Securing a stable mandate is only Netanyahu’s most immediate challenge. His long-awaited trial on corruption charges starts later this month — a first for a sitting Israeli prime minister. Netanyahu can take heart that the specter of his indictments was not enough to dissuade an apparent plurality of voters from backing him. He ran a campaign in which he attacked Israel’s Arab minority, bemoaned his enemies in the media and once more hailed his close bonds with President Trump, who has doled out one concession after the other to Netanyahu’s government. On Monday night, even though it was far from clear he would return to power, Netanyahu faced the nation and gave what was effectively a victory speech.
Although Netanyahu may feel vindicated in his right-wing agenda — which Trump has backed aggressively — it has accelerated a parallel process that has huge implications for the future of the U.S.-Israeli ties. U.S. Democrats are increasingly wary of the Israeli prime minister and the trajectory of his rule. And there’s a growing divide between American Jews, particularly the younger generations, and the Israeli voting public.
This was on stark display at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference this week. AIPAC is the most influential pro-Israel organization in Washington and a mainstay in the city’s politics. But some leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination opted out of attending this year, including, most significantly, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the democratic socialist who could be the country’s first Jewish president. Sanders did not just politely decline his invitation to address AIPAC; he issued a statement attacking the organization for giving a platform to far-right figures, including evangelical pastors and nationalist European politicians, who “express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.” He branded Netanyahu a “reactionary racist.”
Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Danny Danon, fired back Sunday at the conference, calling Sanders “a liar, an ignorant fool or both.” Netanyahu himself addressed conference attendees via video, saying Sanders’s charges were “libelous.”
“What makes Sanders’s statement radical is his use of the word ‘bigotry’ in conjunction with Palestinian rights,” wrote Peter Beinart last week in Jewish Currents, a left-wing publication. “In establishment American discourse, the category of anti-Palestinian bigotry barely exists. That’s been the case for decades — not only among Republicans, but even among progressive Democrats.”
That’s starting to change: The United States has not matched the rightward drift of Israeli politics and public sentiment. “The Israeli government has moved right. AIPAC has gone with it,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington. “The American Jewish community has not.”
Other more centrist Democrats either sent messages or attended AIPAC, lauding bipartisan support for Israel while warning against any moves that could jeopardize that support. But Netanyahu appeared unmoved.
In his remarks to AIPAC, he suggested that with the effective blessing of the Trump administration, he would move forward with plans to annex Palestinian territory in the West Bank. There’s an expert consensus that annexation and Israeli construction in a corridor of land outside East Jerusalem would make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible, if it wasn’t already. Should Netanyahu cobble together a hard-right coalition, annexation would be a sure thing. The moribund two-state solution, sovereign Israeli and Palestinian states existing side-by-side — the strategic goal successive U.S. administrations pursued, until Trump — would die a final death.
The inevitable question, then, is what path the Washington establishment would pursue when it becomes clear the Palestinians will remain marooned in a land without their own sovereign state or full political rights. Because of their values, Goldenberg told Today’s WorldView, Democrats would increasingly prioritize the importance of a democratic state over the preservation of an indefinite military occupation. “In 10 to 15 years, with the two-state solution no longer viable, with Israel annexing parts of the West Bank, with an apartheid-like system in place, this is an inevitability,” he said.
Among Democrats, Sanders is possibly ahead of the curve in emphasizing the importance of Palestinian rights. “Bernie has moved the conversation significantly toward having a more open discussion and he increasingly reflects a view that’s prevalent, if not dominant, inside the Democratic Party,” said Goldenberg, who supports the candidacy of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
“Whatever happens with the Sanders candidacy, it is already having a positive effect, both for Israel and American Jews,” wrote Anshel Pfeffer in the center-left Israeli daily Haaretz, arguing that AIPAC’s influence was waning as a result of its overeager embrace of Netanyahu. “Most Jewish Democrats may not support him, but Sanders is saying what most of them are thinking — certainly younger Jews: Not only that Netanyahu and his government are racist, but that the Jewish-American establishment has enabled Netanyahu for far too long.”