Is­rael’s prob­lem with Demo­cratic Party

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - Sh­muel Ros­ner

FOR decades, Amer­i­can sup­port for Is­rael has been strong — and bi­par­ti­san. Both Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can vot­ers typ­i­cally see the Jewish state as a “friend,” rank the coun­try favourably com­pared with others, and tend to sup­port Is­rael over the Pales­tini­ans. Lead­ers of both par­ties reg­u­larly vow to main­tain the United States-Is­rael al­liance and to keep Is­rael’s se­cu­rity a pri­or­ity. But many in Is­rael worry that this might be chang­ing. And what wor­ries them most is the Demo­cratic Party.

The change in tone and pol­icy to­ward Is­rael be­gan with Pres­i­dent Obama’s de­ci­sion early on to move away from a 16-year tra­di­tion of un­wa­ver­ing sup­port of Is­rael, and con­tin­ued with his rocky re­la­tion­ship with Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu. But Bernie San­ders’s cam­paign seems to prove that Mr. Obama’s treat­ment of Is­rael might be a trend, not an aber­ra­tion. Mr. San­ders’s young, lib­eral sup­port­ers say they sym­pa­thize rel­a­tively more with Pales­tini­ans and less with Is­rael than older, more mod­er­ate Democrats do.

Mr. San­ders’s ex­plicit views are not the prob­lem. He has said that he is “100 per­cent pro-Is­rael in the sense of Is­rael’s right to ex­ist.” He has also said he wants peace and se­cu­rity for Is­rael. Like most Amer­i­cans, he be­lieves in a two-state so­lu­tion. Like most Is­raelis, he op­poses per­ma­nent Is­raeli con­trol over Pales­tini­ans in the West Bank. The good news for Is­rael is that Bernie San­ders won’t be the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee. And Hil­lary Clin­ton’s tone to­ward Is­rael is much less trou­bling. Mrs. Clin­ton prom­ises that the Demo­cratic plat­form will re­flect the “long­stand­ing strong sup­port for Is­rael,” and polls find that her sup­port­ers are more sym­pa­thetic to the coun­try.

But the bad news for Is­rael is that Mrs. Clin­ton alone can­not re­sist what seems to be a steady drift in her party. The more Demo­cratic vot­ers iden­tify as lib­eral — and the more lib­eral they are — the less they sup­port Is­rael. Po­lit­i­cal real­ity will ul­ti­mately catch up with Mrs. Clin­ton and other mod­er­ate Democrats. In Congress, a sidling away from Is­rael among Democrats may al­ready be un­der­way. Once, Demo­cratic leg­is­la­tors had to worry about ap­pear­ing un­sup­port­ive of Is­rael; to­day some of them — es­pe­cially those who need to be re-elected by lib­eral vot­ers — seem to have the op­po­site con­cern: They do not want to be seen as too sup­port­ive.

Some high-rank­ing Is­raeli politi­cians tell me that they be­lieve changes in Is­rael’s pol­icy could quickly end Amer­i­cans’ grow­ing dis­con­tent with their coun­try. Im­proved re­la­tions with the Amer­i­can Democrats, the anti-Ne­tanyahu fig­ures say, is one of the many re­wards Is­rael will re­ceive when it comes to its senses. For this to hap­pen, they say, the gov­ern­ment must demon­strate that it sup­ports a two-state so­lu­tion. But that is not an easy move for the cur­rent hard­line gov­ern­ing coali­tion. It would not make much sense to most Is­raelis to elect their lead­ers based on the pref­er­ences of Amer­i­can Democrats. And Is­rael’s mil­i­tary can­not change its tac­tics to con­form to the de­sires of Demo­cratic vot­ers, ei­ther. Sim­i­larly, it would not make sense for the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment to sur­ren­der on diplo­matic is­sues just to ap­pease Demo­cratic bleed­ing hearts.

Or would it? Is­rael re­ceives more Amer­i­can for­eign aid than any other coun­try, col­lab­o­rates with Wash­ing­ton on se­cu­rity and in­tel­li­gence mat­ters and re­ceives Amer­i­can diplo­matic sup­port at the United Na­tions and else­where. Be­cause of this, Is­rael re­lies on sup­port from both Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal par­ties. And that comes with a price tag. The trick for Is­rael is to keep the price as low as pos­si­ble while re­tain­ing its sta­tus as the United States’ “spe­cial friend.” Is­rael tries to do this whether a Repub­li­can like Ge­orge W. Bush is in power, or (some­times less suc­cess­fully) when a Demo­crat like Barack Obama is in power.

For re­la­tions be­tween Is­rael and the Democrats to re­main strong, one of two things needs to hap­pen: Ei­ther Democrats’ at­ti­tudes and Is­rael’s poli­cies must con­verge, or Democrats must be­come con­vinced that weak­en­ing sup­port for Is­rael will come with a po­lit­i­cal price. Mr. Ne­tanyahu and Mrs. Clin­ton will have to find out which it is to be, or else the drift will con­tinue. The writer is po­lit­i­cal edi­tor at The Jewish Jour­nal, a se­nior fel­low at the Jewish Peo­ple Pol­icy In­sti­tute.

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