Netanyahu: Gaza Blockade? Never Mind ++ Grayson on Israel

06/21/2010 07:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Yesterday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu conceded that the Gaza blockade was not about security after all. And, accordingly, he was lifting it.

From now on, only weapons and materials that can be used to make weapons will be banned from Gaza. But thousands of civilian goods that Israel had insisted on keeping out of the hands of Gazans on security grounds will flow freely into the strip. Or so Netanyahu says. (Israel's record of living up to its commitments on these issues is appalling. Fifteen years after the Oslo agreement, Israel still controls every inch of the West Bank, Gaza -- yes, Gaza whose borders are fully controlled by Israel -- and East Jerusalem).

Lifting the blockade is the right thing to do. But one has to question why nine people (including an American) had to die before Netanyahu came to the realization that the blockade was unnecessary.

Or why the Israeli government would virtually destroy its relationship with a critical ally, Turkey, to preserve the blockade. Or why Netanyahu believed that Israel's right to keep chocolate out of Gaza was worth turning world opinion more heavily against his country than ever before.

Everyone knows that if the Gaza blockade were necessary to Israel's security, Netanyahu would be maintaining it and every friend of Israel would back his stand. But it isn't, and so he can simply say "never mind."

And that will be good enough, especially for Netanyahu's acolytes here in the United States.

The Israel-is-always-right crowd reminds me of television weather forecasters. The forecast can be for a massive snowstorm and temperatures in the 20's. But when the next day dawns sunny, with temperatures in the 40's, the weather forecaster never admits he was wrong. He just goes on to the next prediction.

It is the same way with rightwing Israelis and their American cutouts. Yesterday the blockade was critical to Israel's security. Today it isn't. And, by tomorrow, everyone will forget the original argument. (They will be defending the just-announced housing demolitions in Jerusalem.)

Netanyahu understands that dynamic, which is why he can say, as he did on Sunday, that the "cabinet decision [to lift the blockade] is the best one for Israel, because it eliminates Hamas' main propaganda claim and allows us and our international allies to face our real concerns in the realm of security."

So ending the blockade makes Israel safer?

J Street is too polite to say it, so I will: "We told you so." The blockade was never about Israel's security.

The blockade on civilian goods was designed as a form of collective punishment on Gaza's civilian population. It served no legitimate purpose. And those who protested it as punitive were right.

Netanyahu himself has now been forced to admit it. (Although he had better figure out a way to make amends with Turkey, a nation Israel needs far more than Turkey needs Israel).

In any case, the blockade would have continued unchanged if the Obama administration had not applied pressure on Netanyahu to change it. if the United States had not turned the screws, Netanyahu would not have changed a thing. The US, for once, actually held Israel's feet to the fire and Netanyahu buckled.

The lesson should be obvious: the Obama administration can make headway in the Middle East if it applies pressure evenly -- rather than simply parroting the Israeli line (as Congress invariably does).

Unfortunately, however, I am not sure that the Obama administration does understand this.

The first thing it did after Netanyahu folded was to announce that the prime minister will be meeting Obama at the White House on July 6th. The word in Washington is that the purpose of that meeting is for Netanyahu and Obama to have a kiss-and-makeup session in front of the television cameras.

That is what many, if not most, Congressional Democrats want. With few exceptions, their concern is not so much with the Middle East per se but with how the Middle East affects fundraising. That is why so many House members rushed to the floor to defend the blockade following the flotilla disaster.

One after another, they all said the same thing: "Israel has the right to defend itself," accepting Netanyahu's claim that the blockade was about Israel's fundamental security and not about collective punishment.

Of course, they were wrong. That was the old script, before Netanyahu changed his mind on Sunday. Today there is a new script.

But it hardly matters. Members of Congress close to the lobby (and other hotshots in the Democratic Party) will still tell Obama that, enough is enough, Obama needs to drop all pressure on Israel.

They will warn that if Obama does not back down, Democrats will pay a heavy price in November.

They are wrong, as wrong today as every other time they have issued these warnings (or threats).

They are wrong because the overwhelming majority of American Jews are liberal, not just moderately liberal but very liberal. 78 percent voted for President Obama. They support the Obama (and Democratic Party) position on every major issue that faces the country. They are not going to switch to the party of Palin and the teabaggers because, to put it mildly, Jews have always been uncomfortable with the far right.

In fact, if there is one single issue about which all Jews (or, say, 99 percent) are in agreement, it is maintaining the separation of church and state. (That may be because if a state religion is ever established in this country, it won't be ours!) On the church/state issue alone, Jews and the right are diametrically opposed. But that is only one issue. In fact, there is no major issue on which Jews and the right are on the same side -- not on choice, taxes, regulation of business, gay rights, illegal immigration, unions, public education, national health care, not on anything.

True, Jews did not become Democrats until FDR but that was because the Democratic party was too conservative and Jews preferred the likes of socialists like Eugene V. Debs. It was only when FDR co-opted the socialist agenda, that Jews became the diehard Democrats they still are.

But what about Israel?

What about it? If Jews voted -- or donated large sums -- based on Israel policy, George W. Bush would have done considerably better with Jews than he did.

In fact, in 2004, despite endorsing every single Israeli policy it was possible to endorse, he received a whopping 24 percent of the Jewish vote. Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic Presidential nominee (and a staunch advocate of a more even-handed Middle East policy) got 76 percent of Jewish votes and, more importantly, the overwhelming support of Jewish donors.

This is not to say that American Jews don't care about Israel. They do. But, as the polls repeatedly demonstrate, their main concerns are the same as those of the other 98 percent of Americans. The only difference is that Jews are much more liberal.

Moreover, they are not hawks on Israel. With the exception of the tiny "single-issue" crowd, most Jews want to see an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and want their president to help secure it. That is why President Bill Clinton's standing in the Jewish community (high to begin with) soared to stratospheric levels when he brought Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin together on the White House lawn.

The administration should do the right thing on the Middle East, without worrying about some mythical boycott of Democrats by Jewish voters and donors. Unless and until the Republican Party abandons its rightwing policies in favor of Nelson Rockefeller-style progressivism, the Democrats have nothing to worry about. And helping Israel achieve peace can only help, not hurt.