Will Netanyahu Spur a New Israel Debate in America?

Will the rise of an Israeli government led by an opponent of the peace process make it more politically acceptable in America to criticize Israel?

Abraham Foxman says yes.

"It's already changed," said Mr. Foxman, whose position as national director of the Anti-Defamation League makes him the media's go-to person for quotes on perceived anti-Israel bias. "The government hasn't even been formed and it's been called right-wing, extremist, fascist, hard-line. It's already out there."

So does Tony Judt.

"It might be possible to open a debate that says, ‘Look, this is not an anti-Israel discussion," said Mr. Judt, the director of the Remarque Institute at New York University, whose criticism of the pro-Israel lobby in America kicked off a public fight during which, at one point, he accused Mr. Foxman of sabotaging a scheduled speaking engagement at the Polish consulate and likened him to gutter trash.

"This is a discussion about what's happened in Israel such that there's a far-far-right government that no one could have imagined 10 years ago, and certainly not 40 years ago," he said. "So let's talk about what this means. We now have a government that doesn't even pay lip service to the peace process. It doesn't acknowledge Palestinians' right to a state and in the case of the foreign minister, if he is appointed, he's an out-and-out racist. That's something you can say about a country, I hope, without even appearing to criticize the country per se."

The fact that debate exists over Israel's policies isn't new. What may begin to change, with the advent of the second Benjamin Netanyahu era in Israel following the February election, is that the "out there" described by Mr. Foxman won't be limited to America's political margins-the Cynthia McKinneys and Jim Morans and Ron Pauls in Washington, or those Juan Coles and Stephen Walts and John Mearsheimers in the academic world, who constitute what amounts to a political niche as European-style critics of the Israeli enterprise and of what they believe to be a much-too-powerful Israel lobby in America.

(As of the evening of March 24, Israel's left-leaning Labor Party was set to join the still-forming coalition, which also includes the ultra-nationalist party of Avigdor Lieberman, whom Mr. Netanyahu has reportedly chosen to be foreign minister.)

Certainly, there are indications of a shifting posture at the very top levels of American government, beginning in Jerusalem on March 3, when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pushed Israel to open border crossings "to address the humanitarian needs in Gaza" and again called for the fulfillment of obligations to create a "viable Palestinian state." The next day, in Ramallah, she publicly criticized Israel's plan to demolish dozens of Palestinian homes as "unhelpful" to the peace process.

It was hardly vitriolic stuff-or anything remotely indicative of any organic hostility toward the Jewish state-but in diplomatic-speak, and Clinton-diplomatic-speak no less, it represented an unmistakable change not only from the unwavering Israel-boosting of the two Bush terms but from Mrs. Clinton's four-square-behind-Israel rhetoric as a senator from New York.

One seeming counterexample to the idea of a shift in the new administration was the implosion of the president's nomination of Charles Freeman, a critic of Israel, for a key intelligence post after prominent Israel supporters, including Senator Chuck Schumer, lobbied against him. But the resulting debate over Mr. Freeman's withdrawal, not only on lefty blogs but in what lefty bloggers derisively refer to as the M.S.M., was remarkable for its explicit assessment of the limits of acceptable discussion of Middle East politics in America.

Independent of the Freeman controversy, in the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof has criticized Israel on humanitarian grounds, and Roger Cohen, who referred to the man who will reportedly become Israel's new foreign minister as a "race-baiting anti-Arab firebrand," has in recent weeks written multiple pieces arguing that it's more than acceptable to be critical of Israel's government.

"Obama's new Middle Eastern diplomacy and engagement will involve reining in Israeli bellicosity and a probable cooling of U.S.-Israeli relations," he wrote on March 22. "It's about time. America's Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy has been disastrous, not least for Israel's long-term security."

Mainstream and liberal magazines and papers around the country have asked what the selection of Mr. Lieberman-a man who The New Republic's Marty Peretz, an Israel hawk, called "neo-fascist" and "the Israeli equivalent of Jörg Haider"-says about Israel's political compass.

"Critics will always be critical," said Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center who has advised several secretaries of state about the Middle East. "And that has always been at the margins. But the more appropriate question is whether or not the emergence of a right-wing government in these circumstances would somehow create a significant or consequential shift in public opinion that would create a different climate, not among Israel's traditional critics, but among Israel's friends, or would it make those friends less willing and/or able to defend the Israelis in the courts of public opinion in this country."

Among the people who might be considered the "traditional critics," these developments are an unalloyed good.

John Mearsheimer, a political science professor at the University of Chicago best known for co-authoring "The Israel Lobby"-a 2006 essay that is regarded by many Israel supporters as the consummate anti-Israel manifesto-said in an interview that while United States policy toward Israel was unlikely to change, the way people talked and thought about Israel would.

"Israel is going to come in for more criticism," he said. "And by the way, I believe that will be good for the United States and good for Israel. And it's not because I'm hostile to Israel. But because I think it's a normal country, and like all normal countries it sometimes pursues boneheaded policies. And it makes good sense to criticize it when it does."

That the incoming coalition government will facilitate criticism of Israel in America is an idea shared even by officeholders who find Mr. Mearsheimer's views on Israel repellent.

The hope of these supporters, in part, rests on the idea that the Israeli government would never actually go to the extremes espoused in the rhetoric of Mr. Lieberman, and that in practice Israel can't simply walk away from a two-state peace process, as Mr. Netanyahu effectively proposed to do during the campaign.

"If there is a right-wing government in Israel that is so right-wing that it's not moderate and flexible in terms of working with the United States, I wouldn't expect that regime to remain in power very long," said Representative Eliot Engel of New York, a staunch supporter of Israel. "I think either Netanyahu is going to want to moderate himself, or an element of the coalition would withdraw, collapsing the government."

(Mr. Engel said he'd be there for Israel nonetheless: "If we see that there are some problems on the other side, that it may embolden some critics of Israel, then supporters of Israel like me are going to be five times as vocal as we've been in the past and counter any of the anti-Israeli nonsense we hear from the critics of Israel in the United States.")

Representative Jerrold Nadler, also of New York, said he felt that the perception of Israel's veering to a hard-right government would "be harmful" and would amount to "ammunition" for Israel's critics. Mr. Nadler, a liberal Democrat who supported a two-state solution when that was still a controversially dovish position for a New York politician to take, said that there were indeed real points for Israel's public and politicians to debate, including whether a subversive messianic streak in the army could threaten its tradition of trying to avert civilian casualties, or whether a movement of nationalist Zionist settlers threatened to destabilize Israeli society.

But, articulating a view common among Jews of his generation and older, he said that the rightful place for that debate was well within Israel's borders. A lusty fight over Israel's policies in America, he said, would surely be exploited by Israel's enemies.

"They are going to have a real conflict over it, but here, because of the uncompromising anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic attitude of the critics, you are probably going to see a rallying on the other side, because you can't deal with it honestly," he said.

"In the American Jewish community, there is an old question: When you disagree with the Israeli government, should you say something? It's going to be harder to do so because that criticism is going to be used as fodder in a war to destroy Israel. I've criticized Israel policy, but I'm becoming more reluctant."

He added, "I don't see much rational discussion, unfortunately."

Will Netanyahu Spur a New Israel Debate in America?