As President Obama heads off for his first visit to Israel, we are getting the usual flood of poll results indicating that Americans want a pro-Israel foreign policy. Meanwhile, the world continues to marvel at American support for the frequently isolated Jewish state. Why, people ask, does the United States incur such risks and costs for the sake of this small country? Why does the United States direct so much foreign aid to it? Why does the United States take its part at the United Nations at such diplomatic cost?
The answer most people around the world give is a very simple one: America takes the positions it takes on Israel because of the power of “the Jews.” By their campaign contributions, by their (alleged) control of the media, by their (alleged) single-minded focus on Israeli interests, America’s supposedly well-organized, well-funded, and very determined Jews succeed in controlling American opinion and American policy. The Jewish tail wags the American dog.
In much of the world this kind of “analysis” sounds like the most banal conventional wisdom. It is so widely accepted, even by many people who think of themselves as seasoned and sophisticated observers of the international scene, that it is hardly worth discussing. And it is here that the divide in thinking about Israel, and about Jews for that matter, appears. To most Americans, the “Jewish string puller” theory of American foreign policy sounds like something Goebbels might have said to Hitler while they were enjoying a cup of tea together on the patio at Berchtesgaden: paranoid, anti-Semitic, and proof of a poverty of political insight and a weak grip on facts. The American dog does not feel wagged by its tail, and when Americans hear foreigners saying that, in essence, this country is run by a Jewish cabal, they immediately discount everything else that person has to say.
On this point, I agree with the American majority. “The Jews” do not run America, and they do not run American foreign policy in the Middle East. Recent Pew polls found that Americans sympathize more with the Israeli cause than with the Palestinian one by a margin of 49 percent to 12 percent, and they have consistently favored a “pro-Israel” foreign policy. When the House and the Senate overwhelming endorse pro-Israel resolutions, and when they tell presidents that they can’t cut Israel’s aid, those politicians are responding to the will of their constituents.
Over time, and especially since 9/11, American public opinion has become significantly more pro-Israel. While some Americans believe that our connection with Israel makes the US a target of radical nut jobs in the Middle East and needlessly stirs up hate against us, most see Israel as an important strategic ally in a dangerous part of the world. While some Americans see Israel as an oppressive, quasi-apartheid state imposing an iron and unfair rule on innocent Palestinians, more think Israel isn’t doing so badly considering its unique and difficult circumstances. While some think Israel overreacts in its responses to Palestinian terror attacks (building the “wall” to stop Palestinian suicide bombers entering Israel, attacking Gaza in retaliation for sporadic rocket attacks), many more Americans think Israel has every right to defend itself from terror attacks by any means necessary.
If American Jews actually controlled American policy in the Middle East, it’s likely that our policies would be much more dovish and much more nuanced. American Jews by and large are more liberal than the general public on almost every issue, and that emphatically includes the Middle East. While there are some prominent Jewish hawks, there are many more prominent Jewish doves. Barack Obama received far more electoral and financial support from Jewish donors than Mitt Romney in 2012, just as he received far more financial and electoral support than John McCain in 2008.
If American Jews controlled American elections we would not have had a single Republican president since World War II. If American Jews controlled Israeli elections there would never have been a Likud government and neither the ultra-Orthodox nor the pro-settlement parties would be represented in the cabinet. Over and over and over again in American politics, doves and anti-settlement candidates get more Jewish votes and more Jewish money than their opponents—and over and over and over again, people around the world blame American Middle Eastern policy on the hidden but irresistible power of “the Jews.” They will then swear up and down that they aren’t anti-Semites. And they have a point: what could possibly be anti-Semitic about claiming that secret cabals of all-powerful Jews use their oceans of cash and their control of the media to dominate the policies of the most powerful country in the world?
There are, of course, significant numbers of American Jews who support Prime Minister Netanyahu and parties and movements to his right. Some of the most radical (and in our opinion, wrongheaded) members of the settler movement in Israel are ultra-Zionist immigrants from the United States. Some of the people who share these views are very wealthy, and some are very interested in generating support for their policy views. Organizations like AIPAC benefit from their loyalty and their support and, clearly, AIPAC and its friends win a lot of battles in Congress.
But those who think right wing, ultra-Zionist Jews control the American debate over Israel policy don’t understand American politics very well. In the first place, a politician simply motivated by the desire to get Jewish campaign contributions would have better luck working the anti-AIPAC side of the street. Liberal Hollywood and the overwhelming preponderance of wealthy Jews who care about the Middle East prefer politicians who take a softer and more nuanced line.
In the second place, there are some things AIPAC and its peers can do, and many others they cannot. For 26 years now the “Israel lobby” has been trying to spring Jonathan Pollard; for 26 years he has been rotting in jail.
There are other things the “Israel lobby” opposes that the United States regularly does. Many of our Gulf Arab allies now have access to some of the most advanced weapons we possess. Ultra-Zionist groups don’t want the United States to pressure Israel at all over settlements and have never liked the two-state formula, but the United States continues to oppose settlements and continues to predicate its peace diplomacy on the two-state solution. The “Israel lobby” has been fighting for decades to get the United States to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The embassy remains in Tel Aviv.
The reality is that the “Israel lobby” is extremely powerful when its goals accord with non-Jewish American public opinion, but it runs out of steam when it goes against that opinion. It is irresistible when its demands accord with the general disposition of non-Jewish Americans to support the Jewish state; it immediately becomes feeble if it takes up an issue (like a pardon for Pollard) that this public opinion dislikes.
Some are ready to concede this point but think they can still attribute American policy to those cunning and all-powerful Jews. Their answer is “the media.” American public opinion supports Israel because the clueless and idiotic Americans—so much less sophisticated, so much more poorly educated, so much less rational in their thinking than the enlightened publics of Egypt, Pakistan, Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and Argentina, where a vigilant populace is alert to the insidious plots of the Jews—are fooled by the “Jewish media” into backing the Jewish state.
Once again, this approach betrays a weird combination of anti-Semitic assumptions about Jewish power and cohesion with profound ignorance about American life. The producers of mainstream media coverage in the United States are much closer in their editorial view to what we might call the conventional European vision of the conflict than to the right-wing Israeli view. Ask most correspondents and editors in the media for their private views of the conflict, and they will tell you pretty much what their colleagues in European media would say. That isn’t just true of the working stiffs; generally speaking (with some exceptions at Fox), the upper management of these media outlets is closer to the European than to the Likud view.
But news outlets need eyeballs, and the American public doesn’t want to watch harrowing stories of Palestinian suffering, and it tunes out the ‘blame Israel’ narrative. The public likes Israel, thinks it is a good thing, and rejoices when it does well. What many Europeans and others see as pro-Israel media bias in the United States doesn’t cause pro-Israel public opinion; public opinion imposes an orientation on the media—which many media outlets do their best to resist.
When President Obama lands in Israel, he will be representing a nation that has long seen the existence and security of a Jewish state as an important international achievement, as a step forward on humanity’s long march to a better world. When he speaks to Israelis about America’s commitment to their security, he will be speaking for one of the strongest and most durable points of consensus in all of American foreign policy.
He will not be in thrall to a Jewish-Zionist cabal. He will not be the mouthpiece for the Elders of Zion. He will not be a puppet and no-one will be pulling his strings. He will be speaking about enduring American values, and when he tells Israel that America stands with it, a solid majority of the American people are ready to back that up.
Most Americans want Israel to thrive, and they want it to find peace with its neighbors. That doesn’t mean they want to give it everything it wants, and it doesn’t mean that American presidents will agree to every demand Israeli prime ministers make. This President, like his predecessors, will do what he can to ensure Israel’s security while looking to promote its peaceful integration into the region. It is a hard task, sometimes a thankless one, and one that sometimes sets American policy at variance with Israel. Not every American president manages it equally well, and the current incumbent has had to climb up a steep learning curve.
But helping Israel survive, thrive, and find peace is likely to remain an important American foreign policy objective far into the future. The 98 percent plus of Americans who aren’t Jewish wouldn’t have it any other way.