When you’ve Lost Bernie Sanders: How Netanyahu destroyed the Israel Lobby

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

Senator Bernie Sanders, the most consistent and prominent progressive in the US Senate, has decided to skip the speech of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Congress on March 3, which was orchestrated by Israel’s ambassador to the US Ron Dermer and Speaker of the House John Boehner in an attempt to derail President Obama’s negotiations with Iran over its civilian nuclear enrichment program. It is Bibi’s Kanye West moment.

Sanders’s announcement may well signal a turning point in the domestic politics of Mideast policy. Sanders runs as a Socialist but might well announce his candidacy within the Democratic Party for president in the 2016 race. He can’t win, of course, but could push the electoral issues to the left. He in any case caucuses with the Democrats. Despite his strong progressive vision, Sanders has in the past been reluctant to criticize Israel. He, like many on the American left, held up Israel in general as a progressive cause, regardless of the country’s colonial actions in the Palestinian West Bank or its illegal blockade of Gaza

Obama believes that a deal can be had whereby Iran is allowed to enrich uranium for reactor fuel but through restrictions and inspections can be kept from ever militarizing the program. Boehner and Netanyahu believe that Iran’s enrichment program must be closed down to forestall the development of a bomb by Tehran. Israel is currently the only nuclear power in the region, which makes it a regional hegemon, a position it might lose if it were one of many nuclear powers.

The Israel lobbies as a project of Jewish nationalism have long depended primarily on three tactics for their success. 1) They brutally punish those critical of Israeli policy (no matter how justified the criticism) with boycotts, smears and blackballing; 2) They marshal American Jewish groups into unanimity in support of Israel regardless of the latter’s feelings about certain policies, and 3) they use political donations to shape Congressional and general political discourse on Israel in official circles.

The Israel lobbies are not by any means unique, since there are Cuban, Armenian and other ethnic lobbies. And of course there are many ideological lobbies, including that of the Koch brothers for a peculiar kind of conservatism (they say they are Libertarians but seek government policies favorable to their Oil businesses).

But the Israel lobbies are, while sometimes dealt defeat, remarkably successful among lobbies. And, whereas many wealthy conservatives might have objected to the views of Native Americans specialist Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, none of them pressured the chancellor with withdrawal of donations on the basis of conservatism. A Jewish nationalist donor did get Salaita fired over his private tweets, done on his own time and unconnected to his position in Native American studies, about the brutality of the Gaza War. Jewish nationalist legislators or those beholden to the Israel lobbies also routinely shoot down government appointments of officials insufficiently obsequious to Israel as a cause.

Rep. Steven Cohen (D-Tenn.) is also said to be leaning toward a boycott of Netanyahu’s speech. So are a number of other Jewish Congressmen on the Democratic side. And, Vice President Joe Biden’s own decision to boycott may sway many Democrats in Congress.

This stampede of Democratic legislators away from Netanyahu’s speech disrupts principles 2) and 3) above, and makes it difficult for the Israel lobbies to implement 1) consistently. Biden has been close for his entire career to the positions of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a coordinating body for 16,000 smaller lobbies that throw millions into congressional races. He may not have another race to run, and for the lobbies to try to smear or punish him would surely backfire on them. It would also signal to younger politicians that it is dangerous to take their money because they are fickle and intolerant of the slightest dissent. I have argued that for many reasons, Israel is becoming more a Republican Party project than a Democratic one. Many in the GOP agree and hope this development will bring US Jews, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic, over to the Republicans. But another development is possible, which is that Jewish Democrats may become less supportive of an increasingly far rightwing Israel.

By overreaching, Netanyahu may be shattering the hammer his partisans in the US have used to destroy critics of his policies in America. And Mideast policy in the US may never be quite the same.

Related video:

“This Is the First Senator to Say He’ll Skip Netanyahu Speech”

41 Responses

  1. Demographics, demographics, and more demographics.

    Like many people, Bibi appears to be thinking the future will be just like the past, but it will not. As a result of invalid thinking, Bibi is alienating the exact people Israel will need in the near to long term future.

    Right now, over 60% of the US population is under 45 (per us census data) and most of those tend to skew democratic, whereas the population over 50 is decreasing by the day due to age related deaths. The older population tends to skew toward republicans.

    Then there is the race situation where republicans tend to be white and the rest of the varied population tends to be democratic. The white population is decreasing as a percentage of the population.

    So Bibi is playing a very bad short-term game that will make Israel’s future very dim. Especially since many of the tricks that worked in the past no longer work:

    – those under 45 just do not care about the Holocaust or WW2. It is meaningless ancient history to them and not even a little part of their lives. Sure the people in Israel are soaked in the mythology every day, but not those outside Israel. Invoking the Holocaust or Jewish persecution outside Israel gets a “I don’t care” response.

    – Except in certain areas with a large Jewish population, it no longer hurts to question Israel and in fact may be a plus in many areas, especially when coupled with strong American populism talk.

    The bottom line is Israel no longer has a hold on the American population. The “feel good” “no consequences” questions on the polls already show a steady decline in support for Israel. If the polling firms every asked real questions about Israel and its consequences for Americans, the “real” support for Israel would scare the heck out of Israelis (it would be that low).

    Although the Israeli PR machine is slow on the uptake, I suspect that American opinion will sharply and swiftly shift over the next few years, leading to much less support for Israel.

    • You should consider the possibility that the Likud is training the GOP in the art of disenfranchising an incipient young, non-white majority via smear campaigns, terrorism/crime myths, and a quiet erosion of voting rights. What they do to their Arab citizens, will be done to those young Americans you describe. No democracy, no problem.

      • Disenfranchising a young, non-white majority only works for a short time, then it backfires big time as many “leaders” throughout history have learned too late to save themselves.

        In the short term the republicans can indeed suppress the majority, but in the long term, they will not only lose power but suffer dire consequences for their short term behavior.

        This the BIG problem with short-term thinking – the rewards are temporary and the damages are severe and long lasting. In the long term, the majority always wins.

  2. Personally, I hope Iran does not reach a deal with Obama to stop it’s non-existent program. This will make if more likely that Iran turns east like Russia and Turkey, towards China, and blunt Obama’s warmongering against Russia that has put us on a collision course towards WW3 nuclear armed conflict. It will stymie Obama’s Imperial drive for “full spectrum dominance” which will only make matter worse on planet earth, and may deter him from all the trouble he is causing in Ukraine, too. “Everywhere the U.S. goes turns into Libya or Iraq” – Putin.

  3. Senator Bernie Sanders says the obvious: The USA President is the Commander in chief of the USA Military. The opposite to it is treason, particularly if you are a senator or Representative to the USA Congress.

    • You are correct, President Obama is the Commander in Chief of the US Military. Senators and/or Congresspeople are not members of the military, hence they are not bound to “obey” the President when pursuing their roles as elected representatives of their constituents, and therefore are not committing treason. FYI, We have 3 branches of government, all equal. Congresspeople and Senators belong to one, the President belongs to another, the Supreme Court is the third. They frequently disagree with one another. It’s how the system was designed.

  4. I hope that this will weaken the lobby, but I just do not see 11 congresspersons and one senator as a stampede. Maybe if the senator were Schumer and not Sanders, I would be more hopeful.

    This whole speech controversy and its implied threat of sanctions must be making it much harder for Iranian officials who want an agreement, to sell it to the Iranian hardliners and the public. Score one for the Israeli PM.

    Despite Netanyahu’s unprecedented challenge to the US Pres., Democrats are still attending and treating the Israeli PM with more deference than they treat their own Pres.

    The lobby money is still there, and it will continue to influence US Israel relations for the foreseeable future. But they do not always get their way, and I hope that will be the case with Iran.

    • Maybe if the senator were Schumer …

      If it were Schumer we would do well to begin preparing for the End Times.

    • “11 congresspersons and one senator [are not] a stampede”

      Give them time. Last week, there were only one or two, total. Now there are 12. The ball is just starting to roll.

      • And supposing time reverses the trend, and fewer Congressmen boycott Netanyahu’s speech than promised to as of today?

        The Israel Lobby has forced a game of chicken on the Democratic Party. You’re all counting on the Democratic Party to not back down, ultimately.

        I wouldn’t put money on that, personally.

    • Progressives have spent 6 years whining about Obama’s compromises and spurning him because he didn’t treat them as the entirety of the Party. Well, welcome to what the Democratic Party and mainstream America really are. Bribed, brainwashed, wanting simple answers to complex problems, and total cowards when it comes to following their own progressive leanings.

  5. As a native of UIUC’s hometown, I have to say that it is Urbana-Champaign, not Urbana Champagne :)

  6. As a Vermonter, former Princeton professor, and former officer in the US Navy, I am delighted by Bernie’s refusal to attend N.’s speech. B. has strong support in Vt. Bob Gilpin
    s

  7. I sure hope you’re right, Professor Cole. One of my biggest disappointments was when Senators Sanders and Warren jumped on the pro-Israeli bandwagon over the Gaza massacre. Israel is the true third-rail of American politics. The American people, while still supporting Israel but with a smaller majority, is way ahead of Congress, where the support is almost unanimous. Hopefully the American people will come to realize that Israel is much more a liability than an asset.

  8. If someone sufficiently qualified were to write a book explaining how politicians can manage to talk out of both sides of their mouths for extended periods without going insane that book would probably be a best seller. There are several people in Congress that have taken good progressive stands on some issues but have also managed to do a Jekyll-and-Hyde act and support war crimes such as Operation Protective Edge. If only one profile in courage would rise and speak truthfully to the American people and damn the campaign donors.

  9. “Many in the GOP agree and hope this development will bring US Jews, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic, over to the Republicans.”

    Jewish voters aren’t the issue. This is an effort to deprive the Democrats of Jewish donors, and it is a real threat.

      • Capt A: Adelson is, of course a GOP super donor, so he is not an example. A very high percentage of individual donors to Democratic candidates and super donors (e.g. Haim Saban) are older liberal Zionists – liberals on most every issue except Israel. As an example, remember that AIPAC started when socialists ran Israel and has remained solidary with it now that far right-wingers do.

  10. Well, “destroyed” is perhaps far too strong a word.

    Maybe “jumped the shark” is a better phrase, since Bibi’s little stunt in front of Congress might well represent the moment when this long-running sitcom descended into cringe-worthy farce.

  11. Professor Cole;
    I think you underestimate the power of Fundamentalist Christians in the Republican Base to bolster the Israel Lobby.
    Many of those people believe Obama is the Anti-Christ and the world will end soon as predicted in the Book of Revelations.
    This is often hard for rational people living in the scientific, technical world to understand, but this is really part of these people’s world view and no amount of reality can penetrate this cultic belief.
    Then there is the Money. Dose anyone really know what the new rules will bring?

    • I think you’re right. Look at orgs like Christians United for Israel and Bridges for Peace. Google “Bless Israel” to see examples of this, or google “Christian Zionism”. My own opinion is these beliefs border on heresy: worshipping the land instead of the deity.

    • “Friends may come and go, but enemies accumulate” – Thomas Jones (1892 – 1969)

      Once Israel accumulates enough enemies and loses enough “friends” it is gone. Israel is tiny and does not have enough resources (cannon fodder, war toys and wealth) to avoid losing a massive war.

      In reality, the world is awash in war toys equal to or better than anything Israel has or will ever have and Israeli military leadership is no better than any other on earth.

      Note also that EVERY military that has ever existed on this earth has eventually suffered massive humiliating defeat and the same will happen to Israel.

      The myth of the “magical” Israeli warrior is just a myth with no basis in fact.

      Israel can and will be defeated if it does not drastically change its behavior – count on it.

      BTW – If Israel ever uses any of its nukes it is guaranteed to disappear – that is, it will be committing suicide, and suicide is the definition of giving up in defeat.

  12. “Israel is currently the only nuclear power in the region, which makes it a regional hegemon, a position it might lose if it were one of many nuclear powers.”
    Of course, Israel is NOT, like Iran, a signatory of the NPT, and coyly does not admit its arsenal.

    • Israel can’t admit that it has nuclear weapons but hasn’t joined the NNPT. According to US law – the Symington Amendment – most aid to such a country would have to be cut off. But of course, the rule of law in the US has had a couple pretty rough years lately.

  13. The trick of the Israel Lobby was finding a way to root itself into both parties. Thus it can’t lose. Every other cause in our country is allocated to one of the two factions, and gets its recent gains undone when the wrong one takes power… unless it serves the cause of business. The Right now even attacks the idea that the Confederacy was wrong, meaning it is actually more committed to the survival of Israel than of the United States of America.

  14. Yes we have watched and lobbied against so called “liberal” Dems fall in line when it comes to Israel…no matter what they do. for decades this has been the case. Truly a shift taking place. Monumental in so many ways

  15. We need a betting pool on how many standing ovations Bibi gets from congress. I will take 3. Congress will only give him 3, because Congress will want to look “subdued” in light of the advanced criticism IMHO.
    What is your bet?

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