I was honored to speak Wednesday night to the annual dinner of the Anglo-Israel Association in London.
For those interested, here follows the text of my speech (corrected and abridged from the version delivered).
Your Excellencies, My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen
I come to you today from a region of the earth torn by tribal hatred and distracted by extremist ideologies, where a privileged few wallow in luxury upon an influx of unearned wealth. I speak of course of Washington DC.
It’s a high honor to address the Anglo-Israel Association, a group that supports the Zionist ideal here in the country that did so much to make Zionism a reality – and where now the word “Zionist” is often flung as an epithet. To be a friend of Israel in the United States is easy. To stand with Israel in today’s London requires courage and character. On behalf of friends of Israel world-wide: I sincerely thank you for your important work here in what is not only the capital of a great country, but also in what might be described as the media capital of planet Earth.
I’m especially delighted to join with a group that unites Jews and Gentiles in support of Israel. Too often we see Jews, especially in this country, turning against Israel in hope of ingratiating themselves with those they perceive as holding power. The late Tony Judt, born in Britain, expressed this tendency with brutal frankness in 2003:
“Today, non-Israeli Jews feel themselves once again exposed to criticism and vulnerable to attack for things they didn’t do. But this time it is a Jewish state, not a Christian one, which is holding them hostage for its own actions.”
Some seem to hope that by defaming Israel they can avert that criticism. This delusion reminds me of an old joke.
A young man arrives, penniless and unknown, in a small Midwestern town. He gains a job at the local hardware store as a stock clerk. He excels. He becomes so valuable to the store that the owner takes him into partnership. He discovers opportunities in real estate investment, and together he and his new partner become rich. He marries his partner’s daughter, builds a home, has children, donates to local charities. At last the time comes: the no-longer-so-young man is invited to join the local country club. At the interview, the membership committee raises one last formality. This is a restricted club, so they must ask our protagonist’s religion. Just to be sure. He chuckles indulgently. “Don’t worry. I’m a goy.”
From each shore of the Atlantic, the other side can seem puzzling in a way well explained by the American humorist James Thurber. Thurber tells in one of his short stories about a scientist who encounters a talking lemming. The scientist seizes the chance to ask a question:
“I don’t understand,” said the scientist, “why you lemmings all rush down to the sea and drown yourselves.”
“How curious,” said the lemming. “The one thing I don’t understand is why you human beings don’t.”
Let’s see if we can develop an answer to some of those cross-Atlantic questions here tonight.
If you watched the most recent Republican presidential candidates debate on CNN – my network by the way, let me insert a commercial for them right here – you witnessed a remarkable spectacle.
Of the 8 candidates competing for the Republican presidential nomination, 7 declared themselves intense supporters of the State of Israel, the sole exception being crank no-hoper Ron Paul.
Here for example is former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney:
“[T]he right course for Israel is to show that we care about Israel, that they are our friend, we’ll stick with them. If I’m president of the United States, my first trip — my first foreign trip will be to Israel to show the world we care about that country and that region. “
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich:
“If my choice was to collaborate with the Israelis on a conventional campaign or force them to use their nuclear weapons, it will be an extraordinarily dangerous world if out of a sense of being abandoned they went nuclear and used multiple nuclear weapons in Iran.”
Texas governor Rick Perry:
“And if we’re going to be serious about saving Israel, we better get serious about Syria and Iran, and we better get serious right now.”
And here’s former Utah governor and former ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, the candidate in the race sometimes identified with the so-called realist, ie Israel-skeptic, view of the Middle East:
“We missed the Persian spring. The president failed on that front. We go into Libya, where, to my mind, we don’t have any definable American interests. We’ve got Syria now on the horizon, where we do have American interests. It’s called Israel. We’re a friend and ally. They’re a friend and ally. And we need to remind the world what it means to be a friend and ally of the United States.”
The Republican candidates are expressing genuine conviction. But they are also shrewdly attacking a perceived Obama vulnerability. Obama is actually doing quite well these days as a foreign policy president, at least from a poll point of view. Majorities of Americans approve of his actions on Iraq and terrorism. But when it comes to Israel – the Hill newspaper reports a warning sign for the president.
Among likely voters, 40% say that President Obama is not supportive enough of Israel. And this is not some idle opinion: a quarter of American voters say Israel is very important to the way they vote, a majority of voters say Israel is very or somewhat important to the way they vote. These Israel-focused voters are overwhelmingly pro-Israel voters.
A few years ago, two American political scientists offered a theory as to why Israel commands such support in the United States. They asserted that US politics is controlled and manipulated by a shadowy “lobby” that deploys money and media power to sway the US away from its own interests.
But if there’s an Israel lobby, it is successful for exactly the same reason that the lobby group Mothers Against Drunk Driving is successful: because Americans approve and admire motherhood, and dislike and disapprove of driving drunk.
Public opinion on the Middle East has been intensely studied, and the pattern is consistent: Americans have historically sympathized with Israel over its adversaries by a margin of 3-1. Over the past decade, American public opinion has shifted noticeably in Israel’s favor, and this trend has run strongest among opinion elites. One main driver of the trend has been the collapse of sympathy for the Palestinians – which was low enough to begin with.
When asked, “Do you sympathize more with the Israelis or the Palestinians,” the Palestinians scored about 15% from 1990 until 9/11. After 9/11, the Palestinian number dropped into the single digits, and it has more or less stayed there.
That’s not the state of opinion in Europe obviously, nor in the United Kingdom.
If not “the lobby,” here’s another theory popular in Europe to explain American support for Israel: It’s the sway of religious fundamentalists in the United States. You hear that said so often, it’s become accepted fact – even among many friends of Israel.
This accepted fact is not wrong, but it is easily overstated.
Surveys of American opinion about Israel conducted after the 2000 and 2004 elections by groups like the Annenberg Foundation, the American National Election Study and the National Jewish Democratic Coalition have found a surprisingly small gap in the attitudes of evangelical Christians as compared to other non-Jews. Yes, evangelicals are a little more positive. But only a little.
If you want to see a real divide in the United States over Israel, look not at evangelicals vs. non-evangelicals, but at more educated vs. less educated voters.
Take a look at this slice of American opinion: Americans who have a college or advanced degree – and who earn more than $75,000 a year – and who also regularly read a newspaper, newsmagazine or watch a cable TV network. This group favors Israel over the Palestinians by a margin greater than 4:1.
What we’re seeing here is that the debate over Israel is not some incidental adjunct to American politics. But where does this deep attachment come from? Let me hazard a theory.
If you track American opinion on Israel, month by month, year by year, all the way back to 1948, you see a fascinating pattern. Support for Israel tends to spike at moments of Israeli military success – such as the 2002-2003 suppression of the Second Intifada. Which is why Israel was recording new peaks of popularity inside the United States precisely at the moments that the late Professor Judt was lamenting Israel’s loss of global legitimacy,
How can this be?
A clue may be found in these powerfully resonant words from Prime Minister Netanyahu in his speech to Congress earlier this year:
“In a region of shifting alliances, Israel is America’s unwavering ally. Israel has always been pro-American. Israel will always be pro-American. My friends, you don’t need to do nation-building in Israel. We’re already built. You don’t need to export democracy to Israel. We’ve already got it. And you don’t need to send American troops to Israel. We defend ourselves.”
An ally that can stand on its own two feet – that returns friendship for friendship – that governs itself democratically and that can fight its own battles triumphantly when necessary – this is Israel’s appeal to the United States.
Those who imagine that Israel must buy American friendship through concessions that weaken Israel’s security – that do not command democratic support inside Israel – utterly mistake the basis of that American friendship.
Americans don’t think: How annoying that Israel won’t submit to the demands of some international peace negotiator.
Americans think: If I were an Israel voter, I would not submit to those demands myself.
Friends of Israel need not get nervous if an American president glowers at a recalcitrant Israeli prime minister. If the prime minister’s recalcitrance is based on sound reasons – and is well explained – the American public will agree that it’s the glowering that’s wrong, not the prime minister.
Like Israelis themselves, friends of Israel abroad are divided in their opinion of the Netanyahu government. The old joke about 7 million Jews, 7 million prime ministers continues to apply. But one criticism of the Netanyahu government is patently invalid: that Benjamin Netanyahu is alienating Israel’s most important ally.
The deep attitudes of the American public toward Israel may explain the return of smiles and sunshine to the Obama-Netanyahu relationship over the past two years. Only this past year, the US government leaked the news that it had delivered 55 of its most advanced bunker-buster bombs to the Israeli Defense Forces. It leaked the news surely in large part to frighten Iran. But it also leaked to mollify and reassure friends of Israel. The journalist who received the leak was Newsweek’s Eli Lake.
“Nothing is more sad than the death of an illusion,” remarked Arthur Koestler. Like so much said by Koestler, the remark is memorable but false. Illusions are dangerous things, and there is nothing sad about their passage. The shock of disillusion may surprise or hurt. But it is only through disillusion that people in the grip of illusion can achieve truth.
In the world’s endless preoccupation with the Middle East, a moment of truth is arriving now.
For two generations, thinking about this most volatile region on our planet has been distorted by an especially baneful illusion, or really two illusions: first the illusion that the Jewish state of Israel is the cause of the region’s problems – and second the illusion that some kind of peace settlement between Israel and its enemies would banish those problems. Ironically, this illusion has held most sway over those who claim the most expertise.
Upon this illusion a great academic, political, journalistic and diplomatic industry has arisen.
This past year, very abruptly, that illusion has been challenged as never before.
From Bahrain in the Persian Gulf to Libya in North Africa – and centered upon Egypt in between – authoritarian Arab regimes have been shaken and overthrown by popular tumults. None of these tumults had any reference to the Jewish state. All are directly traced to the indigenous failures of Arab regimes to meet the needs of their own people.
Israel or no Israel, the Egyptian state cannot feed its own people, half of whom live on less than $2 a day – in a nation that 30 years ago enjoyed a higher standard of living than China but is today significantly poorer.
Israel or no Israel, the Middle East and North Africa are failing to provide work or wives to a burgeoning population of urban 20-something males.
Israel or no Israel, Pakistan is veering toward nuclearized failed state-dom.
Israel or no Israel, ill-educated and unemployed young Muslim men across the European continent are turning to radicalized forms of Islam as an excuse and escape.
If the Greater Middle East – and the Islamic diaspora in Europe – are roiled by instability, extremism, and violence, it is for reasons indigenous to themselves – not because of the existence of the state of Israel.
At the same time, and in the same way, we’ve been told that it is the Palestinian issue that prevents Arab nations from cooperating with the West.
Yet Palestinians or no Palestinians, the Libyan rebels appealed to NATO for help to overthrow their country’s dictator.
Palestinians or no Palestinians, Iran would seek to reasserts its old imperial ambitions by building a nuclear weapon.
Palestinians or no Palestinians, the Saudi government has reached a de facto military alliance with Israel against Iran.
If Abu Dhabi and Qatar resist investing in the European Financial Stabilization Facility, it is most certainly not because of dismay over the Palestinians.
It is a haunting challenge indeed to think: how exactly would the Middle East be different today if Yasser Arafat had accepted the US proposals of 2000-2001 and brought into being a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza?
The usual claim is that such a state would somehow mitigate anti-western radicalism in the Islamic and Arab worlds. One person who never believed that claim was Arafat himself. When Arafat broke off the Camp David peace talks, he told President Clinton that if he signed an agreement with Israel, the next time President Clinton would see him, Arafat, would be at Arafat’s funeral. That’s not much of a vote of confidence in the radicalism-allaying potential of Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Which is not to deny that such a peace would be a good thing. It would be a very good thing. But it would be a good thing of limited benefit, limited to Israel and even more for the Western powers worried about regional and domestic threats from radical Islam.
Over the past decade, it has often seemed that friends of Israel, especially in the UK, have emerged as stronger advocates of Palestinian statehood than the Palestinians themselves. Economists have a marvelous concept: revealed preference. Simply put, it means that we can better discern what people want from the way they behave than from what they say.
Based on revealed preferences, you have to question how badly Palestinian leaders or people want their state. Our chairman tonight, Lord Bew, knows well that the Irish Republicans wanted a state so badly that they agreed to accept only three-fourths of an island – surrendering what was then the richest portion to achieve independence for all the rest. But there is no Michael Collins to negotiate such terms for the Palestinians.
When you say: “I want a state, but only if it meets certain conditions, only if I am perceived to have obtained it by a certain method, and not if I am required to offer certain compromises in return” – then necessarily it is those conditions, those methods, and those compromises that are your true priorities, not the state itself.
Which is as it is. Yet some friends of Israel have decided to accept Palestinian statehood as their priority and their responsibility. Confronting those who would abolish Israel, they champion – not only the Jewish state, but also and almost equally the hypothetical Palestinian state. Hoping that a Palestinian state might end the conflict, they persuade themselves that creating such a state is their obligation and their responsibility – and so arrive at the awkward conclusion of being more pro-statehood than the Palestinians themselves. They offer what is not very intensely wanted. The more indifferent the intended recipient, the more frantically they work to entice him to accept it. It’s a strange situation for friends of Israel to place themselves in, and it does not do them any good.
Contemplating these challenges, I think back to a joke from Cold War days, when Poles would tell you there existed two possible solutions to the problems of their country, one pragmatic, the other miraculous.
The pragmatic solution was for the Virgin of Czestochowa to descend from the heavens, accompanied by a retinue of angels and archangels and fill the shops with food.
The miraculous solution was for communism to reform from within.
I think it’s past time to recognize that likewise the essentially magical quality of so much of what is recommended to Israel as hard-headed pragmatism. I’ve told a few jokes this evening. I’ll end with one more. When people ask me whether I favor a two-state solution, I answer with a story from the old country about the matchmaker who approaches Yossi the shtetl carpenter with a proposition for his to-date unmarriageable son.
The matchmaker would like to broker a marriage with the daughter of Lord Rothschild in Vienna.
The carpenter is stunned. Isn’t Vienna a very long way away? Not at all answers the matchmaker. Thanks to modern railways, the great city can be reached in as little as 12 hours, maybe 15.
Aren’t the Rothschilds very assimilated? Ah, answers the matchmaker, that’s the Paris Rothschilds. The Vienna Rothschilds keep an excellent kosher.
Mightn’t they be stuck up? No, no, not at all, the Rothschilds are easy and gracious.
Very well, says the persuaded Yossi. I consent.
Excellent, says the matchmaker. That’s half the job done!
The Obama administration has not entirely abandoned its faith in such matches or such miracles. It has not wholly discarded the illusion seemingly so irretrievably shattered by the mis-named Arab spring. But they’re learning. So are we all, and I am honored this evening by the opportunity to learn so much from the distinguished audience gathered here tonight.