POLITICS JULY 21, 2010
Neoconservatism long ago ceased to have any meaningful ideological difference with just plain old conservatism. Perhaps the one remaining vestigial trait of the ideological tendency is a mania for forming committees and stuffing them with progenies (of both the ideological and the literal sort). The glory days of neoconservatism in the 1970s revolved around such committees as the Committee on the Present Danger and the Coalition for a Democratic Majority. Numerous such committees have followed—the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the Committee for the Free World, the Project for a New American Century, the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. Many of them have at least one Kristol or Podhoretz. Last week saw the formation of the latest such group: the Emergency Committee for Israel, whose board consists of Bill Kristol, son of noted neoconservative Irving Kristol; Gary Bauer, a Christian Right activist, Kristol sidekick, and regular on such committees; and Rachel Abrams, stepdaughter of Norman Podhoretz.
The emergency that has instigated the Emergency Committee for Israel—other than the always-urgent need to create more sources of employment for new generations of Podhoretzes, Kristols, and henchmen thereto—is the Obama administration. The committee views the Obama administration, as Bauer puts it, as “the most anti-Israel administration in the history of the United States.”
In fact, it is the policy of “the most anti-Israel administration in the history of the United States” to provide Israel with $3 billion in annual foreign aid along with diplomatic support, deployed most recently when the United States declined to condemn Israel’s response to the Gaza flotilla. This would seem to make Obama more pro-Israel than, at the very least, Lyndon Johnson, who took a neutral stance when Israel faced potential annihilation in 1967, and Dwight Eisenhower, who condemned Israel’s 1956 joint raid with Britain and France on the Suez Canal.
Obama, meanwhile, has actually increased military aid to, and cooperation with, Israel, including an anti-missile defense system. On this matter, Obama has actually taken a more pro-Israel position than George W. Bush. A senior Israeli official recently told The Washington Post, “in many ways the cooperation has been extended and perhaps enhanced in different areas.”
Now, it is true that diplomatic relations between the two countries have worsened noticeably under Obama. Part of the chill results from Obama’s inability to communicate any genuine affinity for, or understanding of, Zionism to Israelis. But a large share of it results from one of the most right-wing governments in the history of Israel, which seems bent upon national suicide in general and the purposeful alienation of the state’s few allies in particular. Last year, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon responded to an actual provocation—Turkey refused to condemn anti-Semitic propaganda on its airwaves—by subjecting the ambassador to a bizarre, televised humiliation, pointing out the absence of a Turkish flag and noting that his guest was seated in a lower chair. The same government proceeded, less flamboyantly, to humiliate Joe Biden on what was intended to be a conciliatory trip to Israel in March.
The combination of the Netanyahu government’s incompetent diplomacy, enthusiasm for settlement construction, and lack of enthusiasm for peace negotiation suggests, at least to me, the need for Israel’s friends to warn it away from the cliff. The Emergency Committee for Israel not only disagrees with the particulars of this assessment, but also seems to regard the notion of Israeli error as a conceptual impossibility. Committee spokesman Michael Goldfarb—also a lobbyist and adviser to Sarah Palin—says, “ECI is for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and a strong, secure Israel at peace with the Palestinians and all its neighbors—but Israel is a democratic ally that must determine for itself the best way to achieve this goal.” This formulation allows for no possibility, even theoretically, that Israel could bear more than zero percent of the responsibility for the failure of peace.
The fact that the committee considers Obama the most anti-Israel president ever betrays the lack of imagination in right-wing Zionist circles. In the minds of the neoconservatives, a president who maintains the U.S.-Israel alliance while scolding a reprobate government for its excesses is as bad as things can get. They seem not to consider the possibility that a future American president might abandon the alliance altogether.
The intellectual groundwork is being laid. Left-wing critics of Israel portray supporters of the U.S.-Israel alliance as “Likudnik” or “neoconservative.” The tactic here is to frame support for Israel as incompatible with liberalism, in order to define opposition to Israel as a core liberal value. They define support for Israel as the neocons do: It means unconditional support for Israel, utter indifference to the Palestinians, at least tacit support for settlements. In reality, it is possible to sympathize with Israel in general while opposing its excesses, to believe that the most fundamental obstacle to peace is Palestinian refusal to accept the existence of a Jewish state, and that Israeli actions like the settlements and the excessive strictness of the Gaza blockade contribute to the problem.
The neoconservatives are the inadvertent allies of the left-wing critics. They, too, define support for Israel in maximalist terms, as something incompatible with liberalism. It is a pincer attack on liberal Zionism.
Israelis themselves have long feared such a dynamic taking hold. Earlier this year, Israeli officials pleaded with Republicans not to turn support for their country into a partisan issue. The subtlety of this dynamic clearly escapes the neocons, whose process of strategic thought on any political question, domestic or foreign, begins with “identify the bad guys” and ends with “attack the bad guys,” with no steps in between.
The neocons confidently believe they can force pro-Israel Democrats to embrace their maximalist vision. The ECI, writes an excited Jennifer Rubin in Commentary, presents “ostensibly pro-Israel lawmakers [with] the dilemma: partisan loyalty or full-throated support for Israel.” What a brilliant idea—force Democrats who sympathize with Israel to choose between their party and the Likud Party. The neocons really can’t imagine how such brinksmanship could produce a result they don’t want. They never do.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.