Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu displayed an appalling level of temerity when, during the U.N. General Assembly meeting that ended Oct. 1, he waded into American domestic politics and suggested President Barack Obama could do more to support Israel. To many Americans, this accusation is perplexing. Since 1985, the U.S. has provided nearly $3 billion annually in grants to Israel. The country, along with Egypt, receives roughly one-third of U.S. foreign aid. We share a substantial amount of intelligence with the Mossad. By these measures and others, our support for Israel has been unshakable. This has not changed during the Obama administration. Yet despite the billions of dollars in military aid, despite our continued alliance, despite our advocacy for Israel in the U.N. Security Council and despite the emphasis we (rightly) place on Israel's right to exist, Netanyahu apparently is not satisfied.
This raises two questions: First, how much are we expected to give? Second, has Israel taken American support for granted? The answer to the latter question is yes. And the reason is simple: In the United States, you cannot criticize Israel and still hold public office. To criticize Israeli policy is to commit political suicide. Netanyahu knows this, and as a shrewd politician it is only natural that he is taking advantage of it.
Of course, things are not like this in other countries -- namely, Israel.
As Jon Stewart pointed out in a hilarious Daily Show segment last March, Israeli politicians routinely say things in the Knesset (Israel's parliament) that no U.S. presidential candidate would dare say. For example: "Israel is making a mistake in its unwillingness to recognize a Palestinian state." Or: "[Netanyahu's words on Iran] sound like a calculated preparation for a reckless adventure."
The fact that anything less than full support of Israel is so risky in U.S. politics is why Netanyahu was able to bully Obama into a meeting in the summer of 2011 and why he almost succeeded in doing the same at the recent U.N. gathering in New York. It is also why the American political dialogue about Israel is so utterly lacking. As Stewart said, "The parameters for debate... range all the way from 'I unequivocally support them and might bomb Iran' to 'I unequivocally support them and will definitely bomb Iran.'"
No doubt, Israel will feature heavily in the Oct. 22 foreign policy debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney. As in previous debates, the candidates will strive to surpass one another on two criteria. First, who can bash China the most? And, second, who loves Israel more? For many, whoever scores highest on these scales will be the "winner."
What a tragedy.
The past few months of electioneering suggest that a candidate's support for Israel will be questioned during the foreign policy debate even if he states his support unequivocally. After signing a bill in July that gave Israel's military another $70 million from our extremely healthy, solvent and stable economy, Obama announced, "My administration's commitment to Israel's security has been unprecedented." In the wake of this, Romney called Obama's "unprecedented" support everything from "shabby" to "shameful."
Are you confused? I am, too. Apparently, each candidate loves Israel more than the other.
The greatest tragedy of this all-or-nothing support for Israeli policies is that it hurts Israelis, Palestinians and Americans by delaying a solution to the Israel-Palestine problem. Like our national debt, social security and tax reform, the proverbial can is kicked down the road because the risks of picking the battered thing up and actually examining it are too large. Even though very large numbers of American Jews do not support the continued construction of settlements on Palestinian land, or the bulldozing of Palestinian homes, there is a false perception in the U.S. that to even talk about these issues is to be "anti-Israel" or even anti-Semitic.
Thus, although current Israeli President Shimon Peres can call for "territorial compromise" with Palestinians, and can even say things like "the settlements must be evacuated; the [Israeli] settlers cannot remain," our own president must remain silent on such issues or risk political suicide. The irony is palpable.
Israel is an important and valued ally. It faces a great number of threats, and like any good ally we should work to neutralize those threats. But precisely because we are allies, we should not hesitate to point out problems. We certainly should not allow our president to be bullied by a foreign leader.
The political dialogue about Israel needs to become less about who loves Israel more and more about how to promote American and Israeli interests in a just, intelligent and mutually beneficial manner. Perhaps we'll see this during the foreign policy debate Oct. 22.
I'm not holding my breath.