After eight years of barely concealed hostility between the leaders of the United States and Israel, the prospect of a new era of better relations has raised expectations for today’s meeting between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But while Netanyahu is likely to get a warmer welcome at the White House than he ever received from President Barack Obama, not all American Jews are enthusiastic about the anticipated lovefest.
The visit comes at a good time for Netanyahu, who is increasingly under siege at home. Though he need not face the voters again for another year or two, the prime minister is down in the polls to a centrist challenge as well as under serious pressure from his right-wing allies. Just as troubling are a raft of corruption investigations that, although still unproved, are encouraging his foes to start imagining life without him.
So a public embrace from the new president after being treated like a pariah by his predecessor is a welcome distraction for Netanyahu. He’s counting on Trump agreeing with him on the need for a tougher policy on Iran and also has good reason to be confident about the new administration’s stand on the conflict with the Palestinians. But American Jews may not greet a successful meeting with acclamation.
While many in the pro-Israel community were dismayed by Obama’s attitude toward Israel, he rarely faced significant pushback from Jewish supporters for his attacks on Netanyahu or his decision to cut a deal with Iran that legalized their nuclear program. In 2015, when Netanyahu attempted to rally the American Jewish community behind his doomed effort to stop the agreement, he found that Jews were more favorable to Obama’s dubious scheme than other Americans.
Netanyahu’s three consecutive election victories may represent an Israeli consensus about the lack of a peace partner and the collapse of trust in the Palestinians intentions but it is not one shared by the American Jews who agreed with Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s false claims that Israeli is primarily responsible for continuation of the conflict. Outside of the ranks of active pro-Israel groups and Orthodox Jews — who tend to be both more Zionist and more conservative than the non-Orthodox — Obama’s pressure on Israel cost him little Jewish support.
By contrast, Jewish attitudes toward Trump are uniformly negative. Exit polls showed that 71% of Jews backed Hillary Clinton while only 23% supported Trump. But even that result doesn’t completely reflect the growing anti-Trump fervor on the part of Jewish liberals. Since the election, many Jewish groups have embraced the push from the Left to “resist” Trump’s presidency. In particular, the Reform movement — the largest denomination of affiliated American Jews — has not only opposed Trump’s policy initiatives on immigration that run afoul of traditional liberal concerns but has appeared to cross the line into partisanship by opposing the president’s stands across the board. Many liberal Jews are not merely critical of Trump but have actively promoted the notion that he is a threat to their liberties and even given credence to wild analogies of him to Hitler and the Nazis.
That’s why some liberals in Israel and in the U.S. are urging Netanyahu to resist the temptation to get close to the president. They worry that doing so will turn support for Israel into a partisan issue and make it more difficult to rally bipartisan support for the Jewish state in the future when — sooner or later — the Democrats are back in power.
But Netanyahu should ignore that advice.
It’s true that Israel’s government needs to avoid the appearance of taking sides between Republicans and Democrats — an obligation that Netanyahu has not always observed as well as he could have done. But the shift between the two parties when it comes to Israel is not Netanyahu’s fault. Over the course of the last 50 years, Republicans and Democrats have effectively swapped identities on the issue. Whereas the Democrats were once the lockstep pro-Israel party and most Republicans were largely indifferent to it, that is no longer the case. Now, as was illustrated during the vote on the Iran deal and the reaction to Obama’s lame-duck betrayal of Israel at the United Nations, Republicans are uniformly pro-Israel with few if any dissenters, and it is the Democrats who are deeply divided.
As last year’s primary battle illustrated, the Bernie Sanders faction of the Democrats is increasingly hostile to Israel. The fact that the party’s more liberal wing appears ready to back Rep. Keith Ellison — a past supporter of an anti-Semite like Louis Farrakhan as well as someone who has blasted Israel and alleged that its supporters are manipulating U.S. foreign policy — for the post of chair of the Democratic National Committee is further proof that the tide has turned against the Jewish state in the party.
Holding Trump at arm’s length won’t do anything to stop Ellison or answer the leftist slanders of Israel as an apartheid state. Embattled pro-Israel Democrats may be conflicted about applauding anything Trump might do. But it is they who need to separate their partisan disgust for the president on other issues from policies on Israel that ought to command their support. Though he is not a normal president and will probably continue to behave in ways that will shock public sensibilities, Jewish liberals shouldn’t assume that the outrage on the Left about Trump will determine the outcome of the 2018 or 2020 elections.
For eight years, Netanyahu had to contend with an American president who thought Israel needed to be saved from itself and the will of its electorate. While he must be careful to maintain good relations with those Democrats who remain part of a bipartisan pro-Israel consensus, it is neither fair nor realistic to expect him to spurn one who, despite his other shortcomings, appears to respect Israeli democracy and oppose efforts to compromise its security.
Jonathan S. Tobin is a veteran award-winning journalist. Twitter @jonathans_tobin.