Over the past half-century, Republicans and Democrats have exchanged identities on Middle East issues. Republicans are now the lockstep pro-Israel party, and the Democrats are deeply divided about their attitudes toward the Jewish state. And as polling from both the Pew Research Center and Gallup indicated earlier this year, the split between the two major parties on Israel is growing.
The previous administration accelerated these trends. President Barack Obama’s eight years were dedicated to creating what he called more “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel, and support for the Iran nuclear deal became a litmus test of Democratic-party loyalty. President Donald Trump has worked to overturn Obama’s Middle East policies, putting the remaining pro-Israel Democrats in a difficult political situation. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as well as his abandonment of the Iran deal, have been cheered by the Netanyahu government but panned by most Democrats, including some who in the past have advocated both of those positions.
But reactions to the latest round of violence in the Middle East shows that the Democrats’ drift may be speeding up still more, with the party veering toward anti-Israel hostility.
It is one thing for most Democrats to treat the opening of the new embassy in Jerusalem as if it were a Trump rally and therefore to be avoided — the only Democrat in attendance was former senator Joseph Lieberman — rather than a celebration of the alliance. But the deaths of dozens of Palestinians in the course of a “march of return” in which thousands sought to rush Israel’s border provided an opportunity to take the temperature of the party on the relationship, and the results were far from good.
While the Trump administration backed Israel’s right to defend its border with as much force as necessary, most Democrats didn’t agree. Many responded as the Obama administration would have been expected to, denouncing the supposedly “disproportionate” tactics of the Israel Defense Forces but also noting the role of the Hamas terrorist group, which rules Gaza, in fomenting the violence.
Representative Joseph Kennedy III, a rising star in the party who gave the official Democratic response to Trump’s State of the Union address earlier this year, provided a good example of this two-faced approach when he managed to cram criticism of Israel’s “excessive use of force,” a denunciation of Hamas, support for moving the embassy, and a claim that the embassy’s “hasty relocation” by Trump was the ultimate cause for all the violence into one two-paragraph statement.
But a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from 13 Senate Democrats suggests the party may be at a tipping point.
The letter was organized by once and perhaps future presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and was joined by Senator Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), another likely White House hopeful. Over the course of two pages laying out concern for the Palestinians and a desire to resume funding for a U.N. refugee agency fatally compromised by Hamas, the senators showed little interest in the terror group’s responsibility for the violence or the dismal situation in Gaza. Indeed, Sanders’s press release touting the letter denounced the actions of “Israeli snipers” but made no mention at all of Hamas.
Sanders has been outspoken in denouncing Israel for its use of “disproportionate force” and seemed to take at face value Hamas’s claim that the “march of return” was a civil-rights demonstration. He failed to note that the march was motivated — as the use of the word “return” indicates — by support for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state via the forced entry of millions of descendants of 1948 refugees. He also ignored the fact that most of the Palestinians who were killed while attempting to dismantle the fence were, as the terror group has admitted, Hamas operatives — and that the crowds rushing the fence were armed with Molotov cocktails and IEDs and attempted to launch incendiaries across the border to ignite wildfires. Yet many on the left, including the media, stubbornly depicted the march as the moral equivalent of the 1965 March on Selma.
It is obvious how these views could force a schism in the party. Israel was the one issue over which Sanders and Hillary Clinton had a substantive disagreement during their Brooklyn debate; the former secretary of state took Sanders to task for his willingness to spout Hamas talking points about the 2014 Gaza war. Many Democrats, including Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer and House minority whip Steny Hoyer, have remained faithful supporters of Israel in spite of the Netanyahu government’s embrace of Trump. And political observers have not forgotten the spectacle at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, where the party’s leadership squelched the clear opposition of the delegates on the floor to a resolution supporting Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
It remains to be seen whether party centrists can reverse this trend so long as Israelis are cheering Trump’s decisions.
The problem for pro-Israel Democrats is that their party, increasingly dependent on minority voters, has become vulnerable to intersectional arguments in which the Palestinian war on Israel is a Third World parallel to the Black Lives Matter movement. That factor helps account for the fact that sympathy for Israel as measured by the polls is so low among Democrats when compared to Republicans. According to Pew, Republicans back Israel against the Palestinians by a staggering 79 percent to 6 percent margin, while Democrats are split 27–25 percent on the issue. Gallup shows that 87 percent of Republicans sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, while the same is true of only 49 percent of Democrats. While both polls show that large majorities of Americans overall back Israel, the partisan differences, which have been in place for two decades, are growing.
In a party whose center of gravity has shifted strongly toward the “resistance” left since Clinton’s defeat, it remains to be seen whether another relatively centrist candidate like her can defeat one who is critical of Israel and supportive of Palestinian ambitions.
The truth about the Gaza violence — including the facts that most of those killed were members of Hamas, and that the demonstrations ceased the moment the terror group decided it was being asked to pay too high a price for damaging Israel’s image — hasn’t seemed to influence the Left’s view of the Middle East.
The willingness of the liberal mainstream media to jump on the anti-Israel and anti-Trump bandwagon with respect to both Jerusalem and Gaza has also made it harder for pro-Israel candidates to prevail, or even to credibly speak for Democrats, on these issues. A New York Daily News front page that denounced Ivanka Trump as “Daddy’s Little Ghoul” for smiling during the dedication of the new embassy while Palestinians were killed in Gaza indicated that hatred for the president is influencing the way many liberals think about Israel.
If Democratic politicians are showing they care more about not offending intersectional ideology than about the sentiments of most voters outside of the Left, the problem for the party’s pro-Israel wing is apparent. With many Democrats (like the dwindling band of Never Trump conservatives) now thinking that they must oppose anything Trump supports, it remains to be seen whether party centrists can reverse this trend so long as Israelis are cheering Trump’s decisions.