‘The blinkers have been removed’: American voters are changing their minds on Netanyahu and Israel

·9-min read
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a meeting with Israeli border police in the central city of Lod, near Tel Aviv, on 13 May, 2021. He has vowed to continue a ‘full force’ assault for ‘as long as necessary’.  (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a meeting with Israeli border police in the central city of Lod, near Tel Aviv, on 13 May, 2021. He has vowed to continue a ‘full force’ assault for ‘as long as necessary’. (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

It’s all become very familiar.

Following some manner of provocation by Israel’s Likud-led government, Gaza-based militants with Hamas begin indiscriminately firing rockets into Israel. Most — but not all — of the rockets are intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu then orders units of the Israeli Defense Force to conduct retaliatory airstrikes against Hamas. Though aimed at militants, the strikes often leave civilians homeless, injured, or worse.

The sitting US president, whoever that may be at the time, issues a statement stressing that “Israel has a right to defend itself” while calling for a ceasefire. Netanyahu, confident of support from traditionally pro-Israel Democrats (because of their strong support from Jewish Americans) and pro-Israel Republicans (backed by members of the “Christian Zionist” movement who believe Israeli control over Jerusalem is needed to bring about Jesus Christ’s return to Earth), ignores the call for a ceasefire and says the airstrikes will continue until he decides otherwise.

So it was in 2014, and so it is today.

Since he returned to the prime minister’s office in 2009, Netanyahu — now Israel’s longest-serving head of government — has been able to count on American presidents from both parties to give him wide latitude when it comes to self-defense measures, along with a nearly bottomless largesse of military assistance. This, even as he has increasingly cast himself as an ally of Republicans in the US and welcomed support from emerging authoritarian leaders across the world.

Watch: Netanyahu says Israel engaged in 'forceful deterrence' against Hamas

But as world leaders — including President Joe Biden — continue to call for a ceasefire in Gaza despite Netanyahu’s vows to continue retaliatory attacks, experts and veterans of administrations past are warning that the Israeli leader’s disregard for human rights and the peace process, plus his embrace of the GOP — and ethnonationalist dictators the world over — amounted to a losing bet that will cost him and his country Americans’ goodwill.

“His actions… [have] made more people look with great concern at what we’re seeing there,” said Representative Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat and a former chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. The 90-member bloc has been vocal in calling for the Biden administration to more aggressively pursue a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, and in calling for further review of a proposed $735 billion arms sale to Tel Aviv.

While Pocan said he supports genuine self-defense efforts by Israeli forces — such as use of the Iron Dome system — because they can de-escalate tense situations by taking out Hamas’ rockets before they can fall on Israeli civilians, he isn’t sure how an Israeli response that kills twenty times as many Palestinian civilians in addition to use of Iron Dome serves that goal.

“Some of us have concerns because we supported something to stop the killing [i.e. Iron Dome] and then it’s not used in the way I think we intended,” he said. “So I think more and more we’re just starting to say… if my good friend is getting in a car drunk night after night and putting people in danger on the road, it’s incumbent on me to say to my friend that they’re doing that. And I think we need to get to that position.”

Brett Bruen, a former Foreign Service officer who served as the White House Director of Global Engagement from 2013 to 2015, said Netanyahu’s credibility with Democrats and even some Republicans has been on the decline for years. It began in 2015, when he accepted an invitation to deliver a speech bashing the Obama administration’s nuclear non-proliferation agreement with Iran before a joint session of Congress.

“There has been, I think, a sense of imbalance in how Israel — and Netanyahu in particular — has dealt with the United States, and it has cost them when it comes to influence, especially in the ranks of the Democratic Party,” Bruen said, adding that the frustration with his government goes beyond more strident critics such as Minnesota’s Representative Ilhan Omar and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib.

“Democrats who are more middle-of-the-road… are sick and tired of the way in which Israel has acted and has created or exacerbated some of these problems,” Bruen said.

In recent years, Netanyahu could expect to be rewarded for his pro-GOP forays into US politics. During Donald Trump’s presidency, he was given a free hand to expand settlements in the West Bank, and in return for his often voluminous praise of the now-former president, the US turned a blind eye to human rights abuses, recognized Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Netanyahu could also count on strong support from the GOP’s evangelical base, and from a vocal minority of the American Jewish community. 

But in Bruen’s estimation, Netanyahu has overplayed his hand. Not only did US voters overwhelmingly reject Trump, but the disdain with which the Israeli PM treated the Obama administration — as well as his embrace of extremists in recent years — has alienated many in the American mainstream.

“He wedded himself way too closely to Trump and [former Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo, which, even for some Republicans, was a bit too much… It reeked of the foreign meddling in American politics which most countries — with the exception of Russia — would attempt to avoid,” he said. “I think he is going to quickly find out that his credit in American power circles is getting close to junk bond status.”

Yet it’s not just in the halls of power that Netanyahu’s embrace of the GOP has been a losing bet. Support for Israel, long a political article of faith in the US Jewish community, has been tempered by a concern for human rights among American Jews, particularly those in the younger generation who did not appreciate the way he treated the Obama administration.

Logan Bayroff, a spokesperson for the liberal pro-Israel group J Street, said Netanyahu’s 2015 speech was a “huge inflection point”. He explained that groups like J Street were able to successfully make the case to US officials that Netanyahu did not actually speak for all Israelis, and that there were “a number of voices in Israel, and in the Israeli security establishment in particular, who thought the [Iran nuclear] deal was good and good for Israel… and that Democrats and Americans don’t have to go along with things just because he said so.”

Despite a massive effort by more hawkish pro-Israel groups to unseat Democrats who’d supported the agreement, Bayroff recounted how not a single one lost their seat to an anti-deal challenger during the 2016 election cycle.

“At some level, the threat of political fallout [for not going along with Netanyahu’s stated preference] was shown to be a myth,” he said. “The message from many Democratic leaders and most Democratic voters is: ‘We want to see an American government… that supports Israel’s security and pushes back on terror, but also does a lot more to hold Israel accountable for the occupation, for its treatment of the Palestinians, and to have a balanced policy that actually pushes for progress towards a resolution of this conflict’”.

Voters, he continued, “are just tired of seeing more or less blanket immunity for Israeli actions, whatever they may be… and want to see stronger criticism and pushback and stronger leadership from the United States to say that this is one of our closest allies, who we give $3.8 billion a year, and their behavior is running counter to our interests and values”.

But Netanyahu’s bear-hug of authoritarians and extremists goes beyond his relationship with the GOP. Over the past four years, he has become increasingly cozy with some of the West’s most notorious dictators, including Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Watch: Israel-Gaza crisis - 'I don't want revenge'

According to Arab American Institute founder Dr James Zogby, Netanyahu’s closeness with leaders who so often embody the opposite of traditional American values has eroded what was a willingness on most Americans’ part to be more forgiving of human rights violations or dodgy international relationships out of empathy for Israel’s particular security situation.

“The blinkers have been removed, and people are seeing Israel in a much clearer way,” he said.

Zogby offered the example of how Israel had maintained a geopolitically intimate relationship with South Africa at a time when most of the world was engaged in efforts to isolate the country over the then-ruling National Party’s apartheid policies.

“When the US stopped selling weapons to South Africa, Israel continued to sell weapons… and American Jews who were liberal supporters of civil rights and anti-apartheid turned a blind eye and didn’t pay attention at all, and if you raised the issue, you were silenced,” he recalled. “That is not the case anymore.”

The end result, Zogby explained, is that many Americans now see Netanyahu as something like an Israeli version of Donald Trump: “There has been a change in the policy debate in the country and in the Jewish community, and Netanyahu is a major factor in helping that move forward.”

He also opined that Netanyahu’s unwillingness to bring an end to the current hostilities is a result of his “fighting for his political life as prime minister” and a fear of appearing weak.

But Pocan, the Wisconsin Democrat, said Netanyahu’s vow to press on with the attacks against Gaza stems from a Trumpian desire to avoid prison.

“He’s essentially trying to avoid the law in his own country right now. They’re on their fourth attempt to try to put a government together, they can’t, and the only beneficiaries of what’s currently happening are Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas,” he said. “The people of Israel and Palestine are… the ones, you know, paying the consequences. So I just don’t think he does anything in the best interests of the Israeli people right now, at least from my viewpoint, because I feel like he’s largely trying to stay alive politically to avoid court action.”

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