In With the New

A number of Israel’s supporters, Jewish and otherwise, have been pleased with what they have heard so far from the incoming Trump administration.

During the campaign, the candidate made requisite statements of support for the Jewish state.  But in the weeks since his victory, the President Elect has made appointments and statements which indicate his friendship with Israel was not simply campaign posturing, to be quickly forgotten post-election.  At the very least, it is clear that eight years of contrived controversies in support of ideologically driven (and ill-conceived) distancing between the US and Israel are at an end.

At the same time, many of Israel’s friends share the same concerns over the incoming administration as do other Americans.  Putting aside the mercurial nature of the incoming POTUS, including his thin skin and hair-Twitter finger, Donald Trump is also coming into office with even less foreign policy experience (or government experience of any kind) than that of his soon-to-be predecessor, or any President in US history.

Now Trump’s election was fueled by resentment towards elites, a group which includes all of the more experienced political leaders he defeated.  But even if it turns out what the country needs is someone with a private vs. public-sector background, it’s worth noting that our tribe never does particularly well when resentment drives politics.

Even if the next President was a more conventional politician, elected in more conventional times, we’d still have to contend with the fact that the US-Israel alliance, no matter how tight and productive, is between two nations whose interests do not overlap 100%.  This means that even an American President (or Israeli Prime Minister) looking out for their ally is going to focus on his own nation’s needs first.  So, regardless of how much Israel and the US agree on, Donald Trump is President of the United States and will be setting his priorities based on that job description.

Other reasons it would be folly to consider the ascendance of a new President (any new President) a game-changer for Israel include:

(1) America is a federal republic, which means national government is divided between three branches, and is only empowered to do those things the states (and localities) cannot, will not, or are not allowed to do. Federal power has clearly encroached upon state and local authority during the modern era, just as the presidency has taken on far more responsibility than was envisioned by the nation’s founders.  But to succeed in politics, someone must still have allies beyond 1600 Pennsylvania.

The good news is that continued strong support for Israel in Congress and anti-BDS legislation making its way through dozens of state legislatures highlights how successful Israel and its friends have been in cultivating friendships and forging alliances up, down and across the American political ecosystem (a lesson America’s Democratic Party could learn from).

(2) Speaking of the Democratic Party, the aforementioned depth of support for Israel in Congress has historically included support across the political spectrum. That bi-partisan consensus on Israel was clearly put under stress during the Obama years, however, and projects like BDS are designed to distance Israel from Left-leaning sympathies and voters.

But the very strength of support we now enjoy among the Right means this is exactly the time to commit resources to fighting efforts to detach Israel from Progressives.  These battles need to be fought carefully, in ways that don’t ignite fights in which Israel becomes a partisan football.  But the more solid support for Israel is across political ideologies, the stronger our position in the long run (the only timeframe that ultimately matters).

(3) While America is Israel’s most important ally, it is not her only one. Fretful news stories of Israel’s  impending isolation ignore that the nation’s diplomatic position is stronger today than it’s been in years, even among sworn enemies who understand the real threats to their regimes (not to mention their necks).  Similarly, Israel’s growing success beyond politics (in areas like business, technology, medicine, academia and the arts) means that alliances now reach well beyond politics: into commerce, science, the academy and other important components of civil society.  Indeed, it is only because of Israel’s success that there are so many products the BDSers can boycott, and so much investment they’re fighting to end.

So in addition to increasing support within the different branches and levels of American government, Israel must continue to expand friendships and relationships across the planet, regardless of how things play out in American politics (over which Israel and her supporters have little to no control) over the coming years.

With regard to what we can and cannot impact, remember that Israel’s greatest achievements and triumphs (the creation of the state, in-gathering of exiles, victory against overwhelming odds in the wars of 1948 and 1967) all took place before the current alliance with the US came into being in the 1970s.  This is not to diminish the criticality of that alliance for a small nation still targeted by much larger and more powerful enemies.  But it does point out that things tend to go best for the Jews when we count on ourselves, rather than others, and take responsibility for our own history – if for no other reason than our own self-respect.

Out With the Old

After a brief hiatus to deal with some family matters, it’s time to return to the fight, both at Divest This! and now with a weekly column at the incomparable Elder of Ziyon site!

Having missed some comings and goings over the last couple of months, I wanted to take a look at what’s gone on that might impact the fight against BDS which – as all of you reading this should know by now – is simply a propaganda tactic in a multi-faceted global war against the Jewish state.

Starting from the top, the surprising result of last year’s US election is clearly going to have a more  dramatic impact on domestic and international politics than, for example, English teachers deciding not to join an academic boycott.

Given the effort many of us put into fighting on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people, it’s sometimes difficult to admit how little control we have over the most significant factors impacting our struggle.

At the top of the list, global geopolitics – the interplay of state and powerful non-state actors – will always dictate the terms within which our battles play out.  Simply put, if those involved with the decades-long war in the Middle East between kings, dictators and religious fanatics determine that attacking Israel is in their interest, there will be war.  Similarly, if Western governments decide it is in their interests to cater to 50+ Islamic states vs. one Jewish one, then – at best – Israel and its friends will be forced to fight an uphill battle on unfriendly terrain.

Who leads Israel is the second most influential factor over what situations Israel’s supporters will have to deal with.  If you look over Israel’s success (starting with founding of the state, defending it, ingathering exiles and liberalizing and expanding its economy) and failures (notably Oslo and its aftermath – including the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza), these were all actions instigated by Israeli leaders at the time.  Yes, those leaders were responding to pressures generated by the aforementioned geopolitics.  But no amount of outside influence (short of invasion) can impact a democratic society more than choices made by its own government.

A close third behind geopolitics and who runs Israel is who runs America.  For a variety of historical reasons, the alliance between Israel and the US has become so vital to the Jewish state that the occupant in the White House can have an outside effect on everything Israel is doing or trying to do.

Fortunately, Israel benefits from strong support from power structures beyond 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, notably Congress, but ultimately the American people.  As we have seen over the last eight years when the US President was hostile to Israeli interests, strong support for the Jewish state from every level below the Executive Branch (down to the man and woman on the street) creates constraints with which even a popular President must contend.

With a handful of days left to go in his presidency, I think it’s fair to accept that those who criticized the soon-to-be ex-President as harboring an ideological dislike of Israel and letting that drive irrational policy choices were right, while those who felt his animus was driven more by incompetence in delicate foreign affairs overall were wrong.  (We won’t bother with those who tried to pretend that Obama’s needless warring on Israel were examples of “tough love” offered by a sincere friend.)

A President unfettered by democratic constraints (as all Presidents are during their lame duck session) provides the opportunity to let the political id run wild.  And given all he could have done (or not done) during his last weeks in office, it is telling indeed that Obama used this period to throw Israel to the jackals at the UN, even at the cost of cementing his reputation as betrayer (not to mention further eroding his own party’s support of and by Jewish Americans and other friends of Israel).

With a week to go, there is still a possibility that the administration will use its last days in office to kick an ally in the face one last time.  Fortunately, much of this can be undone by the incoming President (there are ways, after all, to marginalize the UN that don’t require expending political capital getting it to reverse its most horrendous official pronouncements).

But if the last eight years (really the last eight decades) teach us anything, it is to not count on the occupant of the White House, or anyone else, to solve our problems for us.  And with the keys to the Executive Mansion changing hands in just a few days, it’s worth drawing some lessons from the past that can help us navigate an unpredictable future.