Israel-United States relations are at the crossroads with the departure from office of Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving PM of the Jewish state. Indian interests in the US cannot be immune from the vicissitudes of this existential foreign policy challenge for Naftali Bennett as he settles down as the head of a new government in Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu crossed the line when he implied that US President Joe Biden was a Nazi facilitator in his final speech to Knesset as PM. By returning to the nuclear deal with Iran, junked by Donald Trump, Netanyahu said Biden was acting like World War era US President Franklin Roosevelt, who could have bombed train tracks in Poland before Holocaust victims were transported to their deaths in Auschwitz.
Roosevelt failed to stop the mass movement of Jews to concentration camps in Poland, when he could have halted the genocidal transportation by bombing the rail lines or train engines. Netanyahu said the US neglected European Jews when they were being exterminated, and the nuclear deal with Iran, which Obama and Biden joined when they were President and Vice-President, was similar.
By remaining in office too long, arguably beyond the years for his own country’s good, getting trapped in an echo chamber and believing in his own infallibility, Netanyahu became blind to the changing realities of Jewish America. The diaspora, which has had a whip hand on US policies towards Israel for decades, is no longer what it was when Netanyahu lived in Massachusetts in the 1970s, or when he was Deputy Chief of Mission with the rank of minister at the Israeli embassy in Washington in the 1980s.
American Jews are no longer a monolithic group. When they migrated from Europe, they placed support for the new Jewish state above all else. When Arabs and Israel went to war, they abandoned their newly-adopted country and went back to their “Promised Land” to fight for Israel. In many American homes, Jewish kids woke up and found their father gone: to join the Yom Kippur war. This was a community which toiled unitedly to build an impregnable wall of support for Israel at the grassroots, in the US media, banking and finance, the strategic community, academia, and above all, in the US Congress, the White House and successive administrations. Nothing was left to chance.
If US-India relations are what they are today, the role of the American Jewish community in promoting them is one that is yet to be sufficiently explored in public domains. It deserves to be researched and brought out as a vital contribution to contemporary diplomatic history. Comfortable with the innings it has scored during the Netanyahu years, India is lagging in proactive responses to deep changes that are taking place among American Jews. With Bennett replacing Netanyahu, this poses a challenge.
When the history of the Trump years is written, it will be seen that his thoughtless, mindless spur-of-the-moment style of diplomacy damaged Israel much more than those whom his policies were supposed to damage. Trump was a catalyst in splitting open divisions among American Jews, which were simmering before he transformed from a businessman to President.
When the US presidential election was still going through the process of primaries, five presidential hopefuls spoke at the national conference of J Street, which is gaining support as a counterweight to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which hitherto had an unchallenged lead role in Washington in advocacy for Israel. J Street was founded in 2007 as a progressive Jewish organisation, but it languished until Trump tried to outdo American Jews in professed support for Israel. Five other presumptive presidential candidates spoke via video. Three of the 10 leaders who spoke said the unthinkable: that if they were in the White House they would use US aid to Israel to rein in Tel Aviv’s policies on new Jewish settlements in territories occupied by Israel and on the annexation of West Bank.
Bernie Sanders, a Jew whose withdrawal from the race paved the way for Biden’s nomination, said: “It is not anti-Semitism to say that the Netanyahu government has been racist.” Pete Buttigieg said Americans ought to be “committed to the US-Israel alliance” without endorsing “individual policy choices” made by Netanyahu. The Center for American Progress, headed by Indian American Neera Tanden, has produced a report which recommends that the US should have a “policy alternative” of conditional aid to Israel.
These are not empty words of no consequence. Buttigieg is now in Biden’s cabinet as secretary of transportation. Tanden is in the White House as senior adviser to Biden. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who spoke to J Street, too, favours using US aid to control Israel’s policies. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet also addressed the conference. Although they declined to endorse the aid-for-peace policy, they count in the Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill. But it is the policy position of Sanders that will matter in the twists and turns of Biden’s Israel policy in the months ahead. He is the conscience of the Democratic Party and he is a Jew, although not an observant one.
India needs to take into serious account the emerging trends in the Jewish diaspora. It must build bridges with the powerful Jewish groups which count in the Democratic Party and will be crucial in the next four years of the Biden presidency. India must not lose sight of the fact that Douglas Emhoff, husband of Vice-President Kamala Harris, is a progressive Jew. Siddhartha Shankar Ray, who began courting the Jewish diaspora as ambassador in Washington, and most of his successors, put all their eggs with time-tested and traditional Jewish American groups. This has served India well. Measures like the India-US nuclear deal would not have passed in the US Congress without Jewish support. Bennett’s ascendancy to prime ministership is a good time to have a fresh look at our alliances with the powerful Jewish diaspora.
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