Why Liberals Are Falling out of Love With Israel

Right after it happened, Israel's ambassador to the U.S. described Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's "insult" to Vice President Joe Biden as the worst crisis between the two countries in three decades. A week later, the blowup had largely blown over. Both sides realized what they usually do when irritated with each other, which is that it serves the interests of neither to quarrel publicly. Netanyahu, who is no fool, would be a big one if he antagonized his country's most powerful ally, especially while trying to raise a posse to hunt down Iran's nuclear program. President Obama, who was already unpopular in Israel, needs Jewish support to win reelection. All parties indicated regret for expressing their true feelings.

But even as it fades, the Incident of the Mistimed Zoning Announcement points to an ongoing shift with large political implications in both countries. Simply stated, the instinctive solidarity that American liberals, many of them Jews, have long felt with Israel is on the decline. The frustration vented by various members of the Obama administration over Netanyahu's belligerence is an illustration of this fissure, not the cause of it. The more everyone says that nothing's changed in the relationship, the more you know it has.

Various polls reflect the disenchantment. The Israeli journalist Shmuel Rosner pays a lot of attention to the rapidly rising partisan gap in American support for Israel. He notes that according to Gallup, 80 percent of Re-publicans—the party of both millenarian Christians, who want the Holy Land in Jewish hands for Jesus' Second Coming, and of neocons, who want a preemptive strike against Iran—express favorable views of Israel. This compares with only 53 percent of Democrats. Two years ago, the gap between the parties was significantly smaller. One recent study found that only 54 percent of non-Orthodox Jews under 35 are "comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state" (as compared with more than 80 percent of those over 65). If you want examples of the shift in sentiment, read just about any Jewish columnist for a major newspaper. Thomas Friedman of The New York Times spent last week arguing that Biden underreacted to Israel's announcement about the new housing units in East Jerusalem, comparing Israel's policies to drunken driving. Richard Cohen of The Washington Post is writing a book that argues that the founding of Israel was a well-intentioned mistake.

One might well fill a book with the possible explanations for rising liberal—and, in particular, Jewish liberal—qualms about Israel. But it has to start with Israel's occupation of Arab lands and its settlements policy. Israel never meant to take over the West Bank and Gaza—it got stuck with them after the 1967 war. But decades of harsh occupation have made dispossessed Palestinians, the majority of whom have long favored a two-state solution, the sympathetic victims in the conflict. Revisionist Zionism—the biblically based claim that Israel has a right to the territories—has wrought tremendous damage to Israel's moral standing. Encouraging religious and political extremists to settle in those territories set a wedge between Israel and its liberal supporters, who see annexation as both impractical and immoral.

But if the stupidity of the settlements is obvious to most American Jews, it is not to the majority of Israelis, who have chosen a prime minister who represents the rejection of a two-state solution. At the same time, American liberals have recoiled from the pattern of miscalculation and inhumanity—there is no other word for it—in Israel's attempts to protect it-self from Hizbullah and Hamas. Whether or not one accepts the judgment of the Goldstone Report, which concluded that Israel's bombing and reinvasion of Gaza involved war crimes, there is a persuasive case that Israel's actions were at least wildly disproportionate and counterproductive.

Barring a breakthrough in the peace process or a change in the Israeli government, I'd predict the drift to continue to continue, with Likud-Republican-religious-AIPAC supporters settling into one camp and Kadima–Democratic–secular–J Street supporters in another. It's hard to see this as good news for either Israel or Democrats. American liberals are an external part of Israel's conscience, and when it disdains them, it becomes a harder and more isolated place. The fracturing of Jewish support doesn't bode well for Democrats, either. Obama won nearly 80 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. I doubt he will get as much of it in 2012.

Jacob Weisberg is chairman of the Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy and In an Uncertain World: Tough Choices from Wall Street to Washington.

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