A Tale of Two Pro-Israel Evenings and What They Mean in 2016

Alan Elsner Image
Alan Elsner
on April 19, 2016

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On two recent Monday evenings in Washington DC, major US political figures addressed pro-Israel audiences. Their speeches could not have been more different.

On March 21, Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump appeared before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), winning ovation after ovation, especially when he declared that President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “have treated Israel very badly.” (Next day, the president of AIPAC tearfully apologized for this disrespect to President Obama).

Reading from a prepared text, Trump placed all the blame for the current impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts on the Palestinians – and on the Obama administration for, in his words, “applying pressure to Israel.” He also repeated the well-worn promise to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a pledge often made by presidential candidates and never fulfilled. (Ted Cruz has also promised to move the embassy while John Kasich has said he would “prefer” to see it located there.)

Exactly three weeks later, both Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden spoke to the national gala of J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy organization celebrating its eighth anniversary, for whom I work as Special Adviser to the President.

Kerry promised to keep working for a two-state peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians as the only solution, “because anything else will not be Jewish and it will not be democratic – and we understand that.”

His argument is that if Israel continues to rule over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, it will eventually have to choose between granting them civil rights including the right to vote – in which case Israel would no longer be able to protect its Jewish majority and character – or denying them those rights – in which case it could no longer claim to be a democracy.

Biden made the same point, using more passionate language.

“We have an overwhelming obligation, notwithstanding our sometimes overwhelming frustration with the Israeli government, to push them as hard as we can toward what they know in their gut is the only ultimate solution, a two-state solution, while at the same time be an absolute guarantor of their security,” he said.

“I firmly believe that the actions that Israel’s government has taken over the past the past several years — the steady and systematic expansion of settlements, the legalization of outposts, land seizures — they’re moving us and more importantly they’re moving Israel in the wrong direction,” Biden said.

What can we learn from these events?

In the past 20 years, as Israeli governments have become more and more dominated by the settler movement, which wants to keep the West Bank as part of a Greater Israel, much of the American-Jewish establishment has moved to the right with them. Today’s narrow coalition presided over by Benjamin Netanyahu is the most right-wing in Israel’s history and Netanyahu has made no secret, in word and deed, of his strong preference for Republicans in the United States and his disdain for President Obama.

But American Jews remain predominantly progressive. Pollster Alan Cooperman of the Pew Research Center says 70 to 80 percent have voted for Democrats in the past five presidential elections. The emerging young generation of American Jews are passionate proponents of social justice- and they are not prepared to abandon these values when it comes to Israel. Many no longer feel represented by the traditional American Jewish organizations which have marched lockstep with Netanyahu and the settler movement.

Last week’s exchange between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in their Brooklyn debate on Israel and the Palestinians was another liberating moment. Finally, presidential candidates, at least on the Democratic side, seem to have realized that the way appeal to Jewish voters is to put forward sensible, balanced policies based on US interests and values.

Both candidates addressed not only Israel’s need for security and peace – but also the Palestinians as actual human beings who are suffering and also have rights and needs that must be met. There was also a substantive debate of the complexities of the 2014 war between Israel and Gaza.

These events have shown that things are changing in America’s political discourse about Israel. It’s about time.

Alan Elsner is Special Advisor to the President at J Street. He’s on Twitter at @alanelsner

This piece was originally published in HuffPost Politics