel’s Jewish and democratic character depends on a two-state solution. Unfortunately that conviction — the essence of liberal Zionism — is not widely held these days in the Israel of Bibi Netanyahu, a man of limited vision who seemingly wants only to please his most right-wing constituents, or in much of the American Jewish community, which mistakenly believes a criticism of Netanyahu is a criticism of Israel, Jews, or Zionism.
Liberal Zionists may not have much influence in Israel, but they still may be able to affect American policy by convincing the Obama administration that it has support within the Jewish community for its pursuit of a two-state policy. It would gall the Netanyahu government, but there are signs that the administration is prepared to unveil its plan for a two-state solution, including maps that would draw Israel’s borders based on the 1967 lines.
Supporting such an American policy would go a long way to insuring the success of the original Zionist dream — the creation of a stable and democratic Jewish homeland at peace with its neighbors.