Hard Questions, Tough Answers: Bennett, apartheid, and long-term US support for Israel (August 9, 2021)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: In a poll released a month ago, 25 percent of American Jewish voters defined Israel as an apartheid state. On US campuses, Israel is frequently condemned as “apartheid.” Traditional support for Israel among US Democrats has erodedCan Bennett and Lapid do anything about this? Are Israelis aware of how badly the country’s image has deteriorated?

A: Yes, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and particularly Yair Lapid, as foreign minister, are aware. But no, under current political circumstances in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, there is little they can or will do about it.

And no, most Israelis are preoccupied with a host of mainly domestic issues and give little thought to Israel’s problematic image in the United States and other western nations. In a recent Israel Democracy Institute poll, Israelis’ primary worries were ranked as the economy, the covid pandemic, and the government’s level of functioning, followed by the security situation and the climate. The way the world sees Israel was not even on the radar screen.

Q: As an Israeli who deals in strategic issues, how would you define what appears to be a mental block that prohibits or neutralizes Israeli recognition of the apartheid image problem?

A: At the broadest strategic level, there are two key questions here. One asks whether, objectively speaking, the apartheid comparison is valid. A second asks, “does it matter?”

Is the comparison valid? Or can and should we acknowledge the evils of Israeli occupation and racist Jewish attitudes toward Arabs within a more nuanced and unique historical context that defies convenient comparisons? After all, by most geo-political metrics, the apartheid comparison objectively does not hold.

Thus, original apartheid pitted all of Africa against South Africa (and Rhodesia), whereas today, whatever twenty some Arab states think about the plight of the Palestinians, they are increasingly friendly and uncritical toward Israel. Beyond the Middle East, only the liberal western democracies are strongly critical of Israel, whereas in apartheid days the entire world was at least declaratively against South Africa. Today, despite the occupation, Israel enjoys good relations with the likes of China, Russia, India, and a host of increasingly illiberal and authoritarian states.

Then there are the more minor yet important details. Israel occupies Palestinian lands by dint of conquest in a war of self-defense. It has no official racist ideology (though plenty of extremist rabbis do have one, and teach it too). Israeli Jews vastly outnumber West Bank Palestinians--the occupied people most readily compared to the Black South African majority from apartheid days. Israel has tried numerous times to negotiate a solution. It has withdrawn unilaterally from the Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip. Palestinian citizens of Israel (as opposed to those under occupation) enjoy equal access to the law and equal rights. In all these dimensions, Israel cannot be compared to Apartheid South Africa, its laws and its official ideology.

Yet these objective differences are irrelevant for critics who label Israel as an apartheid state. Even opponents of the occupation like myself routinely use the term ‘apartheid’ when discussing the dangers of where Israel is heading. Which leads us to ask, “does it matter?” Perhaps better to ask, assuming Israelis and Palestinians continue their shared march of folly toward some sort of single, binational political entity, “will it matter?” And if so, when?

It already matters to the American Jewish mainstream and other liberals who see Israel’s path as a violation of their values. Yet that objection barely resonates with more and more Israelis whose ‘mainstream’ is increasingly right-messianic, who are convinced Israel has no viable Palestinian peace partner, who have smart hi-tech solutions for policing Palestinians, who reject the two-state solution, and who view outside criticism as uninformed and naïve. Nor does it resonate with the American Republicans and Orthodox Jews who support them. Then too, in a global economy, hi-tech Israel cannot easily be boycotted economically South Africa-style by even the most critical countries.

If most Israelis are comfortable with the occupation, the rest of the Arab world doesn’t care, and Israel’s Jewish establishment in any case does not identify with most American Jews, why will it matter? Jewish liberals in the United States and Israel will be embarrassed and uncomfortable. But will Israel’s ‘system’ collapse the way South Africa’s did?

Q: Won’t it matter if the US government ceases to support Israel? The US defense establishment?

A: Definitely. That would make a substantive difference. Without American support in the United Nations, without American jet fuel, without American arms, Israel is in trouble. Here the role of the American Jewish community is only one of many potential factors. Leaving aside the fearful strategic consequences for Israel of abandoning its alliance with American Jews and abandoning democratic values, this is the real worst-case consequence of ‘apartheid’--even if the term does not really fit.

One key aspect of US Middle East strategy for many decades has been support for Israel. That support has been based on multiple factors. Israel is perceived as a fellow democracy. Israel and the United States share Judeo-Christian values and share the legacy of the Holocaust. In June 1967 and in the 1976 Entebbe Operation, Israel was David vs. Goliath. Then there is the joint fight against Islamist terrorism, particularly since 9/11. President Biden is pro-Israel at the gut level.

Now some of these factors are changing. Israel's image is no longer so democratic as the occupation continues. Holocaust memory is slipping. Israel is increasingly seen globally as Goliath, not David. Antisemitism is on the rise. Accordingly, favorable American public opinion and US Jewish support can no longer be taken for granted. Moreover, as Israel normalizes relations with more Arab states, including two in the Gulf region, the knee-jerk nature of US support is harder to sustain and explain.

Then, from the US standpoint, there are the China factor, the energy factor and the endless-war factor, all of which contribute to a rethinking of American military priorities away from the Middle East. It will be harder to sustain US support for Israel if and as US strategic involvement in the region declines. A renewed JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran, if it happens, could also contribute to a drop in Washington’s commitment to the Middle East.

Q: Prime Minister Bennett is coming to Washington soon to meet with President Biden. Surely these concerns are on both their minds . . .

A: One advantage enjoyed by Bennett in this prospective encounter is that his predecessor is, in Washington’s eyes, an easy act to follow. Netanyahu and his policies and priorities did a lot of damage by alienating the majority of American Jews, alienating Democrats, and sullying Israel's democratic and peace-seeking (with Palestinians) image.

Bennett will present a more balanced profile. He has Israeli leftists and Arab (Islamist!) citizens of Israel in his cabinet. He has just appointed a moderate expert on security issues, Mike Herzog, as Israel’s new ambassador to Washington. Herzog is a son of a former president of Israel and the brother of the current president, meaning that American Jews get positive vibes just from his family name. So this is a smart pick. (Compare to Herzog’s predecessor, Netanyahu-appointee Gilad Erdan, who just told IDF Radio that Israel wants regime change in Tehran, thereby escalating tensions with Iran and hindering Biden’s efforts regarding the JCPOA.)

But on the Palestinian issue, Bennett still ideologically represents the Israeli right-religious mainstream that rejects two states and covets the territory of the West Bank. Here, even allowing that the Palestinians themselves bear a good measure of the blame, Bennett cannot satisfy Biden, many Democrats, or the American Jewish mainstream. Bennet cannot even maneuver tactically to accept renewed two-state negotiations with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) without alienating key right-wing members of his tenuous right-center-left-Arab Knesset coalition.

And it is on the crucial Palestinian issue that the long-term future of American-Israeli relations and Israeli-American Jewish relations may rest. Because it is here that Israel ultimately is judged for its values.