Once-firm relationship faces turning point as Democrats, Republicans trade rhetoric on foreign policy
Support for Israel has always held bipartisan consensus in the United States, but this could be changing in the lead-up to the 2020 elections: As a Democratic contender for the presidency could be poised to emerge, there is now a deepening divide between Republicans and Democrats on US-Israel policy.
The relationship between the two countries has always been considered “special” by both parties.
The United States has been Israel’s single largest trading partner and sends billions in military aid every year. Republican and Democratic presidents have extolled this partnership – from former president Barack Obama, who gave Israel the largest aid package in American history, to President Donald Trump, who, among a series of gestures, has recognized Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem as well as its status as the Israeli capital, and moved the US Embassy there.
But President Trump’s pro-Israel politics may be transforming US-Israel relations into a partisan issue, according to experts.
Dr. Grace Wermenbol, of the Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, told The Media Line: “With Trump’s pro-Israel politics… we are increasingly seeing a more confrontational posturing from the Democratic Party, and particularly its left-wing members.”
A contingent of leftist Democrats, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, are increasingly critical voices against Israeli policies.
While supporting a strong US-Israel relationship, Sanders has advocated for diverting aid to the Gaza Strip, stating: “It’s not just being pro-Israel. We must be pro-Palestinian as well.” He has also called Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “a racist.”
Tlaib and Omar were barred by Israel from visiting last year due to their support for BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. President Trump used Twitter to say: “Representatives Omar and Tlaib are the face of the Democrat Party, and they HATE Israel!”
On the surface, the bipartisan divide over Israel seems to have widened between the last and current administrations.
Obama was ranked by Israelis as their least favorite US president over the past 30 years. According to Wermenbol, Obama established himself as “the most rhetorically supportive US president of Palestinian rights.” Yet, she argues, he was unable to translate rhetoric into policy.
By comparison, Netanyahu has called Trump “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House,” and Trump is very popular in Israel.
But portraying all Democrats as anti-Israel is still too simplistic an assessment.
Khury Petersen-Smith, Middle East fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive Washington-based think tank, told The Media Line: “The notion that there is a difference between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to Israel is part of the fiction that keeps Washington politics going.”
Yet Petersen-Smith says it is no small issue that “there is space to critique Israel” in Congress.
With the consensus on Israel eroding in the US, along with growing sympathy for Palestinian rights, a turning point in relations is arguably being signaled. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll shows at least half of the American public now favors an independent Palestinian state.
But how impactful is this small, but loud, opposition to President Trump’s Israel policy?
James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, told The Media Line that he does not see a major shift in US policy toward Israel.
“While there is a growing polarization between political parties on Israel, the Democrats will continue to be supportive of Israel, but perhaps more critical of the Netanyahu government than [will] the Republicans,” he said.
Wermenbol also argues that even though Democratic presidential hopefuls have been critical of President Trump’s stance on Israel, “few have been able to forward policies that would challenge – if not reverse – the decisions” made by the Trump Administration.
Even as Democratic presidential hopefuls openly criticize the administration’s policies toward Israel, many maintain ties with pro-Israel advocacy groups.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has long enjoyed support from prominent Democrats. It met with candidates Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, who have since dropped out of the race. Former AIPAC president Steve Grossman endorsed Pete Buttigieg last year after indicating he had considered backing Elizabeth Warren.
The Heritage Foundation’s Phillips says that AIPAC has maintained neutrality amidst the squabbling.
“They are reluctant to get involved with any polarizing issues that threaten bipartisan support of Israel,” he explained.
Petersen-Smith, however, cites the example of Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum as an example of the shift in the previously unwavering support for AIPAC among Democrats.
McCollum recently called AIPAC a “hate group” after it featured her in an ad stating that members of Congress like her were “more sinister” than Islamic State. The ad was released in response to her support for a bill that prevents US aid from being used to detain or arrest Palestinian children.
“That whole episode speaks to a growing anxiety within AIPAC,” Petersen-Smith said.
But will Israel policy matter during the 2020 elections?
The way this back-and-forth will play out among voters is unclear, he maintains, although he believes that “there are parts of the electorate for whom solidarity with Palestinians is important,” and while these sectors are not very big, they will become significant as their numbers grow.
Petersen-Smith also argues that progressive, pro-Israel voters are facing a crisis because President Trump presents them with few options: He is the most pro-Israel president, so if they support Israel, they have to support him.
They are being asked, he says, to vote for a package that “includes the travel ban, family separation at the border [and] a lot of things that are repulsive to progressives.”
Democrats have historically prioritized diplomacy as a way of easing security threats, while the Republican party has looked at Middle East policy through a security lens. Yet Phillips thinks that voters will be sympathetic to Israeli interests because of the two countries’ shared concerns.
“Given the past 20 years of American experience fighting Islamist terrorism, there is a lot more sympathy in the American public for Israel’s battle against Hamas,” he told The Media Line.
Still, there is no straightforward direction on how Jewish-American voters will take their support, Petersen-Smith says.
These voters have to contend with what he calls President Trump’s “authoritarian politics that are reminiscent of the Holocaust,” along with rising anti-Semitism, as well as a newfound willingness to criticize Israel.
This, he contends, is “troubling the waters of long-held assumptions within US politics.”