Israel’s decision to forego U.S. military aid that is set to be cut by the federal budget sequester might be seen as the latest security risk taken by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the sake of appeasing the Obama administration. In fact, Netanyahu’s gesture is aimed beyond the White House, and beyond the present debate, acknowledging that the advent of the Tea Party has changed the future direction of American policy.
Netanyahu is a canny observer of U.S. politics, and both his outgoing and incoming ambassadors to the U.S. have American roots. Newcomer Ron Dermer, who will take over from Michael Oren this fall, has extensive political contacts in U.S. conservative circles that he will have to downplay quickly, but that doubtless inform the counsel he has given Netanyahu in his recent capacity as a senior adviser to the Prime Minister.
The Tea Party is generally pro-military, pro-Israel, and supportive of the War on Terror (as it was once called). Yet it is also focused on federal spending and deficits, and some of the Tea Party’s most visible leaders, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), have called for reducing foreign aid. Paul and fellow libertarians are also skeptical of military spending and anti-terror surveillance, which also affect Israel’s own security.
Netanyahu realizes that Israel may no longer be able to count on the support of a flailing national security establishment—not after Obama’s defense cuts (before sequestration) and withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan; not after voices hostile to Israel have become dominant in the Democratic Party; and not after the Republican base has shown increasing outrage at the string of National Security Agency scandals.
So he is reaching out beyond the Washington, D.C. gatekeepers and aiming his message at the American people beyond, recognizing budgetary concerns that Obama and the bipartisan establishment have tried to shunt aside. It is also a form of payback for Obama’s attempt to circumvent the Israeli government on his visit in March, declining the chance to address the Knesset and giving a speech to Israeli students instead.
Yet while Obama was exhorting Israelis to pursue a peace agenda that has failed, and which is not shared widely beyond that country’s elite, Netanyahu is touching on the popular sentiments of many Americans. In doing so, he is affirming the Tea Party’s ascent—and cultivating the seeds of future support: when budgets tighten further, Israel can say it has shared in the sacrifice, and may thus protect itself from deeper cuts.