Much to the consternation of Western liberals, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take the first crack at assembling a new government. Their concern is both misplaced and mistaken. Misplaced, because the odds are slim that Netanyahu will be able to form a government. And mistaken, because their hope that a victory for Benny Gantz would help undo the damage done to Israel’s image among Democrats is wishful thinking.
While Gantz’s Blue-White party edged out Netanyahu’s Likud party, winning 33 seats in the next Knesset as compared with Likud’s 32, because Netanyahu’s bid to form a government has been supported by a larger number of Knesset Members (55 to Gantz’s 54), he was the one tapped to cobble together a governing coalition of 61 Members.
The dysfunctional drama that defines Israeli politics will now be on clear display. As I noted last week, the only way for any government of 61 Knesset Members to be formed will require that either party leaders betray their promises to their voters, or that individual newly elected Members betray their pledges to their leaders. What might also change the calculus of government formation is if Netanyahu is indicted for corruption and his “faithful” break ranks and either join the opposition or elect a new leader to replace Netanyahu. Even then, they will face the wrath of some voters if in the process of doing so they betray their pledge to remain united with their religious party coalition partners.
If one or another of these betrayals do not occur within a few months, Israel will be headed to yet another election – the third in a year!
However, no matter the outcome, whether new elections or a government of betrayal, what’s clear from this election is that Israel has moved so far to the right, no one should expect any significant change in Israeli policy toward the occupation or Palestinian human rights. And because it is precisely Israeli policy that is the determinant factor behind the US’ deep partisan divide toward Israel, that will not change either.
This being the case, when the New York Times editorializes, as they did below, it’s more liberal wishful thinking than fact-based analysis:
“At the same time, elements of the Democratic party have grown increasingly suspicious of Israel, if not hostile to it. Mr. Netanyahu’s exit, should it materialize, may halt this dangerous shift and provide a new Israeli government the opportunity to reclaim broad bipartisan support in the United States.”
Much the same came from a US-based Democratic pollster who worked for Blue and White when he breathlessly proclaimed that the post-Netanyahu period would be “a tremendous opportunity for Israel to reset its relationship with Democrats.”
Before I allow my liberal friends to indulge themselves in more fantasy, it’s important for them to consider two critical facts:
First, all of the prospective contenders to the post of Prime Minister share similar approaches to the occupied territories. All will: continue settlement expansion; insist on maintaining control over the Jordan Valley and extending Israeli sovereignty to this area and many of “settlement blocs”; maintain the annexation of what Israeli’s refer to as “East Jerusalem”; and keep the strangulation hold over Gaza. In fact, some of the positions of Benny Gantz, “the liberals’ hope,” are harsher than those of Netanyahu.
Second, while the Democratic Party’s establishment, including the majority of its Congressional delegation, will be inclined to welcome the downfall of Netanyahu for several reasons, the views of the Democrat’s voter base are not so wobbly as that of their leaders. “Liberal” Members remain upset at Netanyahu’s: opposition to Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran; his illiberal alliance with Israel’s ultra-religious parties whose policies run counter to the more secular views of Reform and non-religious American Jews; and his virtual “marriage” with Donald Trump.
While these matters have contributed to the US partisan divide, the major factors driving Democratic voters attitudes toward Israel have more to do with the very policies that all major parties in Israel will continue to pursue – the very policies that the Democratic establishment appears loathe to condemn (recall that in 2016, the party establishment would not allow mention of “occupation” or “settlements” in the party platform).
In polling we conducted before Trump was even elected, we found among all voters a noticeable downward slide as we measured support for Israel (61%), support of Netanyahu (38%), and support for Israeli settlements (25%). In each instance, there was a partisan divide – with Democrats less supportive of Israel, Netanyahu, and Israeli policies (in that descending order) than Republicans.
Furthermore, it is important to note is that driving the divide is not so much party loyalty as it is demographics. For example, two of the major component demographic groups making up the Democratic base are younger voters and “people of color.” For Republicans, it’s white “born-again Christians.”
A recent poll conducted by YouGov Blue for Data for Progress brings home this point. When voters were asked “Do you support or oppose the US government reducing foreign and military aid to Israel based on human rights violations?” overall 45% supported reducing aid to Israel while 34% were opposed. The partisan split was dramatic – with Democrats favoring cutting aid by a 64% to 11% margin, and for Republicans it was 19% supportive of cutting aid and 64% opposed. Among white voters, it was 43% – 40%, while among non-white voters it was 50%-17%. Only 21% of “born-again” voters supported cutting aid, but 53% of voters not describing themselves as “born-again” favored aid cuts. A similar break out was recorded when the attitudes of younger and older voters were compared.
The bottom line here is that while the attitudes of liberal media and political establishments toward Israel may be shaped by their animus toward the person of Benjamin Netanyahu, it is the policies pursued by the Israeli government that is driving voter attitudes. So, unless a new Israeli government ends its abusive behavior toward Palestinians and their rights, the partisan split will continue. The result may be a growing divide not only between large segments of American society and Israel, but also between the base of the Democratic Party’s voters and their leaders. This is why a number of leading contenders for Democratic Party’s presidential nomination – Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg – have begun to speak, albeit hesitantly about conditioning aid to Israel on its behavior in the occupied lands.
Back in 1992, the presidential campaign of then-candidate Bill Clinton operated with the mantra “it’s the economy, stupid” – in order to be constantly reminded of the importance of that issue in the election. Borrowing from that, I would offer this mantra to my liberal friends: “It’s Israeli policy (not personalities), stupid.”