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06.07.10

Why Israel Is Isolated

Netanyahu's response to the Gaza blockade crisis shows just how out of touch he is with America. Peter Beinart on why Israeli leaders—and their U.S. defenders—need to join the age of Obama.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has announced plans to escort two aid ships to Gaza, as four Palestinian militants are killed off the coast by the Israeli navy. Meanwhile, Netanyahu's response to the crisis shows just how out of touch he is with America. Peter Beinart on why Israeli leaders—and their U.S. defenders—need to join the age of Obama.

This week, Elliott Abrams, the former Bush official and noted neoconservative, wrote an essay in the Weekly Standard attacking the Obama administration for not more forcefully defending Israel during the flotilla crisis. Abrams said the White House had joined an anti-Israeli “lynch mob.” Over the course of the article, he used the metaphor six times.

It’s remarkable when you think about it. To Americans with even the slightest degree of racial awareness, “lynch mob” conjures something quite particular: African American men hanging from trees in the post-civil war South. To deploy the metaphor to describe a United Nations resolution that obliquely criticizes Israel is audacious. To deploy it to describe the support for that resolution by America’s first African-American president is downright astonishing. It’s a bit like calling Joe Lieberman’s opposition health-care reform a “pogrom.”

As an Obama official once told me about the Netanyahu team, with amazement, “these guys are actually waiting for President Palin.”

Why does Abrams’ metaphor matter? Because it shows how out of touch the Israeli government’s American defenders are with, well, America. There’s an irony here. The Netanyahu government is filled with Americans. The prime minister himself attended high school in the Philadelphia suburbs. Ron Dermer, one of his closest advisors, was born in Miami Beach. His ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, hails from New Jersey. In addition, prominent Americans like Abrams regularly appear in the U.S. media to echo the Netanyahu line. But paradoxically, this familiarity breeds overconfidence and ignorance. When Netanyahu travels to Washington, he speaks before Jewish audiences that mostly dislike Barack Obama’s Israel policy, even though according to a recent American Jewish Committee survey, American Jews overall support it by a margin of close to two to one. When he’s not speaking to right-wing Jews, he’s speaking to right-wing Christians. And when he’s not speaking to right-wing Christians, he’s speaking to former Bush administration officials who expect to soon be back in their old jobs. As an Obama official once told me about the Netanyahu team, with amazement, “these guys are actually waiting for President Palin.”

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What Netanyahu and his acolytes seem not to understand is this: Although there are lots of Americans who will support Israeli policy no matter what, their side is not likely to wield power anytime soon. The two most important emerging forces in American politics are Hispanics, America’s largest minority group, and millennials, the most diverse generation in American history, and one larger than the baby boomers. Both are growing inexorably as a share of the electorate. Both have tipped decisively towards the Democrats, not just in 2008, but in every election since 2004. And neither is likely to be uncritically pro-Israel. According to a 2006 survey by the Pew Research Center, only one-third of Hispanics, compared to almost half of non-Hispanic whites, say they sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians. Given the disproportionate percentage of Hispanics and African-Americans in the millennial generation, it’s a good bet that younger voters tilt this way too. If the Netanyahu government and its allies have a strategy for talking to these Americans—as opposed to the ones who attend the AIPAC Policy Conference or Christians United for Israel rallies—it has been well-hidden. Comparing the Obama administration to a lynch mob isn’t a very good way to begin.

Once upon a time, all this might not have mattered. In the old days when the Jewish State faced off against leaders like Yasir Arafat and Saddam Hussein, Israel’s foes could be trusted to make it look good by comparison. Today, by contrast, Israel’s most influential critic in the Middle East is Turkey, a democracy and a member of NATO. The Palestinians in the West Bank are led by Salam Fayyad, a proponent of nonviolence, a source of anti-corruption and a devotee of the Texas Longhorns. For too long, Israeli leaders had it easy: unsympathetic enemies in the Middle East and uncritical friends in the United States. The result was hubris, a belief that Israel could do whatever it wanted, and still win the political debate in the United States. That is no longer the case. In Congress, Israel can still do no wrong. But the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue doesn’t hold that view, and he will likely be there for quite some time. Israel’s leaders need to come to grips with how much American politics have changed in the last several years. Obama is the new normal. When they figure that out, perhaps they can tell their friends in the GOP.

Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.