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Parallel political upheavals in Israel and the United States could spell great danger for their alliance. In the United States, the Republican Party is about to nominate as its presidential candidate a charismatic and erratic authoritarian. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just consolidated a government that is among the most right-wing in the country’s history.
On the surface, of course, one might imagine that these parallel developments could bring the two countries closer together, in a kind of axis of conservatism. That’s what former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee had in mind when he observed, on a recent trip to Israel, that Trump’s repeated calls for closing America’s borders to Muslims would just bring the United States into line with Israeli thinking. But there’s a big difference between the cases (even leaving aside Israel’s special circumstances or the fact that its citizenry is already 20 percent Muslim or Christian Arab). In Israel, the government’s inclination toward tribal authoritarianism is the product of a growing religious, nationalist, and majoritarian trend. American Trumpismo, by contrast, is a last-ditch defense of conservative whites who see that their majority position is fast eroding. Netanyahu and his ultra-rightist coalition partners look like Israel’s future, whereas the version of the Republican Party that Donald Trump would lead appears headed for the dustbin of history.
The two countries are both changing radically, but they are moving in very different directions.
Israel is the clearer case. At the annual Herzliya conference in June, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was Netanyahu’s defense minister in a previous coalition government, excoriated Likud and its leader for putting Israel’s government into “the hands of fanatics” who are clamping down on the country’s proudly independent judiciary and repressing dissent in education, culture, and civil society. “If it walks like a fascist, talks like a fascist, barks like a fascist, then it is a fascist,” said Barak in astonishing remarks. He also spoke of the Netanyahu government’s secret plans to finally kill off the moribund two-state solution by expanding settlements on the West Bank until Greater Israel is a fait accompli.
But if the Israeli right is hiding anything, it is only from the outside world and, crucially, its U.S. ally. At home in Israel, there is plenty of support for these policies. In the struggle between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (the short-hand terms that Israelis use for their divided society, with Tel Aviv representing more liberal and secular traditions and Jerusalem representing a national-religious approach), Jerusalem has achieved what may be permanent dominance. Surveys of young Israeli Jews already show a sharp decline in support for Israel’s identity as a democratic state, from 26.1 percent in 1998 to 14.3 percent today. At present, half of all Israeli pre-school children are either Arab or ultra-orthodox. Whereas Israeli Arabs reproduce at roughly the same rate—three children per couple—as secular Israeli Jews, the ultra-orthodox birth-rate is an astonishing 7.7 children per couple. Over time, in other words, the growing religious population will only become even more powerful in Israeli politics and society, including the Israel Defense Force. In 1990, 2.5 percent of officer candidates self-identified as religious. In 2008, the figure was 26 percent.
The religious surge is important because religious beliefs tend to correlate with attitudes that could further weaken the commitment to democracy. When asked, for example, whether there should be full equality of rights between Jews and Arabs, about two-thirds of secular respondents agreed, a little over half of the “traditional” Jewish respondents agreed, and approximately one-third of “religious” Jewish Israelis agreed, while only 28 percent of Haredim agreed. Roughly one-third of the growing West Bank settler population is Haredi, making the prospect of a withdrawal from the West Bank even more unlikely. Further, in a survey released in 2014, between 55 and 58 percent of Haredi and other Orthodox respondents said that soldiers ordered to evacuate settlements have a duty to disobey. One Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was already assassinated for contemplating such an evacuation, and the specter of civil conflict haunts any other prime minister who decides to actually order it. Israel’s future, in any event, looks more religious, more ethno-nationalist, and less democratic.
A recent Pew survey found that 57 percent of self-styled “liberal Democrats” sympathized with Palestinians more than Israel.In the United States, the situation is more complicated, yet demographic trends point to a citizenry that is more diverse and more liberal. Of course, the United States remains deeply polarized, and Republicans have ridden the anger of a large and adamant conservative minority to strong positions in statehouses and both houses of Congress. The ascent of Trump, however, indicates a broken party and a cause of future trouble as well. He is likely to wreck Republican prospects for decades to come. Consider just the potential effect of his nomination on the growing percentage of Hispanic voters. As a consequence of Trump, they could be lost to the party for another half century, just like African-Americans have resolutely shunned the GOP for the 52 years since Barry Goldwater opposed the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Meanwhile, young Americans are more liberal, less religious, and less pro-Israeli than their parents. A recent Pew survey found that 57 percent of self-styled “liberal Democrats” sympathized with Palestinians more than Israel; the same survey indicated that younger Democrats were more likely to call themselves liberal. Even among American Jews, the connection to Israel is weakening. A religious connection to Jewish identity would have faded in any case; American Jews reflect a broader youth trend toward “no religion.” Among younger “no religions,” the number who consider an attachment to Israel an essential part of being Jewish is about one in five, about half the rate for religious Jews. This large segment of only loosely affiliated American Jewry will be less likely to vote on the basis of their feelings for Israel and somewhat more likely to object to Israeli policies that don’t align with their generally liberal worldview.
In a way, these shifts are unsurprising. The post-war generation was deeply imprinted with the importance of World War II, the enormity of the Holocaust, and the plight of an embattled Jewish state beset by neighbors that were vowing well into the 1970s to end its existence (as Iran still does). But that generation is rapidly fading. Hillary Clinton, whose personal commitment to Israel is beyond dispute, acknowledged as much in a speech last fall. “Because there is a new generation in both countries today,” she said, “that does not remember our shared past… they are growing up in a different world.”
Meanwhile, despite Trump’s foreign-policy incoherence, the Israeli government might well be tempted to bet the future of the U.S.-Israel alliance on Republicans, as it did in 2012 when Netanyahu evidently counted on Obama’s eviction from the White House.
This kind of polarization, with the Israeli right linked to a vocally Islamophobic Republican Party, might encourage greater ugliness on the American left as well. At present, almost all Democratic legislators in Congress share Clinton’s fierce commitment to Israel. Yet with Israel becoming a partisan and ideological issue, an anti-Zionist left could emerge. There are already signs of this trend on American campuses, where illiberal intolerance, the BDS movement against Israel, and radical rhetoric tinged with anti-Semitism have all become more common.
For Americans who have subscribed to a vision of liberal Zionism, the deepening polarization of the U.S.-Israeli relationship is profoundly disturbing. The emotional dimension of the American connection to Israel is complex. Yet the cognitive process that has sustained it is a fairly simple one of mirror imaging. Americans looked at Israel and saw themselves. Whatever their growing differences, Israel and America are historically bound together. The U.S. commitment to Israel is a strategic and moral imperative, and it would be an immense tragedy to see it fade. Yet the mirror appears to be breaking.
There are, to be sure, intelligent and informed observers of the relationship who acknowledge the growing cultural gap yet conclude that strategic interest will keep the two countries aligned. Israel, they will note, is sure to remain more stable than neighboring Jordan or Egypt, let alone Syria or Yemen. This is true enough, yet it is no reason for complacency. After all, the U.S.-Israeli disputes of the past eight years were not just about moral questions, such as the treatment of Palestinians. There were in fact deep strategic disagreements over whether to bomb or negotiate with Iran and how to react to the convulsions in Egypt and other Arab states that followed the briefly hopeful Arab Spring. (Of course, the argument about Palestinians has strategic dimensions as well.)
For whatever reason, Israelis have distrusted Obama, despite the president’s fervent commitment to the Jewish state’s security and its democratic future. Obama, in any event, will soon leave office, and Clinton is very likely to succeed him. Whatever the Israeli government’s ideological complexion in the coming years, Jerusalem should take advantage of a very pro-Israel president to lock in its strategic relationship with the United States. To do so, it will have to take much more seriously the moral dimension of the relationship. This would mean finally coming to terms with the reality that the United States will not give up its opposition to West Bank settlements or to the de facto annexation of Palestinian land.
Meanwhile, the next administration should avoid the temptation to assume that deep differences with Israel can simply be managed. There is room for a bold initiative, a kind of grand bargain, in which the United States would rededicate itself in very concrete terms to Israel’s security, while Israel would agree to facilitate the creation of a Palestinian state along the lines envisaged by multiple U.S. administrations. But time is running out.
This article has been updated to remove a sentence that misidentified the profession and party affiliation of the father of Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the United States, and incorrectly stated that Mr. Dermer had helped draft Mr. Trump's AIPAC speech. We regret the error.