Benjamin Netanyahu’s defiant speech before Congress—with all its accompanying personal and political intrigue—was merely the starkest, and saddest, manifestation of an increasingly vulnerable alliance that while remaining strong has seen bedrock principles come under question. While the tendency to paper over growing differences by blaming the dysfunctional personal relationship between President Obama and Netanyahu—or reflexively repeating the rhetoric of an “unbreakable bond”—the reality is that Israel has become a partisan and generational issue in American politics.
While that reality is now reflected in a growing body of polling, what is often left unsaid is that, this tension has come about in no small part because each country has suffered similar traumas that have divergently re-shaped their respective political and generational landscapes.
Following the “peace dividend” of the 1990s, the United States, has seen a litany of crises—the horror of 9/11, the decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession—that have undermined trust in government and nearly every other major institution in American life.
Following its own post-Oslo “peace dividend,” Israel has seen a similar litany of crises: the Second Intifada, the strategic failures of the 2006 Lebanon war and three successive wars in Gaza, growing inequality and an ever more fractious society that have, likewise, undermined faith in Israeli institutions.
Yet, these parallel crises have had almost mirror image effects on each society, particularly their millennial generations.
In Israel, the left has been effectively destroyed—even for Israeli millennials, who often hold more hardline views than their “peacenik” parents. The weakening of the Israeli left has been exacerbated by repeated attacks on the Israeli homeland, the widespread experience of army service, as well as by Israel’s growing religious population. While countervailing forces have also emerged—the social and economic protests of 2011, for instance—for most of his tenure Netanyahu’s primary political concern has been his own right wing.
For America millennials, in contrast, these crises have damaged the right. Despite the immediacy of 9/11, the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—borne directly by a small percentage of Americans—has shifted American foreign policy towards a reluctance to intervene. On the domestic front, while the country has polarized even further during the Great Recession with the parallel rise of Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street populism, millennials have largely moved left.
But even as this divergence has occurred, both countries are now searching for a new model in their internal politics—a growing “anybody but Bibi” movement in Israel and widespread disillusionment both with a Republican Congress and with Obama’s initial promise of “hope and change.” This effort itself may bring new opportunities for renewed convergence between Israelis and Americans—if handled with care.
Which brings us to the tragedy of Netanyahu’s speech. The speech plays directly into the very politicization of Israel that he—and all supporters of Israel—decry. You could see the fraught nature of the speech’s origins (Republicans invited a foreign leader to Congress without coordinating with the Obama Administration) play out on Tuesday. The prime minister was well received by Republicans, who gave him numerous standing ovations: if he were born in America, Bibi might be the leading 2016 GOP candidate. But Democrats in Congress, while polite, were much less inclined to literally stand with Netanyahu—and that doesn’t include the approximately 60 Democrats who boycotted the speech.
That poses the risk that Israel will just become another with-us-or-against-us choice in the buffet line of America’s increasingly tribal politics (see gay marriage, guns, or taxes). You could start to see signs of this in the contrast between Netanyahu’s Reaganesque refrains and the snark it simultaneously received on Twitter. Beyond the Beltway, Netanyahu’s speech played into the growing divide among the American public on Israel. Democrats—especially the younger, female, and more minority coalition of Obama—are more skeptical of Israel than Republicans voters, who skew white, male and older.
Support for Israel across the American public remains broad and the day-to-day relationship still has many strong pillars: from close political and military cooperation to deep economic ties to profound cultural, religious, and historical connections. The relationship remains classically one of “shared interests and shared values,” a much stronger formulation than the “mutual interest and mutual respect” that President Obama articulated in his 2009 Cairo speech for a “new beginning” with the Muslim world.
But while the pillars of the relationship remain strong, they are nevertheless changing—with increasing fragmentation both within and across the two societies. Even if the Israeli electorate replaces Netanyahu with a more liberal alternative on March 17 or the American electorate shifts rightward in 2016, an alliance set in an atmosphere of increased polarization is one that must be far more carefully managed than it has been in recent days and in recent years.