Q&A: The America-Israel Dance- Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin (March 25, 2024)

Dr. Dahlia Scheindlin, a scholar and writer, is an international political and strategic consultant. She has advised and conducted research on nine national campaigns in Israel over the past twenty years, and has provided research and advising for elections, referendums, and civil society campaigns in fifteen different countries. She is the author of The Crooked Timber of Democracy in Israel

Q: Senate Leader Chuck Schumer's speech generated intensive discussion after he called for elections in Israel, referred to Bibi as one of the biggest obstacles to peace, and spoke out loudly in support of a two-state solution. This speech has been generally well-received by American progressives, but less so by Israeli politicians. How has it played out in Israel?

DRS: There was no reason to expect Israelis to respond positively to Chuck Schumer’s groundbreaking speech; it’s unpleasant to be criticized in wartime. But the response was not uniform; broadly (impressionistically), the responses break down into several categories, reflecting several groups in Israeli politics and society.

The first response was the rejectionism of the populist political right, for whom any criticism of Israel is mainly an excuse to tweet. Even if their responses are not on X, but in major media outlets, the quality of the responses is at the level of X: “We’re not a banana republic!” was prime minister Netanyahu’s response (exclamation point mine), even though his government behaves very much like a fiefdom of failed democracy.

The second response is none. Israelis are provincial in their political awareness at the best of times, and during the war the intensely inward-facing nature of public discussion cannot be overstated. This is aptly captured by a headline in Israel Hayom: “Who is Chuck Schumer, the senior Democrat who attacked Netanyahu?” This was a news item, not a sarcastic opinion column. In fairness, the first part of the headline said the one thing Israelis could not help but notice about him: “One of the most long standing supporters of Israel in American politics.”

The third group, broadly, are Israelis for whom the speech was almost pitch perfect. They might not have listened to all 45 minutes; they may not have liked the painful fact of a US politician criticizing Israel; but 75 percent think Netanyahu needs to resign, with 40 percent who want this to happen immediately – a number that has risen over time; these people are deeply fearful that he is leading the country into a political, economic, diplomatic and military abyss. Ehud Barak summed it up well, saying that Schumer, “a great and ardent friend of Israel, speaks truth to power.” So did a demonstrator at the Saturday evening anti-government demonstration on Kaplan, with a sign saying: “Thank you, Schumer” on one side, and “Chuck the guardian of Israel” (a pun on Schumer’s name, referencing Schumer’s own words that he is the “shomare” of Israel.

However, there is an “almost.” Schumer did discuss the need for a two-state solution in his speech. Here he is on far less solid ground, since barely over 30 percent of Israelis support this general concept at present, and just over one-quarter of Jewish Israelis.

But there’s little question that overall, his speech feeds a growing awareness in Israel that even its closest allies are increasingly unable to support its policies. It is hard for Israelis to imagine the “consequences” that Vice President Kamala Harris spoke of if Israel continues pushing an extreme military agenda, like invading Rafah. For most of Israel’s history, there haven’t been any such consequences. But that might change – and Israel will have had fair warning.

Q: Given the creeping danger of Israeli isolation, massive support for Netanyahu to resign, the sweeping anti-government protests of 2023, and the resurgent protests at present – even if not at the same scale – is there a public demand for elections or resignations, and will those demands matter?

DRS: The war changed public discourse in Israel profoundly relative to the hyper-charged, unprecedented mobilization of 2023. First, people were physically unable to demonstrate, in light of massive and ongoing rocket barrages; it took months before those petered out. Next, the profound shock and instant transition to an extraordinary wartime effort left many unable to consider political protest; related, anyone who would have protested criticizing government policy or calling for a ceasefire faced serious police intimidation in the early months. Those effects have worn off, for some. But the resurgent protests today are not as hard-hitting: part of the protest energy has gone into the more mainstream Saturday night demonstrations for hostage release, which were never fundamentally anti-government, by design: these citizens wanted the government to prioritize, not abandon them. The tone has changed over time as they are forced to accept that the government has in fact abandoned them, their family members who are hostages, and the people in general, for its own political survival.

The hostage-release protest messages may have gotten sharper, but they are still distinct from the revived anti-government protests. This second group gathers on Kaplan Street on Saturday nights, like the anti-judicial overhaul/pro-democracy movement of 2023. Some of the more passionate, or desperate, block the Ayalon Highway and scuffle with police. Some of the same original protest leaders are there – but mostly Moshe Radman, not the other iconic figures. The crowd chants vigorously, but the numbers seem fairly static – somewhere between thousands but probably not ten thousand, in my rough assessment – nowhere near the original protests.

This government has never excelled at taking responsibility, let alone feeling shame. It is a government that honed the art of not giving a sh-t about massive public protests, and it rolled back its disastrous policies to eviscerate democracy only when there was a knife to the neck of the economy. Even then, the government merely paused and slowed down, waiting for opportunities to bring the disastrous policies back in different form; the war has been a boon to the attack on what remains of democracy.

However, even if the public is unable to bring the government down, there is still a possibility that this government cannibalizes itself. The brewing crisis over the conscription of ultra-Orthodox Israelis is the latest manifestation of an internal crisis that could shake up the coalition. This issue has kicked off early elections in the past in Israel. They will almost certainly be held early; but it’s still too early to say just when.