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What the Lincoln Project Gets Wrong About Israel-Palestine

Gali Tibbon/AFP via Getty Images

Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to his fellow parliamentarian—now political rival—Gideon Saar at the Knesset, Jerusalem, Israel, February 11, 2009

Ever since a group of Republican operatives launched the Lincoln Project, more than a year ago, to defeat Donald Trump, skeptical progressives have wondered: Do they realize the rot inside the GOP runs much deeper than Trump? The answer, increasingly, appears to be yes.

Despite having been longtime pillars of the GOP establishment, the Lincoln Project’s founders now acknowledge that white supremacy infects the entire Republican Party. Last October, they filed an amicus brief against GOP-led voter suppression in Texas. That same month, Lincoln Project member Stuart Stevens—who has worked for Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney—told The New Yorker that, “Even if Donald Trump loses in 2020, the Republican Party has legitimized bigotry and hate as an organizing principle.” When I talked to Stevens, he volunteered that William F. Buckley Jr.—a founder of the modern American conservative movement—“started out as a stone cold racist.”

Given how many professional Republicans have abetted Trump, former GOP insiders like Stevens deserve credit. Which makes it doubly depressing that Stevens—along with three other Lincoln Project leaders, Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson, and Reed Galen—are now working for Gideon Saar’s campaign to be prime minister of Israel. In doing so, they are showing how difficult it remains, even for Americans willing to rethink comforting clichés about democracy in the US, to do the same in Israel-Palestine.

Saar is running on an agenda of perpetual, institutionalized bigotry. He opposes a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which he calls “nothing short of insanity.” He also opposes giving Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza citizenship in Israel, the country under whose control they currently live. Thus he wants to permanently deny millions of Palestinians voting rights, freedom of movement, and equality under the law. When it comes to stealing Palestinian land to build Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Saar thinks Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been too timid.

Neither Stevens nor Schmidt would speak for attribution about their work in Israel. But their rationale isn’t complicated. They see Netanyahu as Israel’s Trump: a corrupt, hypernationalist demagogue who makes racist appeals, attacks judges and the press, and violates the rules of political fair play. Saar, by contrast, is Israel’s Joe Biden: the electable, nice-guy alternative.

Stevens told me that during last year’s presidential campaign, the Lincoln Project avoided making ads about policy issues. Instead, they sought to make the campaign a referendum on decency. That’s their vision for beating Netanyahu, too: build a big ideological tent to depose an authoritarian jerk. It’s a model they hope to replicate globally as they do battle with the populist autocrats Steve Bannon has incubated around the world.

But when it comes to Israel-Palestine, the analogy is fundamentally flawed. Yes, Biden is a centrist who emphasized personal decency. The core of his support, however, came from Black Americans and other historically marginalized groups, who saw him as a vehicle to combat Trump’s agenda of white, male, Christian supremacy. And because Biden depended on Black support, he unveiled the most ambitious push for racial equality of any major party presidential nominee in US history.

Saar’s challenge to Netanyahu is utterly different. The Palestinians who might power a campaign for equality cannot do so because most of them—the residents of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem—cannot vote in Israeli elections. Those Palestinians who can—the “Arab Israelis” who hold Israeli citizenship—mostly vote for Arab parties that are, by custom, barred from Israel’s coalition governments. As a result, it would be hard for Saar to run an antiracist campaign even if he wanted to. And he doesn’t want to. He wants to maintain Israel’s system of Jewish domination but divest it of Netanyahu’s financial corruption and cult of personality.

As the Century Foundation analyst Dahlia Scheindlin has noted, Saar doesn’t even oppose Netanyahu’s assault on judicial independence. Bitter that Israel’s Supreme Court struck down a law he pushed as interior minister to limit the rights of asylum seekers, Saar wants to empower the Knesset to overturn court decisions.

The best American analogy for Saar is not Biden. It’s a respectable Dixiecrat, in a Southern state where most Blacks could not vote, running against a flamboyant Dixiecrat whose hand was in the government till.

But seeing Saar that way requires seeing Israeli politics through Palestinian eyes. And the leaders of the Lincoln Project hail from a Never Trump milieu in which Palestinians barely figure—except as rejectionists, anti-Semites, and terrorists. Flip through Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard, which went out of business in part because it opposed Trump, or newer Never Trump organs like The Bulwark and The Dispatch, and you’ll find valuable insights into the pathologies of Trumpism but rarely any Palestinian writing.

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Untroubled by any meaningful engagement with the Palestinian experience, Never Trumpers have for years ignored the anti-democratic features of the Israeli state. In 2008, the columnist and military historian Max Boot—who has praised the Lincoln Project—argued against Israel’s ceding territory in the West Bank. In 2011, Lincoln Project founder Rick Wilson attacked the liberal advocacy group J Street, which campaigns for a two-state solution, as insufficiently pro-Israel. Kristol spent the Obama years slamming the Obama administration for its supposed anti-Israel actions.

Fearful of global Trumpism, the Lincoln Project’s leaders now see Netanyahu as a threat to Israel’s previously stellar democratic credentials. But if they investigated the roots of his authoritarianism in the way they have begun doing for Trump, they would see that Netanyahu, like Trump, has not created something new. He has given new form to patterns of racist domination that are very old, patterns that Gideon Saar promises to reproduce in slightly different guise.

In the Times op-ed announcing their formation, the Lincoln Project’s founders pledged to fight for “governance that respects the rule of law” and “recognizes the dignity of all people.” For Americans long accustomed to seeing Israel as a model democracy, it may be hard to acknowledge that there are no Israelis with a shot at being prime minister who prize those values. Maybe it would help if the Lincoln Project viewed the entire Israeli political mainstream as a Levantine version of the GOP.

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