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Bipartisan Support For Israel Is Dead. That’s A Good Thing

August 19, 2019 | post a comment | Philip Johnson

It’s become a ritual. Every time Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu do something that outrages Democrats, centrist commentators warn that they are committing a grave offense: They’re making Israel a partisan issue.

The accusation has been nearly ubiquitous since the two leaders last week conspired to deny Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar’s request to visit the West Bank.

“Trump and Netanyahu are…eroding the bipartisanship that is so critical to the U.S.-Israel special bond,” former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron Miller told The New York Times last Friday.

That same day, Times columnist Thomas Friedman accused Trump and Netanyahu of “making support for Israel a wedge issue in American politics. Few things are more dangerous to Israel’s long-term interests than its becoming a partisan matter.”

The day before, former Obama administration ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro lamented in The Atlantic that “Trump’s racism and Netanyahu’s dependency have driven a bulldozer through the bipartisan consensus.”

But why, exactly, is “the bipartisan consensus” on Israel a good thing?

Bipartisanship is not a virtue like justice, freedom, or safety. It’s simply agreement between America’s two major political parties.

Sometimes bipartisanship produces disaster: The 1965 Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which empowered Lyndon Johnson to escalate America’s war in Vietnam, passed the House of Representatives 416-0.

By contrast, sometimes only bitter partisan battles deliver necessary change: The Affordable Care Act passed the House 219-212, without a single Republican vote. If the next Democratic president faces the choice between a partisan knife-fight that substantially curbs greenhouse gas emissions and a bipartisan compromise that does not, I hope she chooses the former.

So the test of American policy toward Israel should be not whether it is bipartisan but whether it serves national interests and democratic ideals. The United States has a national interest in ensuring that Israel does not make permanent its brutal occupation of the West Bank and blockade of the Gaza Strip.

America’s military leaders have said so. In 2010, General David Petraeus, who then ran Central Command, which oversees American forces in the Middle East, noted that, “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples [in the region].”

Three years later, his successor in that job, General James Mattis said, “I paid a military security price every day as the commander of CentCom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel.”

Petraeus and Mattis weren’t denying that America benefits from its relationship with Israel. From military cooperation to intelligence sharing, it clearly does. But America doesn’t benefit from Israeli policies like settlement growth, which outrage people across the Middle East and, according to many of Israel’s own former security officials, undermine the security of the Jewish state.

The same Israeli policies that undermine American interests also violate democratic principles. In the West Bank, Israel maintains two legal systems — one for Israeli Jews, who enjoy citizenship, due process, free movement and the right to vote for the government that dominates their lives—and a separate one that denies all these rights to Palestinians. In Gaza, which Israel also controls, it enforces a blockade that is helping make the Strip “unlivable,” according to the UN.

So long as the United States offers the Israeli government unconditional support — protecting it in international forums and giving it billions in no-strings attached military aid — Israeli policy is unlikely to change. A rising Orthodox population is pushing the Jewish state to the right. And any Israeli prime minister who sought to end the occupation would face a career- if not life-threatening revolt by settlers and their allies. Thus, only by making Israel face the international consequences of its actions can the United States hope to change a domestic calculus that encourages Israeli leaders to entrench the status quo.

But such a policy can’t be bipartisan. It can’t be bipartisan because the Republican Party fervently opposes any pressure on Israel. It’s hard to find a national GOP politician who will even acknowledge that denying millions of Palestinians basic rights is a problem.

The only hope lies with Democrats, whose grassroots base has grown more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. The more Democrats inch toward meaningful pressure on Israel, however, the more Republicans will howl and the less bipartisan America’s Israel policy will become.

That’s OK.

It’s OK because a partisan clash in which one side defends human rights is better than a bipartisan consensus in which those rights go wholly ignored. We already know what bipartisanship on Israel looks like in Washington.

It looks like AIPAC. By theoretically supporting a Palestinian state, AIPAC sands off the harder edges of the Republican right. But fundamentally, it brings Democrats and Republicans together to ensure that the United States supports the Israel government no matter what it does.

In Washington today, demanding that Israel policy remain bipartisan means taking the tiny flame of concern for Palestinian rights that exists in the Democratic Party and dousing it with water.

The two parties aren’t diverging on Israel primarily because of tactical blunders by Trump and Bibi. They’re diverging on Israel because they’re diverging on the broader question of multiracial democracy.

Democrats have become more committed to genuine equality for people of color. You can see it in their policies on criminal justice and immigrant rights and their openness to discussing reparations for African Americans.

Republicans, by contrast, have become more committed to preserving the racial, religious and gender hierarchies they associate with a bygone era, when America was supposedly great. That’s why they nominated Trump. These tectonic shifts have deep implications for how the two parties see the Jewish state, where the imperative to preserve an entrenched ethno-religious hierarchy runs up against Palestinian rights.

It’s not hard to figure out how whether the Democratic Party’s principles of equality and anti-bigotry are consistent with giving billions in unconditional aid to a government that subjugates millions of people. What’s hard is defending those principles in the face of ferocious opposition.

When it comes to Israel, Democrats don’t need to more bipartisanship. They need more courage.

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