In the course of a thoughtful post about Israel’s horrifying slouch toward “total South-Africanization,” Jeffrey Goldberg tries to talk to his Israeli friends:

[I]f Israelis believe that the vast majority of American Jews — their most important supporters in the entire world — are going to sit idly by and watch Israel permanently disenfranchise a permanently-occupied minority population, they’re deluding themselves. A non-democratic Israel will not survive in this world. It’s an impossibility.

Goldberg’s right: the vast majority of American Jews won’t support an Apartheid Israel. But the Israelis have a different American ally who might: Christian Zionists. Christian Zionists, in the United States, are fully democratic actors, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise domestically. When it comes to Israel, though, their favored approach is for Israel to keep the entire West Bank, for eschatological reasons. They are much, much less concerned about the political character of Israel, and even less concerned with the fate of (non-Christian) Palestinians.

For years, Israel and its American friends on the right have cultivated a relationship with Christian Zionists; check out Pastor Hagee, for instance. And it’s not hard to see why. Israel needs American sponsorship — not so much materially anymore, because it’s a wealthy nuclear power and regional superpower, but geopolitically, as when the U.S. contains Iran or beats back anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations. But for the first 40 or so years of Israel’s existence, it had a fairly narrow constituency in the U.S.: us American Jews. Not the most stable base of support. But Israel understood that there was a wide and politically powerful base of support that was just waiting to be cultivated: conservative evangelical Christians.

This is why conspiratorial talk about the Israel Lobby seriously misses the point. The U.S. relationship with Israel is not determined by a narrow band of colluding Washington, New York and Hollywood Jews. It’s not even determined by Jews, full stop. It thrives because one of the most powerful constituencies in American politics, conservative Christians, identifies with Israel — and not with politicians who question it. You can see that, barometrically, in the GOP presidential debates, in which the candidates line up to outdo each other in vowing support for Israel and bashing Obama for his insufficient affection for Israel.

This is what my friend Matthew Yglesias, the Slate economics writer who steps into foreign policy every now and then to deliver a dose of casual brilliance, calls Post-Jewish Zionism. Its power as a political force has yet to be fully understood. Fundamentally, it’s an inertial force in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For a two-state solution to survive, Israel, I am sad to say, needs its American benefactor pushing it to divest itself of Palestine through a negotiated settlement. But Post-Jewish Zionism sees the Israeli divestment of Palestine as an undesirable outcome.

It’s not that Post-Jewish Zionists like apartheid. They just like Israel fulfilling what they understand to be a divine mandate; they additionally identify with Israeli rhetoric about being tough to survive in a hostile region; and they consider politicians who are comfortable with pressure on Israel to be opponents of their broader conservative agenda. (Probably a correct calculation.) As long as American politicians make the — frankly correct — democratic political calculation that there are more votes in Post-Jewish Zionism than there are in liberal Zionism, Israel won’t face American pressure. And as Goldberg and everyone else correctly observes, there is very little time left on Israel’s demographic clock before Zionism faces a full-blown crisis.

After that crisis, however, there will still be this powerful constituency in American politics that does not consider such a crisis to have occurred — but will consider it a crisis if Israel relinquishes the West Bank, much the way the settlers see it. And that’s how an undemocratic Israel can still have a powerful American patron, albeit an uncomfortable one whose Washington elites are discomfited by the geopolitical circumstances. Part of me wonders what Post-Jewish Zionists will argue if, say, Prime Minister Tzipi Livni got set to sign an according ending the occupation with President Fayyad. (Yes, yes, as long as I’m dreaming, I’d like a pony.)

I’m writing this post at such point-belaboring length to remind my fellow liberal Zionist American Jews that we’re not the crucial actors here. Our conflicted tribal feelings are beside the point, and we flatter ourselves if we think otherwise. That doesn’t release us from an obligation to advocate for two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in freedom and peace. It should, however, provide context for the scope of the problem.

 Photo: Flickr/Prime Minister of Israel’s Office