By Philip Johnson
Last month, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declared that American aid to Israel is “something that can be discussed” in Washington. Her comments made news precisely because America’s policy of giving Israel billions in aid without expecting any policy changes in return hasn’t actually been discussed — or at least questioned — in either party in more than a quarter-century. That needs to change.
To understand why, ask yourself this question: Why did Israelis last month re-elect a prime minister who opposes a Palestinian state and — by championing settlement growth and vowing to annex parts of the West Bank — is working to make one impossible?
There are several common answers. One is historical: Over the last two decades the second intifada and rocket fire from the Gaza Strip have created an enduring right-wing majority among Israeli Jews. A second answer is demographic: Netanyahu’s center-left rivals lean heavily on the votes of secular Ashkenazi Jews, whose share of the Israeli population is shrinking. Netanyahu relies more on Orthodox Jews, whose share is rising.
There’s truth to both these explanations. But there’s a third, which American politicians and pundits rarely acknowledge: Israelis re-elected Netanyahu because he showed them he could undermine the two-state solution with international impunity. Indeed, he made that accomplishment a central theme of his campaign.
Again and again in recent years, Netanyahu has mocked political rivals who warned that his policies toward the Palestinians were making Israel a global pariah. In a speech to supporters in 2017 he quoted former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who predicted in 2011 that, “Israel’s delegitimization is on the horizon.” To which Netanyahu responded, “Nonsense… Israel is enjoying an unparalleled diplomatic spring.”
In a campaign ad this year, Netanyahu juxtaposed an ominous 2013 quote from former foreign minister Tzipi Livni — “The prime minister of Israel is leading the State of Israel to severe isolation” — with images of him alongside Donald Trump and other world leaders. In another ad, he showed himself in the Oval Office telling a dejected-looking Barack Obama that Israel will never return to the 1967 lines.
Netanyahu’s message, as Hagai El-Ad of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has noted, was that Israel can have it all: It can deny Palestinians basic rights and enjoy international favor at the same time. Even presidents like Obama, who disapprove of Israel’s actions, don’t penalize Israel for them. They fold.
Netanyahu was right. It’s not just Trump who has enabled his assault on the two-state solution. Obama did too. For eight years as president, Obama warned that Israeli policies in the West Bank were endangering Palestinian rights, American interests and Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish state.
And yet, during those eight years, Obama never used American aid to Israel as a lever to change the policies he decried. Obama watched Netanyahu rebuff him again and again. He watched as Netanyahu in 2011 travelled to the White House to publicly repudiate his vision of a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines.
He watched as Netanyahu in 2014 “flatly refused” to give Secretary of State John Kerry “the slightest hint about the scale of the territorial concessions” he was willing to make to the Palestinians. He watched as Netanyahu used settlement growth to “sabotage,” in the words of one American official, Kerry’s efforts at brokering a two-state deal.
Then, after all that — and after Netanyahu’s fervent lobbying against the Iran nuclear agreement — Obama in 2016 rewarded him with the largest military aid package in Israeli history.
“America is a thing you can move very easily,” Netanyahu once boasted to settlers. Obama and Trump have both illustrated the point.