Monday, June 06, 2011

Bibi Refuses To Meet With American Representatives

A group of five American Representatives travelling to Israel sought but were unable to attain a meeting with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, or, it seems, any members of his cabinet (it is still possible they'll meet with Likud's Miki Eitan, Minister of Improvement of Government Services). The snub appears to be prompted by the quintet's association with J Street, which is sponsoring the trip. The five Representatives are Reps. Steve Cohen (D-TN), Betty McCollum (D-MN), John Yarmuth (D-KY), Sam Farr (D-CA), and Lynn Woolsey (D-CA). Cohen and Yarmuth are Jewish.

In lieu of Netanyahu and his cohorts, the five will meet with various opposition members, including MK Tzipi Livni of Kadima. To me, this just demonstrates the fundamental truth that the "split" between Republican speakers on Israel, and those more aligned with J Street, is not one of "pro-Israel" or "anti-Israel", but simply identifying with Likud (Bibi's party) or Kadima (Livni's party). Since that represents the major faultline in mainstream Israeli politics, it makes sense that it'd be the major faultline in American politics about Israel.

Notably, I don't place AIPAC or groups like the ADL on this graph, for the simple reason that such groups tend to focus less on identifying with this or that Israeli political movement, and more about maintaining a general positive relationship between the US and Israel. That's why J Street, accurately in my view, cast its formation not as something in opposition to AIPAC, but doing something different than AIPAC -- forwarding a particular normative and policy agenda with respect to Israel. Both are valuable goals, and I think both have a role to play in American politics. By contrast, the Republican attempt to fracture the liberal pro-Israel consensus has done so on the basis of its own particular normative goals (e.g., opposition to a two-state solution on basis of '67 lines), and so it makes sense to locate them alongside their Israeli political analogues (the more conservative Likud factions and parties right-ward) -- and J Street is accurately cast against groups such as these.

While some assert that true "pro-Israel" advocates cannot have independent beliefs regarding proper Israeli policy and should only trumpet the policy choices of the current government (a demand whose sincerity is questionable, given how it disintegrates when the criticism comes from the right), I personally find this outlook perplexing, if not bizarre. If I told you I care about America, and you asked "well, who do you prefer to win the presidency in 2012", and I responded "oh, it doesn't matter to me -- I'll support the policies of whoever wins" -- I think you'd rightfully wonder how much I really do care about America and its flourishing. Caring about something means having opinions about it! I care about Israel, which means I have opinions about what actions it should take, and support political movements (in my case, Kadima) which are in line with those appraisals. This is normal behavior.

To the extent J Street is acting as, more or less, an adjunct of Kadima in the U.S., I have no real objection -- I'm an avowed Kadima supporter, after all. But this is yet another example of Bibi placing his private political interests above those of the country he leads. As a matter of short-term politics (Likud vs. Kadima), obviously, Bibi wants to isolate Kadima supporters and bolster Likudniks. But as leader of Israel, he can ill-afford to alienate allies in the U.S. Congress. Unfortunately, sacrificing the national interest for short-term political expediency is sort of Netanyahu's signature move at this point, so I can hardly act surprised. But it is yet more reinforcement that Livni and Kadima are the only serious political actors that can provide effective leadership in these unsettling times.


Anonymous said...

But in your series of interchangeable blog posts on the term, you've essentially argued that Bibi should not be considered "pro-Israel", no?

So the duly elected head of a state you still claim is democratic is anti-Israel? And you, a non-Israeli, get to make that judgment?

David Schraub said...

Depends on how you define "pro-Israel".

If "pro-Israel" is based on the speaker's subjective, sincere belief that what one is doing is in the best interests of Israel, then yes, of course he is (as is J Street, as is AIPAC, as is Mitt Romney, as is Barack Obama).

If "pro-Israel" is based on some sort of objective, "what actually is good for Israel" test, irrespective of their subjective beliefs, then things change. Of course, what is objectively good for Israel is contested -- anybody who meets the "subjective" test obviously thinks their given positions are objectively best for Israel -- so effectively "objective" means "do they fall under my parameters for what 'pro-Israel'" means?" In which case, no, Bibi isn't.

As I explained earlier, the subjective test used to dominate, but that deal has been breached by Republicans like Mitt Romney, who wish to switch over to an objective test. And as I retorted, "if he wants to start playing on that field, I'm happy to meet him there." To the extent "objective" is the new rule, I'll play by those rules.

To be sure, neither test is wholly appealing. The objective test basically tries to define away a live policy dispute. The subjective test can't deal with people who are honest but have beliefs that are completely unreasonable or unsupported by any factual predicates whatsoever.

In actuality, I think the best test for "pro-Israel" is based on a subjective one, with some allowance for discounting truly unreasonable or deluded views (even if sincerely held) -- though I think the range of acceptable discourse should be broader in the host country (here, Israel) than amongst outsiders (for reasons relating to democratic autonomy concerns).