Israel can no longer rely on unquestioning support from Democrats
Senior Democrat Eliot Engel, chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, this week criticized new Democratic House member Ilhan Omar for comments she made regarding the role that lobbyists play in the US’ support for Israel. The latest tiff between long-time Democratic politicians and the party’s new members of the House highlighted shifting Democratic views on Israel and a significant generational divide.
For decades in Washington, both the Republican and Democratic parties espoused unquestioning support for the state of Israel. Multiple factors drove this consensus, including but not limited to the efforts of pro-Israel lobbying organizations.
In recent years, unconditional Democratic support for Israel and its government has slipped significantly. In 2017, Rep. Betty McCollum introduced legislation that would require the government to certify that US funds given to Israel are not used for the military detention of Palestinian children. Data released in January 2018 from the Pew Research Center found that 27 percent of Democrats sympathized more with Israel and 25 percent with the Palestinians — a significant decline in pro-Israel views within only a few years. Meanwhile, Republicans have become even more favorable toward Israel, reflecting a growing partisan divide.
Recent polling also shows declining Democratic support for Israel. An Economist/YouGov poll from October showed that only 25 percent of Democrats view Israel as an ally, compared to 63 percent of Republicans. A University of Maryland poll in the autumn of 2018 found that 55 percent of Democrats believe that Israel has too much influence on the US government. Both polls found that younger people were less likely to be strongly supportive of Israel than older Americans.
The November 2018 elections have brought several younger, more liberal Democrats into the House of Representatives, and they are challenging the long-standing pro-Israel consensus more boldly than Congress has seen in decades. Omar and Palestinian-American Rep. Rashida Tlaib have received the most attention. Both have called out the role of pro-Israel lobbying groups and questioned why it is acceptable for Democrats to criticize lobbying on other issues but not on Israel. They have criticized US military aid to Israel and expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. For years, pro-Israel groups have sponsored trips for members of Congress to Israel; in response, Tlaib says she will offer to take her colleagues to see the conditions that Palestinians face. Omar and Tlaib are on the progressive fringe of the Democratic Party, with limited influence, but their willingness to take on this third rail issue might create more space for other Democrats to question the traditional assumptions.
Younger, more liberal Democrats are challenging the long-standing pro-Israel consensus more boldly than Congress has seen in decades
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Several factors are moving the Democratic paradigm away from unquestioning support for Israel. Part of it is a response to the increasing entwinement of Israel with the Republican Party, thanks to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hostility toward former President Barack Obama and embrace of Republican leadership, which has been strengthened by the tight relations between Donald Trump’s White House and Netanyahu.
Another factor is Israel’s shift further to the political right over the last 20 years. The Israeli government today embraces a right-wing, nationalist perspective, highlighted by its adoption of the “nation-state” law last year. For a growing number of Democrats, especially those who share a viewpoint that emphasizes concerns about abuse of power and repression of minorities, Israel’s nationalist policies and treatment of Palestinians runs contrary to liberal values. While Palestinians would say this is nothing new, Israel’s rightward shift, combined with increased awareness in the US, has changed the way many Democrats view Israel.
A generational divide also drives this trend. Polls show that younger Democrats are less likely than older ones to sympathize more with Israel. Younger Democrats tend to emphasize concerns about minority rights. Their understanding of the world and of Israel is informed more by events in the last 20 years, while older Democrats’ views were formed long before that. This generational difference also exists among American Jews, with younger Jews more likely to question whether today’s Israeli government represents their values. Underlying this shift is a change in the media, with social and alternative media making it easier for younger Americans to hear the Palestinian perspective as well as the Israeli one.
However, the Democratic Party is hardly pro-Palestinian. There are very strong pro-Israel views within much of the party, and some Democrats are pushing back against those who are challenging the old consensus. In February, Omar criticized the role of pro-Israel lobbying groups in influencing US foreign policy, and some interpreted her remarks as anti-Semitic — the House of Representatives’ Democratic leadership condemned the comments and demanded an apology. In addition to Engel, other senior Democrats have criticized Omar and Tlaib for their statements regarding Israel. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has led visits for House members to Israel before and reportedly said that he continues to support the trips, which are sponsored by a pro-Israel group. Last month, around half of the Democrats in the Senate voted with Republicans for legislation designed to undermine the BDS movement. In February, a new organization called the Democratic Majority for Israel was created to advocate for a progressive argument supporting Israel.
Much may depend on how future Democratic candidates for president try to balance the competing views on Israel within their party. However, with younger Democrats willing to question the old consensus, Israel can no longer rely on complete support from the Democratic Party.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch