A front-page two-column lead in the New York Times yesterday announced “Trump and Netanyahu put Bipartisan Support [for Israel] at Risk.” Donald Trump has demanded, and Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed (with only a very partial takeback), to bar two American congresswomen from visiting the West Bank territories occupied by Israel. This maneuver not only displays a disregard for basic liberal values of free expression and tolerance of dissent; it crosses an unprecedented line in its utilization of foreign relations by an American president for domestic political purposes. Even Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, initially opined that the two Congresswomen should be permitted entry. But McCarthy evidently relented in the face of Trump’s clear determination to turn support for Israel into a partisan issue, painting the Democrats as weak on Israel, if not anti-semitic.
The most common criticism of the Trump-Netanyahu maneuver reflects the Times headline: it imperils American bipartisan support for Israel. The Israel lobby in this country has long prided itself at fostering practically unanimous, uncritical support for Israel in both political parties. But a tightening of the effective alliance between Bibi’s Likud and the GOP could lead to second thoughts by Democrats. As one Democratic supporter of Israel warned, “In our hyperpartisan world, the friend of my enemy is my enemy, and to the extent that Democrats look at Trump as the enemy, if they see Israel or the Netanyahu administration as operating hand in glove [with Trump], that gives them real pause.” Even AIPAC, the Israel lobby’s spearhead organization known for supporting the Israeli government roughly 99.96% of the time, publicly opposed Netanyahu’s move.
The bipartisan pro-Israel consensus was shaken a bit back in 2015 when Bibi accepted an invitation to appear before a joint session of Congress in order to diss Obama and his Iran nuclear deal. Dozens of Democrats boycotted the speech, which Nancy Pelosi called an insult. The 2018 election of two Muslim congresswomen who have understandably harsh views of Israel introduced new discordant notes in the pro-Israel Congressional chorus. Public opinion polls have found young Democrats showing decreasing enthusiasm for Israel and increasing sympathy for the Palestinians. And, as I have noted, some Democratic presidential hopefuls for the first time have taken to expressing meaningful criticism of Israel.
The latest Donald/Bibi stunt could indeed further imperil the massive bi-partisan pro-Israel consensus. Would that be a bad thing? Bipartisan support for Israel has ensured that Israel could continue its de facto annexation of the West Bank, unbothered by any effective opposing pressure from its superpower ally and patron. Most Democrats and certainly many Republicans would claim to favor a two-state solution to the historic Israel/Palestine conflict. Even many fervently pro-Israel Democrats will claim to oppose Israel’s colonization of its conquered territories, which is rendering the two-state solution unviable. But no one is willing to do anything to try to make Israel stop. Practically no one calls for making the massive amounts of American aid to Israel contingent on an end to settlement expansion. (Notable exception: Bernie Sanders.) Unconditional support for Israel is simply not an issue in American politics.
So, if Trump succeeds in damaging the pro-Israel bi-partisan consensus, we should count that as a good thing. Of course, we should be happier still if support for Israel came into question in both political parties—if Republicans as well as Democrats started scrutinizing Israeli behavior critically. But that is not going to happen. If disagreement can come only along partisan lines, it’s better than no disagreement at all.