Someone has to say it: William Kristol is hurting Israel.
He doesn’t mean to. He has spoken and written so often about the importance of supporting the Jewish state that I’m sure the harm he is doing is unintentional. His primary focus over the years has been securing U.S. power and advancing democracy, through any and all means. He sees Israel not just as the rightful Jewish homeland, but as a bulwark of democracy.
But as much as Kristol loves Israel, he seems to love beating up on President Barack Obama even more. It’s not enough for Israel to win — Democrats have to lose.
So Kristol, founder and editor of The Weekly Standard and a regular contributor to Fox News, has been at the vanguard of efforts to turn Israel into a deeply partisan wedge issue in American politics. Here is what I mean:
• In mid-2010, Kristol founded something called the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), a political advocacy group that purports to offer citizens “the facts they need” to support a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. In a review of ECI’s Web site, I failed to come across one fact that supported a single action of the president or of any elected Democratic official.
• In February 2012, ECI posted a 30-minute YouTube video attacking Obama for betraying Israel, for pandering to the Muslim world, inflaming chaotic revolutions in the Middle East and turning a blind eye to Iranian nuclear development. The video has gotten almost 400,000 views.
• An October 2012 robocall put out by ECI used audio clips of Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make listeners believe the two had engaged in a vicious public debate.
• On Jan. 15, the ECI ran full-page ads in The New York Times warning that Obama’s nomination of Sen. Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense would spell disaster for Israel and urging readers concerned with Israel’s future to oppose Hagel.
In the short run, none of these actions seem to be working. Although ECI has managed to lure hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and grab headlines and Web traffic, it failed to defeat Obama, unseat any number of the other Democrats it targeted or derail, as yet, the Hagel nomination.
What ECI and Kristol have done more successfully is to rebrand Israel from Blue-and-White to Red-versus-Blue. Its anti-Obama screed allows for zero nuance. There are legitimate concerns over the Hagel nomination, but ECI’s mad-dog attack made clear its issue wasn’t the potential secretary, but the president. To be pro-Israel, according to Kristol, is to be anti-Obama.
What’s so bad about that? Isn’t Kristol just taking his pundit’s pleasure? Who else can talk about the need to immediately attack Iran — as he did back in 2006 — while smiling like he’s having his feet massaged?
The danger is three-fold.
First, retaining bipartisan American support is a national security issue for Israel. Since 1948, members of both U.S. parties have rallied to Israel’s side in times of true emergency — and that unity has made the difference. That bipartisan, binational solidarity is precisely what tells you when Israel is facing a true emergency: A national unity government coalesces in Jerusalem, even as Democrats and Republicans join forces in Washington, D.C. If Kristol really believes Israel’s current situation is dire, the best thing he could do is find ways to work with Democrats.
Kristol’s approach also conflates Israel’s critics with Israel-haters or, in Hagel’s case, conflates him with anti-Semites. Of course, sometimes these do go hand in hand. But what Kristol and his group are doing is polarizing the debate over Israel’s policies into you’re-either-with-us-or-against-us. The result alienates potential supporters, if not current ones.
And, finally, this bizarre message that Israel is in a constant state of emergency also hurts the country. True, the Iranian nuclear threat and regional instability are very real challenges. But Israel is also a stable, strong and prosperous country (again, thanks in no small part to bipartisan American support). The Congo is in an emergency. Right now, Israel needs investors and tourists — not a weapons airlift and surplus wheat.
Constantly portraying a country as besieged undermines its image. Kristol’s tactics make Israel appear unstable to investors, dangerous to tourists and vulnerable to its enemies. It takes a very strong and resilient state to withstand such bad press — in other words, only a nation that isn’t in a true state of emergency can withstand being relentlessly portrayed as such.
If Bill Kristol wants to help the country he loves, he can stop portraying it as forever on the brink of demise. He needs to shelve the Emergency Committee for Israel — and save it for when the wolves are really howling.