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Democratic Party Divide Over Israel on Full Public View
US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the conflict in the Middle East from the White House on May 20, 2021 in Washington, DC, after Israel and Hamas announced that they would agree to a cease-fire. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Democratic Party Divide Over Israel on Full Public View

The latest conflict between Israel and Hamas turned smoldering tensions in the Democratic Party over the subject of Israel into a roaring flame.

The leader of the Democratic Party, US President Joe Biden, tried to extinguish a fire that threatens to char the bipartisan nature of the US-Israel relationship in the wake of the latest conflict between Israel and Hamas.

“There is no shift in my commitment to the security of Israel. No shift. Period,” Biden told reporters on Friday, hours after a cease-fire went into effect.

“My party still supports Israel. Let’s get something straight: Until the region says, unequivocally, they acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as an independent Jewish state, there will be no peace,” he added.

Biden’s clarifying comments, coupled with his administration’s blocking of UN Security Council action during the latest round of violence and its constant refrain throughout acknowledging Israel’s right to defend itself, may allay some of the concerns of Israel supporters when it comes to dealing with a White House administration that is not as reflexively pro-Israel as the last one, and is populated with a number of Obama-era officials of whom Israeli government veterans are not particularly fond. For Republicans, every day of the crisis was a day to accuse Biden of being insufficiently pro-Israel.

We’ve seen a steady growth in support for Palestinians, but it’s never really been a high-intensity issue. It’s becoming that. It’s becoming a major wedge issue, particularly among Democrats, driven by non-white voters and younger voters, by progressives in general

It is ultimately Congress that holds the purse strings, and a relatively small but increasingly vocal number of Democrats on Capitol Hill used the last week-and-a-half of conflict to publicly challenge Israeli actions vis a vis the Palestinians, along with the long-standing structure of the US-Israel security and defense partnership.

Some see the rebellion as little more than a nuisance.

“The majority of members of Congress, some 350 senators and representatives – both Republicans and Democrats, publicly condemned the Iranian-backed terrorist attacks and stood up for Israel’s right to defend its citizens from Hamas’ rockets,” Jeff Mendelsohn, executive director of Pro-Israel America, told The Media Line. Mendelsohn’s organization recruits congressional candidates from across the political spectrum and provides information to voters about pro-Israel candidates running for federal office.

“Unfortunately, the small but loud chorus of anti-Israel voices chose to demonize Israel and actively worked to undermine our democratic ally’s ability to defend itself against relentless attacks. Their proposals to cut off assistance to our ally in a time of need only further fueled the fire and violence coming from Hamas, and will embolden Iran and its proxies in the future. We will continue to oppose their dangerous proposals and advance the US-Israel relationship to promote both peace and security,” said Mendelsohn.

A Gallup poll from March showed that 53 percent of Democrats favored placing more pressure on Israel to make compromises to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a 10-point jump from 2018, and 20 points higher than in 2008.

That finding tracks with poll after poll showing liberal Democrats are less sympathetic to Israel than they were in years past.

“The shift is dramatic. It’s tectonic,” John Zogby, a pollster who has tracked US views on the Middle East for decades, told The Media Line.

“We’ve seen a steady growth in support for Palestinians, but it’s never really been a high-intensity issue. It’s becoming that. It’s becoming a major wedge issue, particularly among Democrats, driven by non-white voters and younger voters, by progressives in general,” said Zogby, who attributes the shifting Democrat narrative on Israel to the higher percentage of non-white Democratic members of Congress and the growing power of racial justice movements in the United States.

“There is a non-white population, particularly among Democrats, who are very sensitive to the treatment of fellow non-whites. They see Israel as an aggressor. They don’t know Israel’s early history. They know post-Intifada, the various wars, the asymmetrical bombing that has taken place and the innocent civilians that have been killed,” said Zogby.

Others note the shifting attitudes have as much or more to do with the politics of foreign policy than internal American affairs.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “made the strategic decision to throw Israel’s lot in with the Republican Party and with the right wing,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a left-wing lobby that calls itself “pro-Israel, pro-peace.”

Former US President Donald Trump’s numerous pro-Israel gestures tied him and Netanyahu so closely that the prime minister’s election billboards and oversized banners included images of him and Trump posing together. Essentially, some analysts say, because Trump was so one-sided toward Israel, American support for Israel and the Palestinians became a politicized issue, and if one is anti-Trump, then one cannot be staunchly pro-Israel.

“With Trump, you were either ‘with us or against us’ and anybody who supported two states, who recognized Palestinian rights, who wanted peace, was viewed as anti-Israel,” Ben-Ami said.

To be sure, there are only about 20 Democrats in Congress who have been actively and vocally pursuing policies more beneficial to Palestinians at an expressed detriment to Israel. Among them are some high-profile progressives, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.; and Palestinian-American Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., who are causing headaches for the party’s rank-and-file. Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez both recently filed resolutions to halt an impending private arms sale of precision-guided bombs from Boeing to Israel. Initially, the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., agreed to put a hold on the sale but, under pressure from the White House, backtracked and arranged instead for a meeting on the matter between concerned Democrats and the Biden administration. It was an illustration, and a likely preview, of the Democratic tug-of-war on the issue in the weeks, months and years ahead.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who chairs the Senate Foreign Affairs subcommittee with purview over the Middle East, says it isn’t the Democratic Party that has shifted its stance on Israel.

“That’s a tired, lazy take. Democrats believe in a two-state future and we always have. If we’re more critical of Israel, it’s because their politics have moved – not ours,” Murphy’s office said in a statement to The Media Line.

“It’s important for members of Congress to acknowledge that, over the last few years, both the Palestinians and Israelis have taken steps to make a two-state future less likely and create cultures of grievances. Hamas has convinced so many Palestinians that they are the protectors of the holy sites in and around Jerusalem. That’s a disaster for Palestinians. Similarly, Benjamin Netanyahu for years has been taking steps to make a Palestinian state virtually impossible, and that’s bad for both Israelis and Palestinians in the long run. Once this crisis is over, then it makes sense to have a broader policy discussion about America’s stance toward Israel,” the statement said.

Democrats believe in a two-state future and we always have. If we’re more critical of Israel, it’s because their politics have moved – not ours

As Biden took to the White House podium to announce a cease-fire on Thursday evening, there was more of an evenhandedness in his statement.

“I believe the Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely, and enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity and democracy,” Biden said.

It was a quote that had been used a number of times before by Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the earlier, quieter months of the administration and, with the latest active conflict between Israel and Hamas coming to a close, it seemed to be Biden’s way of returning to a more balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio than had been seen during the 11 days of Hamas rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes.

The word “equally,” specifically, seemed aimed not only at the Palestinian Authority, which the Biden administration is leaning on to control smoldering anti-Israel tension on the street in the West Bank, but also at Capitol Hill itself. Still, while the last week-and-a-half may have shown reticent Israelis that Biden will have their back in a crisis, it also revealed that the day-to-day oversight and appropriations mechanisms of Congress likely will prove to be more complicated when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio.

 

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