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May 14, 2012 4:12 pm

The Great Divide: American Liberals Don’t Understand Israeli Politics

avatar by Jonathan S. Tobin /

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Shaul Mofaz. Photo: Sgt. Andy Dunaway, U.S. Air Force.

Israeli politics has been thrown into an uproar by the decision of the sinking Kadima Party and its leader Shaul Mofaz to throw in their lot with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This led to the postponement of new elections that were going to be moved up to this September from the fall of 2013 and to the creation of a new government with the support of more than 90 members of the 120-seat Knesset.

Much of the reaction to the deal rightly centered on its being a political masterstroke by Netanyahu, since it not only strengthened his already firm grasp on power but also insulated him against pressures from foes at home and abroad.

But the deft maneuver reflected more than just Netanyahu’s political skill. The new coalition represents the fact that the great debate between left and right about the peace process that defined Israeli politics, and the worldview of many of Israel’s foreign friends, has been largely resolved. Though there are still those on the right that wish to hold onto all of the West Bank and active remnants of the once mighty left that views the conflict as something that can be solved by Israel alone, Netanyahu’s ascendancy illustrates the broad consensus within the Jewish state that now exists on these issues.

Most Israelis support the concept of a two-state solution but understand that it will have to wait until the Palestinians decide to make peace. In the meantime, like Netanyahu, they believe the country must stay strong. They oppose foreign pressure to make unilateral concessions to the Arabs, and they agree with the prime minister that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be an existential threat that cannot be tolerated.

What it all boils down to is that the left has been completely marginalized in Israel. That is now reflected in an enormous governing coalition with the traditional voices of the left sitting on the sideline with not much hope of bettering their position when elections do come along next year.

This consensus is the product of 20 years of peace processing that has conclusively proved to the Israeli public that they have no partner, and that a repeat of the Oslo Accords or the withdrawal from Gaza would be a disaster that would be paid for in Jewish blood. In the meantime they prefer their government continue building the economy and hope the new cabinet—which will not be reliant on support from religious parties—can make progress toward genuine electoral reform and a more equitable distribution of the burden of military service.

But the fact of this consensus, so obvious to anyone conversant with Israel, hasn’t penetrated the consciousness of American liberals. They still don’t understand the stubborn refusal of Israeli voters and their leaders to join them in ignoring Palestinian rejectionism and remaking the state in the image of American Jewish liberalism. They are baffled by President Obama’s unpopularity in Israel and utterly flummoxed by the prospect of Netanyahu staying in office for years to come.

Author Peter Beinart, who supports boycotts of Israel that he says will save Zionism, is now an informal advisor to President Obama on the Middle East. He and others in the liberal media think Netanyahu is an extremist whose refusal to harbor illusions about the Palestinians and hardheaded assessment of Iran is madness, even though his views are seen in Israel as common sense. That’s why the recent attacks on Netanyahu’s stand on Iran from a few former defense officials and discredited Israeli politicians were widely misinterpreted in the United States as a sign that the prime minister is weak, when in reality he is stronger than ever and riding high in public opinion polls.

Despite the chasm that separates their views from the Israeli consensus, many liberal Jews—including prominent voices in the American media like Beinart—are acting as if they know more about the situation in the Middle East than the Jews who live there. Netanyahu’s triumph should be a signal that, perhaps, it is time for those who wish to save the Jewish state from itself to pipe down and start listening to the Israelis.

JNS Columnist Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY magazine and chief political blogger at Commentary Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at: Follow him on Twitter.

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  • Fredric M. London

    I would like to address a virtually constant abuse of accuracy by those calling some people liberal. There is a difference between someone who is a liberal, and someone who is part of the increasing oppression of politically-coerced censorship.

    Those who genuflect to the altar of politically-coerced censorship, have an agenda, just as calcified and repressive as the right wing’s. They are every bit as intolerant as right wingers, and simply refuse to even listen to those who do not adapt their dogma, verbatim, with no arguments.

    With the so-called ‘Arab spring’ of a year ago, the two main providers of information literally provided what fitted into their worldview, and totally ignored examples of abuse which were ‘on their side.’

    The right wing press (read Fox, etc.) is committed to the narrow, bigoted, intolerant religious right. Their agenda is to eliminate civil rights to as great an extent as they can, criminalizing behavior between consenting adults, censorship, and outlawing birth control. They wish to force their un-American ideas on the rest of us, and their moral creed is caveat emptor, and, according to one of their leaders, they need to emulate criminals. Naturally, they hate Islam, and so every move during the uprisings represented threats to the civilized world. That this perspective was much closer to the truth than the other side is incidental.

    The politically-coerced censorship crowd ignored hateful anti-Jewish and anti-Christian behaviors, which were rife through the crowds of protestors. They did not report on the genocidal attitudes, the blatant celebrations of Nazism, the extreme revisionist historical statements. All that mattered were that the Arabs were searching for freedom. This was undoubtedly true of many of them, but, by no means all. The regimes which have been established since the ‘spring’ have more than proven to be horrendous to anyone who cares about humanity.

    As a liberal, I am resenting, more and more each day, the labeling of the politically-coerced censorship crowd as liberals. They are no more liberals than the right wing members are conservatives. A conservative proceeds slowly and carefully, not rushing into major changes. The right wing is, and always has been, fascism. Likewise, the moral relativists are doctrinaires, with absolutely no concept of right and wrong. Liberals would not overlook the horrors of the ‘Arab spring.’ Liberals would not take Orthodox Jews to task for having their women sit at the back of the bus, while ignoring the overwhelming abuse Muslim men perpetrate on their women. True liberals would not have double standards, forgiving, and even applauding, barbarism among favorites, and excoriating decent people for minor transgressions.

    To those of us who really are liberal, and have virtually no voice in US politics or the media (what a coincidence), every time we see the politically-coerced censorship adherents called liberal, we really despair of ever seeing positive action from anyone.