Revolutionizing Israel Advocacy
By Jeff Ballabon & Bruce Abramson
The final year of the Obama presidency has not begun well for Israel. Arab assassins earn greater international sympathy than their Jewish victims. Iran gleefully violates even the modest obligations that Secretary Kerry negotiated, and receives $100 billion or so to fund terrorism. The BDS movement scores labeling victories in the EU, and the Obama administration reinforces them. The UN Secretary General unleashes slanderous anti-Israel bile on a receptive global public.
Meanwhile, with America’s focus on the election, the country’s leading pro-Israel activists again boast of unshakable bipartisan support in Congress. Never mind that a sizable majority of Israel’s Democratic “friends” just agreed to fund Iran’s ability to exterminate the Jewish State. The pro-Israel establishment insists that its hard work keeps the “pro-Israel” position a rare point of consensus in a partisan town.
Decades of polling tell a different story. The difference between Democratic and Republican views of Israel is stark, longstanding, and growing. Almost 85% of Republicans express consistent warm support for Israel. Democrats’ more tepid pro-Israel sentiment routinely polls below 50%–and even that support skews toward the older generations. Young Democrats overwhelmingly take pride in their anti-Israel politics, exacerbating the dire situation on college campuses. Astoundingly, many American Jews who know from personal experience that full-throated support for Israel has become contentious accept the absurd fiction that Israel’s position in Washington remains secure no matter who is in charge. Even skeptics of the “bipartisan consensus” silliness have been persuaded that vast millions should be squandered on supporting Israel’s enemies’ campaigns because they might gain power (thus actually helping Israel’s enemies gain power), as though, despite all evidence to the contrary, such contributions somehow make them Israel’s friends rather than reward bad behavior.
This denial of the obvious has been killing Israel slowly. Israel’s alleged supporters in Washington claim exemption from the most basic rule of politics: While it is nice to have friends on both sides of the aisle, control of Congress and the White House is critical. Planned Parenthood, the NRA, the Sierra Club, and the Chamber of Commerce all know it. Each of these groups champions an agenda, fights for its beliefs, rewards proven friends, and punishes enemies.
America’s “pro-Israel” establishment stands apart; its neurotic need to claim as many “friends” and as few “enemies” as possible earns public lip service but private contempt. As last year’s vote on the Obama Iran deal showed, Congress overflows with politicians eager to court wealthy Jews, spout pro-Israel platitudes, and cast easy votes. The moment that Israel requires a vote of conviction rather than convenience, however, they politely express regret and an intention to return as soon as the easy money resumes–because it always does.
Israel’s American supporters have confused themselves with the Israeli government. Israel is a small state surrounded by enemies seeking her destruction and the genocide of her citizens. Because Israel plays with razor-thin margins of error, risk aversion can be highly rational. The significant risks that Israel has incurred have almost all focused on securing friends and allies, rather than on securing victory. As a foreign government dependent on the United States, Israeli diplomacy compels conciliatory statements about U.S. policy and the American leadership.
American activists are under no compulsion to believe such statements. To the contrary, American supporters add maximum value when championing the tough truths that diplomacy puts beyond Israel’s reach. Yet rather than pushing to expand Israel’s political playing field, Israel’s leading advocates in Washington have instead become similarly risk-averse, at times even allowing their own neuroses and extraneous political priorities to further constrain Israel’s options.
The system is broken and must change. Israel deserves advocates fully committed to the cause, not ones who use it to advance their other interests. And pro-Israel activists should behave more like the lobbyists for American interests that they are, and less like supplicants for an embattled state. Israel remains popular with Americans; Iran and the Palestinian Authority do not. A pro-Israel lobby that played to win would articulate basic, immutable principles for which it would fight. It would pressure Israel’s neighbors to work with Israel, while removing pressure on Israel to take risks that compromise its security. It would stop pushing Washington and Jerusalem to reward Arab incitement and terror with a PLO-led state, and instead work overtime to ensure that anti-Jewish terror works against Arab interests. It would innovate on policy and narrative, promoting truths and ideas that run counter to conventional wisdom, even if such innovations remain minority positions for the years that lobbyists often need to assemble winning coalitions.
Israel’s enemies understand this strategic imperative. “Temple denial” sounded crazy when Arafat first floated the idea in 2000. By 2015, the New York Times detailed the “controversy” surrounding Jewish “claims” to the Temple Mount, and UNESCO tried to declare the Western Wall a Muslim holy site. BDS began with a coalition of radical fringe NGOs in 2005. By 2015, allegations of Israeli apartheid and genocide dominated discourse among American academics and European parliamentarians. Pro-Israel activists may boast about state legislatures adopting anti-BDS legislation, but the anti-Israel forces framed the conversation. When the debate concerns singling out Israel as the subject of an international boycott, Israel has already lost.
Not too long ago, acceptance of a Palestinian state appeared radical and anathema to America’s interests and the pursuit of peace. Jimmy Carter–hardly a pro-Israel advocate–opposed it when he was president, speaking of the destabilization such a state would cause. Yitzchak Rabin, martyred in 1995 for his dovish politics, never wavered from his opposition to a Palestinian state. In 1998, five years into the Oslo process, Hillary Clinton spoke with tentative approval of a Palestinian state, triggering a furious backlash; her husband’s White House issued a blunt official repudiation.
Yet over the past 15 years, much of the world–including many Jews claiming to advocate for Israel–has severed this “solution” from the considerations of peace, security, Arab behavior, or Arab preparedness that were supposed to have justified it. By 2011, Bill Clinton had adopted his wife’s views; he publicly blamed Israel for the lack of peace and supported the Obama administration’s attempts to reward Arab intransigence and distance the U.S. from Israel.
With foresight and boldness, nimble anti-Israel forces have solidified the “Palestinian” claim while rendering contingent Israel’s legitimacy; Israel’s sluggish advocates lament that “the ship has sailed” while it is their own hands on the tiller. On any other issue, Washington lobbyists would have sounded alarm bells, informing their members and supporters of the animosity emanating from the White House. For the pro-Israel establishment, however, mobilizing pushback is of far less importance than maintaining “access” to legislators who take meetings and attend parties but evaporate when needed.
Looking ahead, France has threatened to become the 137th country to recognize a State of Palestine. Might the Obama administration follow suit? If the ship has sailed, why delay? If pro-Israel activists living in the safety of Washington do not stridently oppose the emergence of this new Jew-hating terror state, who will? If America’s Jewish leadership fails to insist that the U.S. oppose anti-Jewish terror as resolutely as it does terror in general, why shouldn’t American politicians join the global chorus labeling Jew-killing regrettable but understandable?
Israel is losing on many fronts, and those claiming to be its greatest American advocates remain stuck playing defense. Yet the success of Yasser Arafat’s delegitimization of Jewish Jerusalem, Hillary Clinton’s implicit Palestinian State, and Barack Obama’s nuclear Iran prove that drastic shifts in the terms of debate and in U.S. policy are achievable–but only by those who think strategically, risk criticism, and act fearlessly. As Winston Churchill observed, the only way to avoid making enemies is to stand for nothing. To fight for Israel is to risk the enmity of Israel’s enemies, not to wish it away. Israel’s friends do not need money to remain friendly, and Jewish money will never buy Israel the friendship of those who wish it ill.
The absence of policy innovation within the pro-Israel establishment is palpable. When Mahmoud Abbas proclaimed that the Oslo Accords no longer bind the PA, a strategic thinker might have suggested that Israel and the U.S. are similarly unshackled–setting off a debate about two decades of rewards for Arab incitement and violence. The creation of a new Arab state, the limitations on Jewish life in Judea and Samaria, and even the PA itself would all come under a microscope. Ships deemed to have sailed would reenter port. The U.S. would pursue American interests with no sense of obligation to a terrorist organization. For once, Israel’s friends would frame the discussion.
Just as Israel cannot win a debate about BDS, Israel cannot lose a debate about PA incitement. The only downside would be increased risk of criticism and condemnation from those who believe that supporting Israel should be easy, comfortable, and remunerative.
Such costs are hardly negatives when exchanged for greater benefits. A willingness to forgo the illusion of lockstep bipartisanship in the name of strategic policy innovation would ignite a new era of pro-Israel activism. It would educate voters for whom Israel is a priority about the real differences between the parties, helping to empower the Republican leadership necessary to turn pro-Israel innovations into American policies, while reminding Democratic politicians that only those who truly support Israel deserve to reap the benefits of Israel’s support.
The time has come for a new strategy. The time has come for Israel to play to win.
Jeff Ballabon is CEO of B2 Strategic (www.b2strategic.com) and a senior fellow at the Center for Statesmanship and Diplomacy. Bruce Abramson, a technology lawyer in private practice in NYC, is a senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research.