Chuck Hagel’s nomination hearing today has so far been a goldmine for satirical commentary on the U.S.-Israel relationship and Jewish cuisine, but it was a disaster for most of the pro-Israel community, and for Israel itself—with the exception of the Emergency Committee for Israel and its sister organizations. It is often forgotten in the cacophony that passes for public discourse on Israel these days, but neither pro-Israel groups like AIPAC nor Jerusalem itself want Israel to be the public barometer by which policies and candidates are determined.
This is because, first, they understand that supporters of Israel have a host of other issues they need to deal with that aren’t about Israel; and second, that partisan fighting over Israel is more damaging than helpful.
During my research on the Canadian Jewish community’s advocacy on Israel, I found that community leaders consistently rated Canadian voting on U.N. resolutions high on their lobbying agenda. Yet they also noted that while Israeli officials weren’t happy that Ottawa would sometimes vote for or abstain on anti-Israel resolutions, they understood that Canada’s alignment with Europe and its own domestic politics required it to take a variety of public positions. The real support, they continued, was demonstrated behind the scenes: in working to integrate Israel into international forums, in trade deals, and so on.
All evidence indicates that this applies as well to the organized pro-Israel Jewish community in the United States. The U.S. and Israel are bound together by a wide range of factors, including shared affinities, common strategic goals, intelligence cooperation, public support, and similar conceptualizations of enemies and threats. It is in these areas—continued U.S. military aid to Israel, combatting Iran, ensuring broad bipartisan support for Israel—that Jerusalem and AIPAC and other centrist groups focus their energies, not a few public statements made here and there.
At the same time, public fighting over Israel opens the door to making it a partisan issue. It’s been a staple of the national centrist Jewish organizations’ advocacy work to avoid this outcome since their establishment. And despite all the accusations that Benjamin Netanyahu worked to get Republican Mitt Romney elected, even Bibi recognizes that personal tiffs can’t be allowed to condition the inter-state relationship.
This makes sense. There’s a reason why AIPAC, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and others don’t fight the U.S. government over presidential nominations: one individual does not make or break the U.S.-Israel relationship—not even a president. Both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush fought Israel and AIPAC, won, and went on to work successfully with both in a number of areas. It’s the overall positions of Washington that actually impact the relationship. They also recognize that individuals who take on top decision-making roles come to understand the variety of factors that matter in the relationship, and adapt to them rather than the other way around.
ECI and others have worked against these two basic tenets of pro-Israel advocacy. It’s been their goal to change the public discourse on Israel, shape what it means to be “pro-Israel,” claim representation of the pro-Israel Jewish community, and make Israel as partisan an issue as possible.
When Lindsey Graham demands that Hagel publicly “tell Israel”—not the American people or Congress—that he made a mistake in not pushing for Europe to label Hezbollah a terrorist organization, or Ted Cruz edits a 2009 call Hagel took during an Al-Jazeera show to make him look anti-Israel, the discussion reflects ECI’s own demands.
This undermines support for Israel by making it narrowly based (such that only genuine Republicans and conservatives are true supporters), contingent upon a specific definition of “pro-Israel,” distracting time and energy from real policy issues and the effort to find broad support on them, and focusing attention on process rather than substance.
It’s also a serious misreading of the American polity. If it is true that Republicans are more supportive of Israel than Democrats, but that the electorate is increasingly likely to be Democratic, then ECI’s explicit identification with Republican perceptions and politicians is shrinking the arguments and the supporters to be lined up in favor of pro-Israel policies.
The hearings aren’t going to change most, or any, Democratic and Republican lawmakers’ votes on Hagel. But they do turn what should be a serious conversation about American interests and foreign policy into a circus. And they have multiple implications for Israel itself.
This is short-sighted and reckless, and it undermines decades of American-Jewish policy. Yet there’s no sign ECI or others see any need to reassess; indeed, they are consistently doubling down on their rhetoric and efforts.
In the end, ECI is doing more damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship and to Israel itself than Chuck Hagel’s decision not to sign letters castigating others for anti-Semitism could ever do.