On the surface, Israel’s relationship in the world seems well established and comfortable. Just over a week ago, the gathering of world leaders at the funeral of former prime minister and president Shimon Peres was impressive by any standard. The presidents of France, Germany and a host of other countries were present. President Obama and former President Bill Clinton led the U.S delegation. Most dramatic of all was the presence of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Last month, the United States and Israel and signed a 10-year $38-billion deal for military assistance to the Jewish state. It is the largest aid agreement in U.S. history, and it demonstrates, once again, Obama’s strong and underappreciated support for our most important ally in the region. However, there are hurricane-warning flags in regard to America’s historical relationship with Israel.
The personal animus between Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and Obama is well known. While there is enough blame to go around, the Netanyahu’s reception and praise for Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign and his provocative speech before the U.S. Congress introduced a poisonous and unprecedented partisanship in the relationship between the two countries.
It did not help that the Netanyahu’s criticisms centered on Obama’s prized nuclear treaty with Iran. Netanyahu, who is said to be equally suspicious of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, has assiduously and wisely been silent on the U.S. election, but the damage may have been done. Many delegates at the Democratic convention this summer noted a growing number of fellow Democrats who were critical of Israel and openly sympathetic to the Palestinian Authority.
As for Donald Trump, Israelis worry about his early comments about Israel and his stated desire to minimize U.S. involvement in the region. It is undeniable that for the first time in recent memory the Israel-Palestinian dispute has been a second-tier issue in this presidential campaign. That reflects Americans’ bipartisan weariness with the Middle East.
In the United States, universties are often seen as the road to the future. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on college campuses is well organized and growing at a disturbing rate. Between 2014 and 2015, there was an estimated 31 percent increase in anti- Israel activities on campuses across the United States.
The automatic support of Israel based on the Holocaust, historical anti-Semitism and Arab state aggression is a thing of the past. Sadly, many millennials view Israel as a military and economic super-power who is bullying its weaker Palestinian neighbors. Somehow, the fact that Israel is the only democratically government in region that treats its Jewish, Christian and Muslim citizens equally is lost in the dialogue. The repression of women and gays in Arab states has also failed to make an impression some millennials. BDS support among some African-American students is reminiscent of the heartbreaking black/Jewish political divide of the 1960s, that only fully healed with the election of President Obama.
Finally, the respected Pew Research Center’s study of Jewish Americans is fascinating and may inform American-Israeli policy in the future. The central feature of being Jewish in America is a tradition of secularism. Over 60 percent of American Jews believe being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, while only 15 percent believe it is mainly a matter of religion. This helps explain that while 70 percent of American Jews have an affinity for Israel, less than 40 percent believe Israel is sincere in trying to make peace with Palestine.
Given the longstanding involvement of Jewish Americans in the nation’s politics this reveals a fault line to which Israel must pay attention. In other words, if support of Israel becomes less prominent in the mind of American Jews it can only serve to diminish support for Israel in the overall American body politic.
None of this is not meant to say the house is on fire. However anyone who believes that American and Israeli interests are fully and mutually aligned must take action to ensure that these warning signals do not portend a hurricane landfall.
Mike Abrams is former chairman of the Dade Democratic Party, a former state legislator and currently a policy adviser to Ballard Partners.