For a glimpse of how Israel plays out in an American election year, recall the day in September when then-Democratic presidential frontrunner Howard Dean told reporters he would like to see the United States take an “even-handed” approach to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Thirty-four Congressional Democrats responded by sending Dean a harsh letter questioning whether he shared their “unequivocal support for Israel’s right to exist,” and anonymous e-mails inundated Jewish listservs, accusing him of abandoning Israel. Dean promptly appeared on CNN to defend Israel’s assassinations of Palestinian militants.
Or consider the day in February when John Kerry sat down in New York to discuss issues with a group of Jewish leaders hand-selected by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and one of the few liberals invited, said she had her hand in the air, ready to ask questions about civil rights, poverty and the erosion of the church/state divide, but she was avoided by the facilitators, and the meeting shaped up as a single-agenda affair. “The central issue, no matter how they came at it, was, ‘Are you going to be there for Israel in these difficult times?'” Rosenthal recalls. “It was, ‘We’re putting you on notice that this is our number-one concern.'” Kerry took his cue. During the meeting, he backed off from earlier statements that he’d send Jimmy Carter (seen by the right as pro-Palestinian) to the region to jump-start negotiations, and six weeks later, when George W. Bush, in an agreement with Ariel Sharon, accepted Jewish settlements as permanent and renounced Palestinian refugees’ right of return, Kerry immediately endorsed it.
Or consider May 18, when the hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held its annual conference in Washington. House majority leader Tom DeLay showed up to speak, along with two assistant secretaries of state, an assistant secretary of defense and the President himself. Bush’s speech was regularly interrupted by cheering and chants of “Four more years!” The meeting of the Jewish community’s most prominent voice on Capitol Hill may as well have been a Republican political rally.
These events reveal a stubborn political fact: that AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents, along with their powerful fellow travelers, Christian Zionists, have forged a bipartisan consensus in Washington that Middle East policy must privilege the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel. In practice, this solid consensus means putting Israeli security before peace; supporting even such extreme Israeli measures as the separation wall and assassinations; and delegitimizing the Palestinian leadership. In AIPAC’s view, even Bush’s unambitious Middle East “road map” conceded too much to the Palestinians. Until the late 1980s, when the PLO publicly affirmed Israel’s right to exist, such positions may truly have represented the vast majority of American Jews. But ever since the 1993 Oslo Accord proved that negotiations were possible, surveys have consistently found that 50 to 60 percent of American Jews favor ending the occupation and dismantling settlements in return for peace.
The trouble is, AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents never fully embraced the Oslo thaw, and once peace talks failed in 2000, they snapped back to their hard-line stance. The combination of Palestinian suicide bombings, the election of Sharon, the ultimate hawk, as prime minister and Bush’s with-us-or-against-us “war on terror” allowed the AIPAC consensus to harden throughout the Jewish establishment. After 9/11, United Jewish Communities, the joint Jewish charity, decided to direct funds to Jewish settlers for the first time. And 2002 was a banner year: At a pro-Israel rally in Washington that April, busloads of demonstrators from Jewish social-service agencies and Hillels (the network of Jewish campus organizations) booed Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz for speaking about Palestinian suffering, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and other groups published manuals on how to discredit “anti-Israel propaganda” on campuses. “Arafat had a chance to move toward peace and he rejected it,” says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the leader of the 1.5 million-strong Reform Jewish movement, and one of mainstream Jewry’s most outspoken voices against settlement expansion. “We rallied to Israel’s side out of the sense that it was the right thing to do, and out of real anger toward the Palestinians.” The joke used to be two rabbis, three congregations; over the past two or three years it’s become 6 million American Jews, one official opinion.