An Alliance Above Politics? Israel Tests Diaspora Strategists

At first glance, Israel’s current relations with Canada and the United States, two of its closest allies, could hardly seem more divergent.

Last week’s surprise resignation by foreign minister John Baird gave rise to days of media coverage noting the no-visible-daylight degree of closeness between the current Canadian and Israeli governments. Baird excelled at carrying out the Harper government’s resolve to be the world’s strongest supporter of Israel— or more precisely, the world’s strongest supporter of Israel’s well-being and security as viewed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party.

Should a nation’s foreign policy stance toward another country—one that has an active diaspora population advocating domestically on its behalf—be considered above politics and partisanship?

The situation across the border stands in utter contrast to this Canadian idyll. During the past two weeks, the U.S.-Israel relationship has plunged to a new low in the wake of Netanyahu’s decision to address the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress on the topic of Iran next month, while bypassing President Obama and the White House.

The invitation issued by House Speaker John Boehner was aimed at enabling Netanyahu to argue in favour of a hawkish approach on Iran directly to the U.S. Congress. A Congressional bill to impose stronger sanctions on Iran is opposed by Obama, who wants to avoid derailing a potential deal that could see Iran maintain a limited and monitored nuclear program without nuclear weapon capability. For Netanyahu, the speech is also a chance to talk tough abroad in defense of Israel’s interests just two weeks before scheduled Israeli elections. For Boehner and the Republicans, it’s a chance to thumb their noses at Obama by showing that the U.S.-Israel diplomacy can bypass the White House with impunity.

The gambit seems to have backfired. Obama will not be meeting with Netanyahu during the latter’s U.S. visit; Vice-President Joe Biden has arranged to be traveling abroad to avoid presiding over the speech in Congress; and Democrats of many stripes are furious at Netanyahu’s insult to Obama.

Amid all this, various U.S. stakeholders of the non-Republican persuasion have voiced concern that the Boehner/Netanyahu manoeuver has brought domestic politics into what should be a non-domestically-politicized realm of foreign affairs. A group of Jewish Congressional Democrats has stressed that “Israel should never be used as a political football,” while prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus similarly claimed that Boehner’s “actions unnecessarily politicize our steadfast relationship with Israel”. The president of the Union for Reform Judaism called for Netanhayu to cancel the planned visit for “fear that the controversy surrounding Netanyahu’s speech could turn Israel into a partisan issue in American politics.”

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These charges raise an important point to consider—and one whose import extends well beyond U.S. politics. Does it make sense to see this episode in terms of partisan politics sullying what is inherently a non-partisan, values- and strategy-driven allegiance between the U.S. and Israel? And more generally, should a nation’s foreign policy stance toward another country—one that has an active diaspora population advocating domestically on its behalf—be considered above politics and partisanship?

The answer will undoubtedly differ according to the country and context at issue. But in U.S.-Israel relations today, as Bernard Avishai acutely noted in the New Yorker, the pretense of non-partisanship may as well be dropped: “In their wars of ideas and political networks, Netanyahu’s Likud and his American supporters are an integral part of the Republican Party’s camp…. Netanyahu and Obama are at odds not only diplomatically, in their positions on Iran, but in their affiliated political parties and overarching strategic visions.”

In other words, given the symmetrically polarized political landscapes in both the U.S. and Israel, there’s no point pretending that a non-politicized ‘U.S.-Israel alliance’ does or could exist today. The very foundation and substance of that alliance is a matter of domestic political contestation. This is not a truth that many U.S. advocates for Israel would wish to be brought into the open, but there it is.

And there too is the thread that links the currently tense U.S.-Israel relationship with the outwardly so different situation in Canada. As in the U.S., the truth of deep-rooted partisan currents to the Canada-Israel alliance is not something that mainstream Canadian Jewish groups are eager to highlight. Even amid maximal Canadian support for Netanyahu’s Israel under the like-minded Harper government, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) – which tends to represent the mainstream/establishment spectrum of Canadian Jewish perspectives—has sought to frame support for Israel as a nonpartisan issue in Canadian politics. This is made explicit in their 2012-13 advocacy impact report, which lays out a ‘next step’ advocacy goal of “reducing [an] emerging tendency to use support for Israel as a wedge issue to win increased partisan support from within the pro-Israel community.”

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It’s easy to see why CIJA (and activist diaspora groups more generally) would prefer not to have foreign policy manifestly bound up with domestic political divisions and partisanship: when that happens, abrupt foreign policy swings may flow from shifting electoral outcomes. (On the other hand, many diaspora groups are not shy about exploiting these levers from the other end, promising political parties their support in exchange for desired foreign policy platforms.)

But in fact, whether foreign policy volatility toward a country of origin is a bad thing from the diaspora perspective depends very much on the political perspectives of individual diaspora members—both in relation to domestic politics and to the politics of the foreign country at issue. For those Jewish Canadians who are both supporters of Israel and critics of how both Netanyahu and Harper conceive of Israel’s well-being, a shift in the substance of the Canada-Israel alliance might be welcome.

Other diaspora groups in Canada might wish that they faced this set of problems, with the nature of Ottawa’s commitment to their country of origin being a matter of heated public discussion and partisan side-taking. Today it’s CIJA’s turn to navigate through these high-stakes currents—but as other diaspora groups gain domestic political presence within Canada, they’ll have their turn to grapple with such challenges too.

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