Opinion

How Cuomo’s pandering endangers Israel

By Steve Pampinella |  

June 8, 2016 |  

((Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

As a lifelong New Yorker, nothing gives me more pride than our state’s multicultural pluralism. People from around the world and of all faiths can set down roots in New York while simultaneously keeping ties with their home country and religion. And no group has thrived more than New York’s Jewish community, which has defined this state as a vibrant center of Judaic life with close ties to the state of Israel. For New York politicians seeking support from its ethnic communities, it's entirely appropriate to profess strong support for Israel in both Washington and Albany.

But pandering by our elected officials, especially by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has reached new heights that only serve to undermine Israel's democracy as well as core principles of American foreign policy. By defending the current Israeli government from criticism by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Cuomo is empowering right-wing extremists who embrace the same racist attitudes toward Palestinians that Donald Trump holds against Latinos and Muslims.

Consider Cuomo’s most recent recent ban on any state businesswith groups that support the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. In his remarks at the Harvard Club announcing the anti-BDS order, Cuomo also attacked Sanders for calling Israel’s use of force in the 2014 Gaza War “disproportionate.” The governor has previously traveled to Israel in solidarity against terrorism and held a warm press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Cuomo’s BDS stance is really about providing political cover for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who is fighting with Sanders to maintain the status quo position on Israel in the Democratic party platform. But it also reflects Cuomo’s close alliance with Netanyahu, despite the latter’s open hostility to President Obama. The Israeli prime minister has openly rejected Obama’s call for ending Jewish settlement of the West Bank and eventual recognition of a Palestinian state. These are longstanding American policies that predate our current president. Netanyahu’s actions, combined with his speech before Congress last March against the Iran nuclear deal (given without invitation from the White House), have opened the widest rift between the United States and Israel in the history of its bilateral relations.

Not only has Netanyahu wrecked relations with Obama, but he and his Likud party have also dangerously led Israeli politics to the far right. He wrote on Facebook that "Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls” leading up to the 2015 election, an appeal to far-right voters that echoes George Wallace’s dog-whistle racism. Netanyahu’s coalition government shares power with the Jewish Home party, whose leader and Higher Education minister, Naftali Bennett, has called for the annexation of the West Bank, American policy be damned.

The Prime Minister’s recent alliance with another extremist, Avigdor Lieberman of the Israel is Our Home party, makes Cuomo’s pandering all the more egregious. Two weeks ago, Netanyahu forced Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon to step down so Lieberman could replace him; the latter’s reward for joining Netanyahu’s coalition government. To put it bluntly, Lieberman’s rhetoric is monstrous. Not only does he reject the two-state solution (he lives in the settlements), but Lieberman has also demanded that Israeli Arabs swear a loyalty oath while those who are “disloyal” should be beheaded.

We should be further concerned about Netanyahu and Lieberman’s attacks against the Israeli Defense Forces. Both Netanyahu and Lieberman have publicly supported an IDF soldier who is under military prosecution after killing a wounded Palestinian who previously attempted to stab another soldier. The defense establishment reacted in horror to Netanyahu and Lieberman’s attempt to undermine military justice. As he resigned, Yaalon sounded the alarm by stating that “extremist and dangerous elements” have taken over Israeli politics and while the IDF Deputy Chief of Staff compared racist aspects of Israeli society to 1930s Germany.

If the IDF considers Netanyahu and his allies such a grave threat, then perhaps Governor Cuomo should think twice before assuming current Israeli policy is immune from questioning by Sanders (himself a Jew who has lived in an Israeli kibbutz). When Israeli politicians make abhorrent statements that could come of out the mouth of Donald Trump, don’t they deserve criticism for violating the principles of tolerance and acceptance? And when Netanyahu publicly spits in the face of the President of the United States (who is also a Democrat), shouldn’t Cuomo defend Obama and American policy as well? And what of Palestinian, Arab and Muslim New Yorkers who are justifiably appalled by Netanyahu’s rhetoric? Cuomo’s unflinching support suggests that he has forsaken them for political expediency.

The truth is that Netanyahu is leading Israel toward the abyss, and Sanders’ opposition to the prime minister reflects broader unease with his positions among Americans. Sanders’ demand for recognition of Palestinian dignity is consistent with polling that shows liberal Democrats are uncomfortable with Israel’s drift to the far right. When Cuomo expresses unwavering solidarity with Netanyahu, he panders to older voters while ignoring the divergence of positions on Israel as well as the real threats to its integrity as a liberal democracy.

None of the above is meant to deflect from legitimate criticism of BDS, including the movement’s threat to the two-state solution. Other alternatives exist as well, including Peter Beinart’s proposal for a boycott against the settlements but not Israel proper. New Yorkers should follow his lead and consider how Netanyahu’s embrace of reactionary politics diminishes support for Israel, and then denounce the settlements while supporting the Palestinian right to statehood.

If Cuomo cares so much about Israel, he should listen to critics who want to preserve its liberal democratic character rather than scoring political points. If he can’t do this, he should stick to “cleaning up Albany.”

Steve Pampinella is an assistant professor of political science and international relations at the State University of New York at New Paltz. Follow him on twitter: @stevepampinella.

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