Yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech to a joint session of Congress, controversial in its subject matter as well as its politics. Arguing against the nuclear agreement the Obama administration is proposing to Iran, Netanyahu spoke to a Republican-controlled Congress, at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner, and against the wishes of President Obama. The move drew the ire of Democrats (and even some conservatives), claiming that Netanyahu’s contentious visit created unnecessary partisan divisions. Support for Israel has long been a bipartisan given in the United States; Netanyahu’s maneuverings behind Obama’s back could pit him against Obama in the public eye.
As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp points out, Netanyahu might genuinely believe in the gravity of the pending Iranian nuclear deal. But that’s an unlikely—or at least an incomplete—explanation, according to Dan Arbell, a professor at American University’s Center for Israeli Studies and former senior official at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “It’s one thing to make Israel’s case on Iran,” Arbell says. “It’s another thing to bring it to Congress, at a contentious time between the two parties ... basically aligning yourself with Republicans against a Democratic White House administration that would have wanted to see the prime minister perhaps come at a different time.”
In spite of Netanyahu’s many detractors in American media, popular opinion on Israel hasn’t shifted much in recent years. A Pew Research Center poll last week found that 48 percent of Americans feel the level of support given to Israel by the United States is about right; in 2012, that number was 41 percent. And when it comes to Netanyahu himself, 38 percent of those surveyed had a favorable opinion of the prime minister, while 27 percent expressed an unfavorable view and 35 percent had no opinion.
So why has public opinion held steady while pundits and politicians are wavering?
“There is a set of unwritten rules and principles which have guided the relationship [between America and Israel] for decades. One of these unwritten rules is bipartisanship. And it works both ways."
It's actually "extremely common" for elites to watch foreign policy matters more closely than the general public, explains Jordan Olmstead, a researcher at the Southwest Institute for the Study of Middle Eastern Conflicts (and a Pacific Standard contributor) over email. “This incident is disconcerting not just because it violates diplomatic protocol, not just because it undermines our negotiations with Iran, not just because it allows Israel to use our Congress as a campaign aid (which sets a horrible precedent)," Olmstead writes, "but because it shows that voters don’t really care about foreign policy, even when the government messes up, unless we’re at, or about to go to, war.”
Facing an American public that has stayed relatively steady in its views on Israel, the danger, it seems, of Netanyahu’s speech lies in its potential to divide Democrats and Republicans—and, by extension, the American public.
“This speech has brought divisions to the forefront,” Arbell says. “It’s still an early stage, but clearly what [Netanyahu] did by giving the speech in Congress was basically asking Democrats to choose between their support for Israel and their loyalty to the President. I think there’s an emotional debate and there’s an atmosphere of divisions beginning to be formed within the Jewish community over the speech.”
That’s ironic, because a political division is exactly what Netanyahu would be wise to avoid. Another study by Pew, from 2013, found that just 23 percent of secular Jews described caring about Israel as an essential Jewish trait. If American Jews aren’t identifying so strongly with Israel anymore, perhaps that's an indication public opinion will shift in the near future.
As Max Fisher pointed out for the Washington Post in 2013, this underscores Peter Beinart’s assertion in the New York Review of Books that American politicking over Israeli policies might ultimately deter liberal American Jews from taking a more Zionist stance. As Beinart wrote:
Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. ... For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.
U.S. lawmakers have long taken a relatively uniform stance on Israel: America supports the Jewish state. “There is a set of unwritten rules and principles which have guided the relationship [between America and Israel] for decades,” Arbell says. “One of these unwritten rules is bipartisanship. And it works both ways. The Democrats and Republicans do not turn, nor does Israel turn itself or become by choice a political football between the parties.”
Netanyahu may have come to Congress because he feels the Iran nuclear deal is an existential threat to Israel; it is ironic because his doing so sowed the seeds for turning Israel into a partisan issue, which could be a no-less-serious threat to Israel’s long-term security and survival than a nuclear-capable Iran.